by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn / The Indypendent
While New York is a largely blue state, there are pockets of red. Upstate, the Republican party’s election-year “law and order” messaging has stoked violence at rallies billed as positive and patriotic. Local Black Lives Matter supporters who say they are used to threats and racism in the rural communities they hail from warn they have never seen tensions this high.
In the most recent incident, a “Back the Blue” rally in Schuyler, New York attended by Republican Congressional hopeful Claudia Tenney descended into violence on Aug. 26, when a Trump supporter physically attacked Black Lives Matter activists who were counter-demonstrating.
The rally was held at Dave’s Diner, a popular restaurant and ice cream shop, which promoted and sponsored the event. The counter-demonstration was organized by Black Lives Matter activists from a new organization calling itself Utica Abolitionists. The group advocates for the abolition of police, ICE and prisons, and is pushing for transformative justice as an alternative to mass incarceration.
Local Trump and Tenney supporters have held weekly rallies in different towns in the Mohawk Valley to show support for the two Republicans and for law enforcement. Earlier that day, Tenney, who is running in New York’s 22 congressional district, attended a press conference with other Republicans and Police Benevolent Association officials to express her support for law enforcement. One day earlier, she released a pro-law enforcement campaign ad on television where she is pictured at past Back the Blue rallies.
Tenney comes out of a long tradition of “law and order” politicians in the United States who cloak racist dog-whistles in public safety messaging.
The congressional candidate is an enthusiastic Trump backer, is endorsed by the New York State Trooper’s union and sets herself in stark contrast to her opponent, centrist Democrat Anthony Brindisi. While there are distinct differences on some issues and although Brindisi attended a 1,000 person strong Black Lives Matter rally in Utica after the police killing of George Floyd, the left have criticized Brindisi for voting against criminal justice reform as a New York State Assemblyman, as well as for introducing the Defund Cities that Defund the Police Act in Congress.
While Trump and Tenney supporters insist that their rallies are purely patriotic and positive events, Black Lives Matter activists view things differently.
Wednesday’s confrontation came three days after video of a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin firing seven shots into the back of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, began making rounds on the internet and sparked a national outrage.
“The message ‘blue lives matter’ is the most disrespectful message anyone can think of,” said Utica Abolitionist Liz Horner, 21. “It’s irritating and frustrating that they are doing this. Jacob Blake was nearly killed in front of his three kids. It’s sickening and disgusting,”
What Horner witnessed upon arrival at the rally was as a rude awakening to what the Trump and Tenney supporters were capable of. A throng of mostly older white men charged across the street to the BLM activists and surrounded them.
“I immediately sprinted to make sure they were all safe,” she said. “One of the Trump supporters was trying to physically fight a teenage boy who was a BLM supporter.”
Troy Lockwood, 20, from the nearby rural community of East Herkimer attended the BLM counter-demonstration with his brother Daniel. The pair were in the middle of the trapped crowd.
“They charged across the road at us,” said Lockwood. “I did not expect that. I just heard from another activist ‘get back, get back’ and I saw the group storming across the street at us like a flood. It was around 20 to 30 [Trump and Tenney supporters], mostly men. They definitely seemed like they wanted to cause harm.”
One man, later identified as Jason Winter Sr., attempted to provoke BLM activists as well as members of the media into fighting him. Lockwood watched as Winter went up to his brother and started yelling at him. “I honestly thought violence was going to erupt there because they were being so aggressive with us. That’s when I thought they were there for violence. It seemed like they wanted to kill us.”
State troopers were on scene, intervened and the Trump supporters eventually trickled back across the street. However, Utica Abolitionists and Black Lives Matter activists say the troopers attempted to disband their counter-demonstration.
“The police tried to impose on our rights numerous times,” said Lockwood. “They tried to get us out of there, even though the other side were continually taunting us and saying they were going to kill us.”
“There was some large white man threatening me and us and saying if the cops were not here that they were going to rape us and kill us,” said Horner. I just wanted everyone to be safe at that point.”
The Trump and Tenney supporters yelled a barrage of racist, homophobic and misogynistic slurs and chants at the Black Lives Matter activists during the rally. Black activists were threatened by Tenney supporters, who said they would be “skinned” and that the only way they would leave would be “in the cars” of the Tenney supporters. The threats that Horner heard were repeated with regularity during the entire rally.
Tenney, who consistently attends the Blue Lives Matter events, made no attempt to quell her supporters’ vitriol and has since refused to condemn their actions.
“I saw Claudia Tenney there and heard her speaking,” said Lockwood. “Tenney was smiling and laughing with them and they were chanting ‘Black lives splatter’ and ‘white lives matter.’ She was complicit with all of that.”
Tenney’s campaign declined to comment for this article.
When three Utica Abolitionists decided to leave the rally early, the Lockwood brothers and another activist decided to accompany them to their vehicle, parked at a nearby church, out of concern for their safety. As the brothers walked back to the rally, they were stopped in their tracks when a pick-up truck swerved off the road and drove in front of them.
“My first thought was that he was going to back over us so I got out of the way,” said Daniel Lockwood. “He got out of the car and was aggressive so I told Troy to get out of the way. I stood my ground because I didn’t want this guy to have power over other people in public. I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction. But, also, I didn’t expect a grown man to physically assault someone who was not doing anything to him.”
“He swung his fist once and Troy tried to block him, then he hit me over the head,” he continued. “The man who attacked him was the same man who threatened to kill the activists earlier, Jason Winter.”
Winter then picked up a rock and threw it at the Lockwood brothers, just missing Daniel by inches.
The Utica Abolitionists posted a video on their Facebook page that shows part of the attack. New York State Police Trooper Jack Keller said that several witnesses were interviewed and said that nothing happened but the Black Lives Matter activists were never questioned by the police.
Daniel Lockwood said he was discouraged by the police to file charges because they told him that Jason Winter would be given his personal address and phone number and the worst that could happen to Winter was a potential future $24 fine.
The Lockwood brothers and Liz Horner were not deterred by the actions that day and plan on continuing to protest and organize. They were all raised in surrounding conservative, majority-white rural communities and are used to witnessing, or in the case of Horner experiencing, racism.
With a White House administration that regularly encourages overt racism, as well as violent acts by its base of supporters, and with a spike in white vigilante violence as seen most recently in Kenosha, WI, activists in rural Upstate New York are on a much higher alert than they normally are. Something was profoundly different at the Schuyler rally.
“I’ve never seen such a hateful crowd of people in my whole life,” said Troy Lockwood.
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn writes for The Indypendent and Love and Rage Media. His work has been published by The Industrial Worker, Le Monde Diplomatique and Monthly Review. This article was originally published by The Indypendent, a monthly alternative, progressive newspaper in NYC. Please make a recurring or one-time contribution to The Indypendent today. It’s readers like you who ensure we continue publishing in these challenging times. Thank you!