Inside Poughkeepsie’s WE CAN’T BREATHE protest

On Tuesday, June 2, members of the Poughkeepsie community took to the streets for the WE CAN’T BREATHE protest. The protest’s Facebook event page defined their impetus for congregating: “We are simply protesting the fact that we keep dying just for being black. We are asking the community to invite as many people as you can to protest the recent killings of our brother George Floyd, our sister Breonna Taylor and our brother Ahmaud Arbery.” City of Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison, who attended himself, said that the protest drew over 2,000 people.

The WE CAN’T BREATHE protest was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. at Harriet Tubman Park, from which protesters would march across the Mid-Hudson bridge. Brian Robinson, a protester who distributed flyers for an upcoming Race Amity symposium, estimated that protesters numbered a few hundred people when they arrived at the bridge. “There was very little police presence at the time—a small, adequate police presence,” he reported. 

Once the protest arrived at the Mid-Hudson bridge, attendees were surprised to learn that only 100 people were allowed to march across. The Facebook event post detailing the plan to cross the bridge had 720 definite attendees and 1,500 interested in attending. Robinson assumed that police limited traffic on the bridge to keep lanes open for ambulances that rush New Paltz residents to the hospital across the bridge. Given this last minute notice, he expressed frustration with the event planning: “It was pretty well-staged for the organizer and county and the city and the police to say ‘OK, we’re gonna let them do this, but then we’re not gonna let them do this.” Attendee Kathy Duncan also recounted confusion on the bridge, saying, “We were at the back, and when I made my way to the front I could see there was a group of people at the beginning entrance to the bridge. And the next I looked they were gone. We didn’t know what was going on.” 

End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), a Hudson Valley-based criminal justice reform advocacy group, later posted a picture from the bridge featuring an armored vehicle on their Instagram page. Text superimposed on the photo read “Photo of a tank on the Mid-Hudson bridge.” Rolison denied the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department’s use of tanks in an emailed statement to the Miscellany News. “The police vehicles…are not tanks and do not have weaponry capabilities. In other words, they are non-lethal vehicles,” he said. “They are used to transport Police Officers and others to potential dangerous incidents and most importantly are used to rescue individuals in active shooting incidents and violent encounters because they can withstand gunfire and other objects.” 

After police diverted the remaining crowd from the bridge, the protesters, as they swelled to approximately 2,000 in number, marched back to Harriet Tubman Park. Several groups splintered from this path, with police presence increasing at this point. Robinson reported “state troopers, sheriffs, actually city police from surrounding cities like Wappingers” arriving. Some of these officers wore riot gear and carried batons. Police closed off some streets to contain protesters’ march routes, purportedly to circumvent traffic away from the march. 

Robinson recalled the presence of two white supremacist counterprotesters at the corner of Main and South Bridge Street. “They were yelling slurs and saying ‘get out of our town.’ They spit on a Black woman, and that’s when it got a little out of control,” he said. A brief physical altercation between the white supremacist counterprotesters and the men accompanying the assaulted woman ensued. “I got in between them and the two guys. I saw these two guys and knew they didn’t pose, physically, a threat to me, but I knew they were trying to incite violence and that’s what I was scared of,” Robinson said.

Robinson reported that police officers were not present during the altercation, but arrived a few minutes after one of the counterprotesters was overheard threatening to return with a gun. There were also reports that one of the counterprotesters had previously been armed with a knife. “Somebody saw him throw it and ditch it as evidence. The police kind of half-heartedly went after him…it wasn’t like the guys were running, they just walked away,” said Robinson. Rolison, in justifying the presence of armored vehicles, wrote that they anticipated a white supremacist presence at the event: “Terms such as white supremacy and antifa were on social media and there was a real concern by the community.”

Although there were no reports of violent altercations between police and protesters, Robinson, Duncan and John Way, who is married to Duncan, recounted verbal engagements. “The police were blocking the intersection, at Jefferson [Street]. Some people hurled insults at the police. They were trying to get them to take a knee. But we were thinking that you can’t insult someone and ask them to join you,” said Way. “Those police were there to keep the protest contained to a certain area, and small groups and isolated individuals went and engaged them for dramatic photo grabs, that sort of thing,” said Robinson, although he also acknowledged that he “was sure there was real anger at the police.”

Two radio transmissions from the protest reported attendees throwing bricks, but these reports were later confirmed false. Robinson corroborated this assessment, saying, “I’m not sure this is where the false reports of bricks being thrown by some news outlets came from, but a couple people did pick up rocks and throw rocks at [police] as they left.” He felt satisfied with police conduct throughout the march, but was troubled by their presentation: “It definitely concerned me when I saw these groups of guys, especially the guys in serious riot gear holding batons in their hands, not at their sides, running toward the group, but I think they were just trying to keep the protest contained in an area,” he said. “They need to be prepared for something bad to happen, but the image of them being prepared does not strike you as consistent with unity and peace when they are armed and…have all these things and are running about.”

The City of Poughkeepsie has its own history of strained relations between law enforcement and communities of color. In 2019, video surfaced of City of Poughkeepsie police officers slamming Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins, two young Black girls, to the ground.

L’Quette Taylor, the founder and CEO of Community Matters 2, an organization that informs people of goings-on in Poughkeepsie and fosters community engagement, was born and raised in the city’s Fifth Ward. He remembers growing up with a suspicion of police. “It was almost cultural, as a Black man, for me not to trust the cops. We didn’t trust cops, we didn’t converse with cops because of the way they treated you,” he said. But he shared that this protest was important to foster unity in the community. “I thought the protest was organized, peaceful, and more importantly needed. I think there was so many people coming together from so many different backgrounds, and you usually don’t get that.”

Way expressed his belief in disarming the police force nationwide, and also noted that his African-American adopted son experienced brutality at the hands of the NYPD while living in New York City. Nonetheless, the conduct of police at the protest impressed him. On witnessing some members of the police force take a knee, he said, “I thought that was pretty amazing. I think they were told to do something like this, because they haven’t been cooperative in the past.” 

Robinson, Way and Hudson characterized the event as primarily peaceful. “99 percent of people were not there to yell things at the police. They were there to remember the man who died and shed light on the fact that this is still occurring,” said Robinson, while Way said “I was impressed with the number of people there. It was pretty peaceful.” 

Taylor acknowledged not just the peace, but the purpose of the protest: “George Floyd had 400 years plus of pressure on his neck. That’s what it’s been doing to us. It’s been killing us. Now it’s time for us to stand up. It’s time for us to say we’re not gonna take this anymore.”

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