Warning: This article contains a racial slur used to denigrate Black people.
The Rally for Black Lives in Pleasant Valley on the afternoon of Saturday, July 18, should have been a relatively straightforward affair. Participants were to meet at Cady Recreation Park, march east on Main Street, up Quaker Hill Road, down North Avenue, then double back to the park via Main. As the local Conservative Party had organized a counterprotest and bigots threatened violence, officers from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office were to keep the march’s route clear and counterprotesters to one sidewalk, with rally-appointed peacekeepers assisting.
The event did not go according to plan.
“We were spat on, hit, shoved, and thrown to the ground,” says Linda Codega, a rally participant. “Black women and children were especially targeted … a 12-year-old Black girl was slapped while being called the N-word. A peacekeeper was punched in the face and had to get an X-ray after, her nose likely broken.”
Despite actively working with local law enforcement to plan and execute their event, Rally for Black Lives organizers and participants were openly and repeatedly attacked during the march. The amount of violence was minimized only by participants who worked together to ensure their own safety.
The Rally for Black Lives was proposed by organizer Royal Parker to Pleasant Valley authorities early in July. Parker suspects that news of the rally reached the Dutchess County Conservative Party after authorities notified local merchants. DCCP’s counterprotest was set just across the street from the rally, one hour earlier.
While billed as a pro-police event, the counterprotest helped coalesce the violent opposition to the rally. The discussion on DCCP’s Facebook event derided the Black Lives Matter movement as a “violent” and “barbaric” “hate group.” Parker also describes how, elsewhere on Facebook, counterprotesters discussed wanting to run over protesters, as has happened at Black Lives Matter events in other areas.
“Pretty much just trying to justify what their future actions might have been,” says Parker of the counterprotesters.
Due to the threat of violence, Parker reached out to local law enforcement to ensure the rally’s safety. As Pleasant Valley lacks its own police department, this task fell to the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office. (The Sheriff’s Office failed to respond to questions from The River.) According to Parker, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to keep the protesters and counterprotesters separated, enforcing at least six feet of distance due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When Parker arrived at Cady Recreation Park for the rally, the Sheriff’s Office announced that New York State troopers were also on site to close Main Street, which doubles as US-44, over which the troopers have jurisdiction. Despite these assurances, the rally ultimately received little help from law enforcement.
“The police were supposed to give us a clear pathway through to allow us to march,” says Parker. “The counterprotesters of the DC Conservative Party were only supposed to be on one side of the street, on the sidewalk. They made it to the other side and ended up being in the middle, blocking us in. … It was like the gauntlet.”
“They were spitting, they were calling us niggers, they were calling white people nigger lovers, they were calling people bitches, they were telling us to go back home,” Parker continues. “They would push, they would punch. They pulled somebody’s hair out. They slapped a 12-year-old girl—a grown man.”
The 400 rally participants were forced to complete the march while beset on both sides by 200 counterprotesters, who attempted to block their way and split them up. Slurs, spit, shoves, and strikes issued from the counterprotesters. According to rally participants, the nearly two dozen law enforcement officers on the scene looked the other way or, in at least one case, shook hands with the assailants. Even the parking lot the police were supposed to have secured for the rally participants’ vehicles was compromised, as they returned to find screws strewn about to puncture their tires.
“The biggest thing that was my concern—other than the punching—was, somehow, a car got in the road,” says Parker. “After the threats of them saying that they would run us over and how happy they were to see protesters get hit and that their brakes are going to give out, that scared me the most. I felt like our people could disarm somebody or stop somebody from a fistfight, but we couldn’t stop a car.”
As Parker mentions, the actual work of protecting the rally ended up falling to the participants themselves, who stepped up to defend the rally from the counterprotesters, physically shielding the vulnerable, escorting other participants to their vehicles, and sweeping the parking lot for screws. In the end, the only safety measures came from rally participants’ own efforts against their assailants, without any help from law enforcement.
“As we marched, we often had to form lines, linking arms, to keep the counterprotesters from ‘breaking into’ the protest,” says Codega. “What should have been a 30-minute walk through a small town turned into a three-hour push against counterprotesters and police.”
On Wednesday, the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office announced that an investigation of the incidents at the rally was underway.
Events in Pleasant Valley illustrate that the call to “Defend Black Lives,” as one rally participant’s sign read, is sometimes both more immediate and literal than even supporters might imagine.
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.