I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are only 47,000 people in this entire county, but by my estimate, about 1,000 people turned out for the event. The crowd included significant numbers of black, white, and Latino protesters, mostly young, but with a fair number of older people, too. I had the feeling from the looks on many people’s faces that they were as surprised as I was by the turnout.
Call-and-response shouts of “No justice, no peace” rang out as we walked across the historic bridge that spans the Catskill Creek and continued up to Main Street, which looks like the back lot for a movie set in the 19th century. Many marchers wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts, and I saw two white people carrying signs that read, “White silence equals violence.” Everyone took a knee at the police station.
It was almost impossible from the back of the crowd to hear more than snatches of the speeches, but later I was able to watch a video of a young woman from our local high school reading a poem. It began: “America, the land of the free. Well, at least it’s supposed to be. They forgot to mention that’s only if you don’t look like me.”
The poet, April-Destiny Walcott, whom I spoke to a few days later, is 18, a graduating senior, and says she’s the only African American student in her class of about 140. She said she was inspired to write the poem by seeing the George Floyd video and also by thinking that what happened to Floyd could have happened to one of her two brothers.
April said racism hasn’t been a big problem for her since her family moved to the area a few years ago, but “you can tell the difference in how people treat you.” As one example, she cited an incident last year in which she was in the car with her mother and one of her siblings. One of the headlights was broken, so when a state policeman walked up to the car, they assumed that was the reason. But what shocked her was that as the officer approached, “his hand was on his gun.” Fortunately, the incident ended with only a violations ticket.
Such experiences haven’t caused April and her family to be anti-police, however. When I asked her mother, Ebony Roberts, who sat in on our discussion, how she felt about having police regularly on duty inside the high school, she responded, “As a parent, I feel comfortable going off to work knowing that they are there.”
Since the Catskill Black Lives Matter event, there have been other protests in other small nearby towns, including Ravena, Cohoes, and Coxsackie. And on June 20, there was a joint march of protesters from Columbia and Greene Counties across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that spans the Hudson River. The Facebook page started by the Catskill march organizers, a group of young women of color, already has over 4,500 members, with dozens of new postings every day.
From what I can see, what is happening here is not just a matter of rural young people trying to emulate their urban counterparts but rather part of a deeply felt nationwide movement. A Facebook request by the Catskill march organizers for a show of interest as to how many people might want to go by bus to the planned March on Washington in August quickly garnered more than 100 responses.
The mention of the march planned for August took me back to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which I took part in. The turnout for that event, like that for the Catskill march, was beyond expectations—at least a quarter of a million people, including a fair number of white people, despite such widespread fears among whites that the march would turn violent that the Kennedy administration closed all federal offices so workers could stay home. I doubt that many of us who trudged through the streets on that miserably hot and humid day realized the importance of what we were doing. But the march is now seen as having played a major rule in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places and discrimination in employment.
Attaining a similar success now won’t be easy, and will require action in the voting booth as well as in the streets. Just a couple days before the Catskill event, our congressman, Antonio Delgado, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he argued that protesting and voting go together. His experience, he said, including the fact that he is the first person of color to ever represent upstate New York in Congress, proves “that voting can bring about change that once might have seemed out of reach—in fact, it’s crucial to changing the laws and policies that have caused so much agony.”
Eighteen-year-old April Walcott is headed for community college in the fall, and thinks she would like to become a lawyer. “After seeing what can happen to people like me,” she said, “I want to help people know what authorities can and can’t do.”
As for me, I’m thinking about what I can do to ensure that Delgado and other progressive candidates get elected or reelected in November.