Poughkeepsie and other Mid-Hudson area residents have joined in protests against police violence and racism taking place across the country, a movement most recently ignited by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. On Sunday, May 31, around 200 Poughkeepsie community members rallied on the steps of the Mansion Street post office while chanting “I can’t breathe,” words Floyd repeated multiple times as Minneapolis officers knelt on his throat, and “Black lives matter.” The group then took the protests across the city, marching past the police department, south toward Main Street, and finally returning to Mansion Square Park.
That evening, over 250 Poughkeepsie community members gathered on the sidewalks on Mill Street to honor George Floyd in a candlelight vigil and silent prayer organized by Changepoint Church in collaboration with Community Matters 2. Many attendees brought candles and wore masks, and some held signs expressing support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Police were present at both events. At the rally, police originally told marchers to stay off of the street and on the sidewalks, then used their cars to block intersection traffic for the stated purpose of ensuring protesters’ safety. Poughkeepsie Police Chief Tom Pape came to Mansion Square park to talk to protesters. According to MidHudson News, some participants shouted questions at Pape at once, after a few minutes of which he left the group to speak with other attendees. “I came here to give everyone a chance to interact with me as police chief, and a few people made it difficult for the many that embraced the idea,” said Pape. Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison also attended the rally, and described it as a conversation instead of a protest. In a statement released on Facebook, he said, “Our police officers take an oath to uphold the law, and these gross violations break the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the public—bonds that are essential to all communities. Here in the City of Poughkeepsie, our police officers are committed to strengthening community relationships and endeavor on those efforts every day.” Rolison is a retired detective from the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department. In his 2020 budgetary plan, he increased the salaries of current police officers and shared a plan to add up to five officers to the force every year. In 2019, he reinstated police foot patrols to address “quality-of-life concerns.” Police cars paused traffic for the vigil later that night.
Although the recent actions have been in response to the police killings of Black people in Minneapolis and elsewhere, there is a pervasive history of police brutality against Black people in Hudson Valley communities as well, including Poughkeepsie. According to a 2019 release from Pape, 83 percent of new hires for the Poughkeepsie police force were white, compared to the 40 percent of Poughkeepsie residents who are white. In 2018, in the face of tenuous community relations, the Poughkeepsie police Department partnered with Marist College’s Center for Social Justice Research to improve community relations. Last spring, Poughkeepsie Police Department officers arrested two teenage girls, Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins, who were present when a fight broke out at Poughkeepsie Middle School, without reading Dawkins her charge nor Miranda rights. An officer later identified as Kevin VanWagner threw Dawkins to the ground when arresting her, and Dawkins was later charged with resisting arrest. Barnett ran to her sister’s aid, only to be thrown to the ground and thus knocked unconscious by another officer. The case against the girls is ongoing. Vassar specifically has a history of racial profiling by its own security officers, and police profiling has taken place on campus. The existence of similar incidents across the country has bolstered mass political movement from coast to coast.
Following this weekend’s series of gatherings, the WE CAN’T BREATHE PROTEST will take place tomorrow, June 2, at 4 p.m. at the Harriet Tubman Park. Protesters will march across the Mid-Hudson bridge to call for the end of violence against Black people in their city and across the country.