Dozens of masked protesters sat on blankets and towels, socially distanced from one another, at Doc Reilly Park in Cobleskill on Saturday, June 6, as a local Methodist minister led the audience in a slow recitation of the names of African Americans who have died in police custody over the past six years.
The scene was reminiscent of so many recent prayer vigils and protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Except that the Saturday morning prayer vigil, which was held on a secluded softball field, was originally supposed to take place in the form of a protest that prior Thursday evening in the nearby Village of Cobleskill’s centrally located Veterans Memorial Park. However, that protest was canceled in response to a series of threatening comments posted by local residents on Facebook.
On Monday, June 1, a message arrived in my inbox from Theresa Heary, an organizer involved with the progressive Rural Awakening group and Schoharie County Democratic Party politics, extending a private invitation to attend a protest on Thursday in Cobleskill. The message from Heary noted that “we are not posting this publicly. We are just sharing it with individuals whom we trust.”
But not everyone was trustworthy.
Two days later, Cobleskill business owner John Stiles made a public Facebook post revealing that “there are to be protesters in the Cobleskill area Thursday…Never can tell what’s in store but everyone stay vigilant.” Although he explained that “as long as they do not enter the roadway or riot the message will be heard,” some commenters did not concur.
Comments such as “CHURCHES steeple on main street and at the park have the best sniper nest view. Just saying” and “Dam Straight my friend lock n load, I guess we have to defend ourselves” began appearing beneath Stiles’s post, which was shared by dozens of local residents. (I took screenshots of Stiles’s post after it began circulating on Facebook.) Some commenters discussed different types of weapons while others implied a political agenda was at play.
The protest was soon canceled, both Heary and Stiles changed their names on social media, and the inciting Facebook post was removed.
Heary later explained that she canceled the protest because she “flinched,” adding: “There wasn’t a direct threat to me or anyone, just some online ugliness. I got nervous.” Asked by Cobleskill Mayor Rebecca Stanton-Terk to hold the vigil outside of the business district and due to her own worries about COVID-19, Heary began searching for a new place with the ability to socially distance.
The search helped to foster new connections. Heary says that she was able to get to know Schoharie County Sheriff Ron Stevens and Cobleskill Police Chief Jeffrey Brown, both of whom attended the prayer vigil in solidarity with the protesters’ message in support of Black Lives Matter.
Noting that neither Sheriff Stevens nor Chief Brown thought there was a threat to their safety, Heary says “both of them were kind, helpful, and dedicated to our first amendment right to assemble.”
Stiles, however, thought the whole ordeal was “blown out of proportion” and that the comments on his Facebook post were “taken out of context.”
“I guess you could say I was trying to get the word out to the community that a protest was scheduled to be in the park,” Stile says. He notes that his and many of the commenters’ concerns were centered around the fear of out-of-town looters who might take advantage of the protest to cause harm to local businesses.
“I will take my lumps good or bad, but all I was doing is giving the community a heads up as to what was planned so they could avoid the area or just remain vigilant while traveling through town,” he says. Stiles claims his business was targeted with negative criticism by some “really loose cannons [who] have gotten carried away.”
Mayor Stanton-Terk, who attended the vigil and supported the protesters’ right to peacefully assemble, has few kind words in general about mixing politics and social media. “I do not believe [social media] is an appropriate platform for politics,” she says. “It’s easy to spout off when there are virtually no consequences.”
“Openly or Cowardly”
Only hours after the prayer vigil at Doc Reilly Park, a resident of the small Hamlet of Argusville, nearly 20 minutes away, placed signs in his yard supporting white supremacy and deriding the African American, Jewish, and the LGTBQ communities.
The incident caused an uproar on social media and is the latest in a long string of racist occurrences in Schoharie County. After the election of President Donald Trump, a youth spraypainted swastikas in the sleepy Village of Esperance on New Year’s Day, while students at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School chanted “send them back to Africa” in the days after Trump’s victory.
Cobleskill itself has seen a number of scandals. A former dean at SUNY Cobleskill alleged he was removed from his position in 2009 after speaking out against racially biased policies, which a federal jury later disagreed with. After current and former minority students at SUNY Cobleskill began speaking out on social media about their negative experiences at the agricultural school, university President Dr. Marion Terenzio launched the “Be Better” initiative at the university.
In a scandal that generated national press coverage, former Village of Cobleskill Mayor Mark Nadeau resigned in 2010 after making racist comments about President Barack Obama in an unknowingly audio-taped conversation with former Town Supervisor Thomas Murray. Murray would later apologize for his comments, while Nadeau tried to dissolve the village in 2019.
When asked if she thought Cobleskill was a welcoming community nearly a decade removed from the Nadeau scandal, Mayor Stanton-Terk says: “As a whole I do feel that our community is welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it seems there are always some individuals who exhibit prejudices, be it openly or cowardly.
“Let us remember that such behavior is learned,” she adds. “If we all were to listen to understand rather than listening to respond, the world could be a much better place.”
“Live Without Fear”
Thirty percent of SUNY Cobleskill’s student body are people of color and there are over 2,000 residents of Schoharie County who do not identify as white.
“These people have the right to live without fear,” Heary says. “While the police have been helpful to us, we do live in a country (and a county) with a painful history, founded upon the premise that some people have less worth that other people.” Heary is working with others to formulate a list of questions for local law enforcement to address concerning their training, disciplinary records, and other data.
Meanwhile, Mayor Stanton-Terk sees no need for change within the Cobleskill Police Department at this time. “We have 12 highly trained, capable officers currently in our employ,” she says. “To date, this is the most diverse team we’ve ever had.”
All members of the Cobleskill Police Department were given permission to appear at the prayer vigil, the mayor says, even though it was held outside of their jurisdiction. “I wholeheartedly feel that Village of Cobleskill residents have a wonderful group of individuals protecting and serving them.”
After an hour of remembrance and song at the vigil, Heary pledged that a future protest would be held at Veterans Memorial Park in Cobleskill.
“Protesters who are peacefully assembling can and will do so, whenever they are moved,” she said afterward. “I am not going through the bureaucratic hoops again. It was a lot of time and stress for nothing.”
Rural Awakening intends to hold future protests in the park on Saturdays. “We do not expect any threats,” Heary says. “We are coming with our children and friends to stand in solidarity with Black and brown people throughout the country. We are quoting scripture on the sidewalks and singing. We stand in peace.”
Approximately 50 protesters took to Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday, June 13, with no incidents according to Heary. They are planning to protest there again on Saturday, June 20, where Bethany Yarrow—the daughter of Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame—will sing.
*This story has been updated to include more detail about how The River obtained the deleted Facebook post made by John Stiles.
Timothy Knight is a freelance writer based in Middleburgh. He has also written for the Mountain Eagle and the Watershed Post. You can find his tweets @timkni.