Something awoke in America the day news broke of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. The force of Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck ultimately silenced the father of five, but a chorus of millions rose up to protest his death, police brutality and institutional racism. With the killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others, the chorus grew stronger. The uprisings spread far and wide, reaching the heart of the Hudson Valley. Here are a few snapshots into Dutchess County’s summer of rally and protest.
“We Can’t Breathe”
Hundreds of Mid-Hudson residents marched the streets of Poughkeepsie on June 2 to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The protest began at Harriet Tubman park, with attendees planning to trek across the Mid-Hudson Bridge. What began as a peaceful and unified demonstration spiraled into a confused and splintered march, as only 100 attendees were allowed onto the bridge. Police presence swelled as the remaining crowd marched back to Harriet Tubman park, reaching roughly 2,000 along the way. The city anticipated a “white-supremacist presence” based on social media posts, which prompted their use of an armored vehicle at the event. Despite the intimidating air of law enforcement bearing riot gear, a short altercation between counter-protesters and protesters and the occasional attendee expressing outrage at the police, many said it was a peaceful day. “They were there to remember the man who died and shed light on the fact that [police brutality] is still occurring,” said attendee Brian Robinson.
“I Am Maurice Gordon”
As Poughkeepsie protested fatal police brutality elsewhere, the national phenomenon became all too personal with the murder of Maurice Gordon. New Jersey State Trooper Sgt. Randall Wetzel shot and killed the 28-year-old Black man and Dutchess Community College chemistry student during a traffic stop on May 23: two days before Floyd’s murder. Dashcam audio and a friend of Gordon’s concerned May 22 911 call revealed a possible mental health crisis.
Roughly 200 people convened for a rally and candlelight vigil on June 22 to honor Gordon’s memory and demand accountability for his killing. Racquel Barrett and Yanique Gordon, Gordon’s mother and sister, attended the rally, which began at Mansion Square Park and ended at the steps of the City of Poughkeepsie post office. As they await justice in Gordon’s case, Barrett said in a speech that she will continue to grieve her son: “Grieving the loss of a child is a process. It begins on the day your child passes and ends the day the parents join them.”
Rally for Black Trans Lives
On the last day of Pride Month, eight transgender members of the community stood before a crowd of more than 100 people dressed in white to share their experiences at Mansion Square Park. Some recounted being kicked out of their homes at 18 years old. Others spoke of being attacked by other members of the Black community for being their true selves. While the eight thanked those in attendance for their solidarity, they expressed disappointment in a lack of Black presence at the majority white crowd.
“(A majority) of the Black transgender women that have been killed, are killed by men that look like me, that look like my brother, that look like my sister, that has my skin complexion,” said Phoenix Gayle, a Black transgender woman at the rally.
“These are often men that we have sexual encounters with, men that we meet on dating apps, or in public, these are the men that are hurting us…I wish I could say that I’m proud to see all the white people here to protest, but guess what, they’re not killing me.”
Nonetheless, the message stood: end violence against the Black transgender community and Black lives as a whole.
No New Jails
Dutchess residents have been protesting the planned construction of a new county jail—now called the Justice and Transition Center—since 2013. In the latest chapter of the facility’s lengthy, staggered and controversial path, Dutchess legislators voted on July 9 to not rescind the $132 million bonds issued to finance the project. Activists, legislators and constituents gathered outside the Dutchess Administrative Building before the vote to voice their outrage and frustration. “The new jail will not only add to the economic and racial disparities in Dutchess County and the city of Poughkeepsie that come with incarceration. It will also likely increase policing,” said Vassar student Elijah Appelson ’23.
While not physically present at the demonstration, Vassar students were among the many voices condemning the facility. Hundreds of students signed a statement calling for President Elizabeth Bradley to make a public stance against the project. Bradley explained in a later statement that while she supports criminal justice reform and restorative justice approaches, she does not feel comfortable expressing opposition or support in a project of its complexity.
The July 9 vote was a disappointment among those unequivocally opposed to the project, but Dutchess legislator and Vassar professor Rebecca Edwards said all hope is not lost: “We are having a productive conversation, we are chipping away at the jail and putting more programs into recovery…Just because we authorized the bonds, doesn’t mean they need to be spent.”
Rally for Black Lives
Dutchess County witnessed its arguably most violent demonstration on the afternoon of July 18. Organizers of the Rally for Black Lives expected resistance at the Pleasant Valley event as news spread that the Dutchess County Conservative Party had organized a counterprotest. Officers from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office were to keep the march path clear and separate the two protests. They failed to do so. When the day of the rally arrived, Support the Blue protesters spat, shoved, punched and yelled slurs at the Black Lives Matter advocates. A 12-year-old girl was slapped and called the N-word, and a peacekeeper was punched in the face, according to Royal Parker, organizer of the Rally for Black Lives. Appelson, an ACLU protest monitor who was punched at the event, was at ground zero.
“What happened at this protest was upsetting but important. It unveiled the violent racism in our backyard: from counterprotesters screaming about Grand Wizards to punching young black children in the face,” he said. “It showed us exactly who we were fighting against, so that next time we can come back ready and stronger.”
An early analysis of the event by the Sheriff’s Office claims that “a small group” of Rally for Black Lives and Support the Blue protesters were equally violent toward each other. The investigation is ongoing.