One Black Lives Matter Protest in Rural New York Opens the Door to Change

One Black Lives Matter Protest in Rural New York Opens the Door to Change

One Black Lives Matter Protest in Rural New York Opens the Door to Change

In the months since a Black Lives Matter protest in Catskill, N.Y., one of the march’s organizer has decided to run for office. Change is coming to the rural town.


Greene County, N.Y.—Ever since the Black Lives Matter march in Catskill in June, I’ve been regularly checking out a Facebook page started by the organizers. My main interest has been to find out whether the event has produced any concrete changes.

Recently, I had my answer: Mercedes Brantley, one of the six young Black women who organized the march—which was peaceful, racially mixed, and attracted about 1,000 people—announced on the page that she was considering running for office. “I never thought about it until the march,” she later told me. “I don’t think many people of color have ever thought about it. But I realize now that I have a voice and I’m not afraid to use it.”

Brantley, a Catskill native who works as the business manager for an assisted living facility, says that she still has to meet with the local Democratic Party to make sure she would have their endorsement, but that the likelihood is that she’ll vie for a seat on Catskill’s currently all-white village board next year. (The town’s total population of roughly 12,000 is about four-fifths white.) “I do think there is a difference” since the march, she says. “A lot more people are speaking out, even if just in their regular daily lives.”

Brantley’s decision to run for office represents a changed attitude toward the ballot box from the one frequently expressed by young activists a generation ago: that voting is a waste of time. (I’ve never forgotten interviewing three young activists in the 1990s and hearing their impressively argued criticisms of the Clinton administration, then learning that none of them had voted in the election that brought him to power.) Today’s young people seem to feel that voting is essential to the struggle.

I think that another sign of the impact of the Black Lives Matter march in Catskill is that Greene County officials have been relatively quick in setting up a police reform committee. These committees were mandated in June by the governor to examine police practices and adopt reform plans. Their responsibility extends to local police and sheriffs’ departments, but regrettably not the State Police.

Our committee is hardly ideal in its makeup: heavy on clergy and public officials and lacking in young people. But there was one name that jumped out at me when I first read it a couple weeks ago in a story about the committee in the local newspaper. I’d heard of Gary Slutzky, who lives in Hunter, a town not far from mine, as a member of the family who started the Hunter Mountain ski resort, but I also knew he was a white, progressive Democrat. So I wondered what he was doing there.

The usual answer: friends. Slutzky told me he’s known Republican Sheriff Pete Kusminsky, who tapped him for the commission, for over 30 years. They got to know each other when Kusminsky, who’s generally seen around here, including by Democrats, as a good guy, was in the State Police and Slutzky was a member of the Hunter volunteer fire department. “I’m a real outsider,” he says, referring to the other members of the commission.

But friends with the sheriff or not, Slutzky made it clear in our conversation that he’s serious about his new role. Maybe because of his mother’s influence, he says, or maybe because he grew up not just hearing racist remarks but also occasionally experiencing anti-Semitism, he thinks its work is important. When I asked him whether unthinking racism is a problem in Greene County, he said, “Oh yeah, absolutely.”

Kusminsky himself, who took office only a few months ago, shies away from any talk of systemic racism, saying, “My guys have all undergone implicit bias training.” And when I asked him about the comments of two county officials who have said publicly that there is little need for the commission, he said he “would have to mostly agree” with them. But he said he’s willing to listen to community concerns, noting that he’s working on a plan to recruit more people of color to the sheriff’s department, which currently has only one Black officer out of 32.

Good intentions are all very well, but I wish Kusminsky would speak to some people like Thomas Kearney, and better yet, get people like him appointed to the commission. Kearney, 39, who is Black, told me about an incident when he was a teenager in Catskill when a policeman pointed a gun at him after he refused to leave a park. “He was red-faced and upset,” Kearney recalls. “How can you not be aware that shoving a gun in a 16-year-old’s face is wrong? And if you aren’t aware, you don’t deserve your badge.” Kearney, who served time in prison as a result of what he says was a fight that got out of hand while he was in college, now works in a drug recovery program.

Talking with people like Kusminsky and Kearney is a reminder that in rural America, perhaps even more than in urban America, white people and Black people experience the world very differently. That’s why it seems to me that Mercedes Brantley’s running for office is so important: It’s a start toward inserting previously unheard voices into local political discussions, not just about policing but also other issues.

So, despite continuing examples of racism (just a few days ago someone wrote racist graffiti on some road signs near where I live) and a growing backlash against BLM (often in the form of demonstrations in support of the police), I feel reasonably positive. I think Mercedes Brantley is right that the BLM movement is stirring things up, and I think she herself is an example of where that can lead.

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