Back The Blue parades and speaks in Potsdam; crowd outnumbered by simultaneous Black Lives Matter rally
The Back The Blue parade heads down Market Street in downtown Potsdam on Saturday afternoon. North Country Now photo by Andy Gardner. More photos are at the end of this article.
BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week
POTSDAM -- About 125 people gathered for a rally following a Back the Blue parade that went down Market Street from the Save-A-Lot plaza and ended at Ives Park.
Meanwhile, Potsdam’s Black Lives Matter group held a simultaneous demonstration a couple of blocks away, in front of the Potsdam Post Office, that drew about 200 at that gathering’s peak.Agencies participating in the Back The Blue parade included fire departments from Hopkinton-Fort Jackson, Norfolk, Constable, Norwood, Parishville, Madrid and North Lawrence. The original parade route was to start on Bay Street and circle down Market and Main streets, passing through some of the nearby residential streets. That was changed, with the route going from the north side of the village, straight down Market Street, to the park. In the area of downtown between Sandstone Drive and Main Street, a couple dozen onlookers watched the procession from the sidewalks.
Joe Gallagher, a Potsdam resident and former first responder who helped organize the Back The Blue event, said he was pleased with the turnout for the parade and rally.
“I’m very, very grateful to the people who showed up. I think we had a pretty good show,” he said.
Gallagher said he organized the event as an apolitical show of appreciation for first responders, and not as a counter-protest of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he didn’t want political displays, but didn’t want to impede any participant’s right to free speech.
“I said ‘don’t make this political, but I respect your First Amendment right to free speech,’” Gallagher told North Country This Week.
Several of the firetrucks participating in the parade did have political displays. Some flew flags in support of President Donald Trump. There were also several with signs or flags in support of incumbent North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, and Republican St. Lawrence County Court judge candidate Greg Storie. Many of the vehicles flew American flags or the “thin blue line” flag intended as a show of support for police officers.
The Constable Fire Department brought a truck flying a Trump flag that said “no more bullsh*t” on it. A reporter approached the truck in Ives Park to ask why they chose to display that message, despite the organizers’ intentions to keep things politically neutral. The vehicle’s occupants rolled up their windows without saying anything. Another vehicle that appeared to be an old military truck had a vanity license plate on the front that said “Trump 2020, make liberals cry again.” The truck left the rally going the wrong way down Hamilton Street, a marked one-way street. It’s not clear if a first responder agency, or individual private citizens, brought the military-style vehicle there.
The political displays turned off a Democratic state Assembly candidate who had been invited to participate.
“I was told that the Back the Blue parade in Potsdam today was meant to be bipartisan, so I made plans to participate,” said Alex Hammond, who is also the current Waddington town supervisor. “When I got to Potsdam, I saw that that was not the case, and decided to join the BLM rally. I ended up speaking at the event.”
"This event was completely partisan and took away from what I believed the event truly to be, supporting our local heroes especially in the face of this pandemic," Hammond said. "So instead I parked my car, and walked over to the Black Lives Matter Rally and saw a staunch difference. There were absolutely no political campaign signs or cries. They are focused on their purpose, protesting a human rights issue that should be realized by everyone regardless of political affiliation. Supporting the police or the "blue" and supporting the black lives matter movement are not mutually exclusive."
He is running for the 116th Assembly District seat against incumbent Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown.
Deborah Regan and several companions, all from Colton, were part of the crowd who gathered for the Back The Blue rally. She said her career has given her an appreciation for the work first responders do.
“The police have been there for us,” said Regan, who works as a nurse. “[Police and rescue squads] have been nothing but a blessing, and they are a salvation for the hospital.”
Speakers at the Back the Blue rally included county judge candidate Storie, St. Lawrence County legislature candidate Brenda Spurbeck, and St. Lawrence County Sheriff Brooks Bigwarfe. When speaking, they all said explicitly that they weren’t there to campaign or push a political agenda, but were there to say thank you to police, firefighters and emergency personnel.
A local woman, Lynn Clark, also spoke from the gazebo. She shared her positive experiences with law enforcement holding a Stefanik campaign sign while she spoke, but didn’t stump for the congresswoman in her speech.
Clark said she is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic with 40 years of sobriety, and feels “one of the best things that can happen to an addict is to get arrested.” She said she thinks this can serve as a sort of wake-up call to someone in the throes of addiction. Clark acknowledged that she’s had uncomfortable experiences being pulled over by New York State Police or Border Patrol, but believes that most of those officers are “men and women who care about our country, like us.”
Sheriff Bigwarfe read a prepared statement that he also had previously shared with the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators. He had read it to county lawmakers after discussing how his department will handle statewide policing reforms.
The sheriff said he saw the video of the killing of George Floyd, and was disgusted by the officer’s conduct. The video shows former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white and was on duty at the time, kneel on Floyd’s neck for about 10 minutes while Floyd, a Black man, says “I can’t breathe” and eventually dies.
“Those who do this job for the proper reasons hate bad cops,” he said.
“There are dangerous, evil people in this world. I wish there weren’t,” the sheriff said. He also asked “who are you going to call” when a “dangerous, evil person comes to your front door, forces entry into your home with your children in it.” A sworn police officer, Bigwarfe said, who “puts their life on the line, no matter the considerations, no matter if they never go home again.”
Potsdam BLM Opposes Defunding Police
Jennifer Baxtron, one of the Potsdam Black Lives Matter co-organizers, said the Potsdam group does not support the larger national movement to defund or abolish the police. They believe police agencies are necessary for the safety of everyone, especially the Black community, and police can’t do their jobs without adequate funding.
“We’re here trying to get along with them,” Baxtron said. She feels defunding police here would only worsen the public safety situation.
“If white folks want to [defund the police], they can do that. Our mission now is to get [police] to do their jobs, to not target Black folks. It doesn’t have anything to do with money. Do your job, and do it equally.”
She said she sees the parade as a statement against the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the end of the Back the Blue rally, about 20 people from the Black Lives Matter protest came to Ives Park and took a knee while holding their signs, while chanting “Black lives matter” and raising their fists in the air. Several Back The Blue ralliers stood around them and chanted “all lives matter.” Some could be heard saying “white lives matter.” One man with a makeshift megaphone, who refused to identify himself, shouted “kneeling is a sign of submission” at the BLM activists.
Gallagher said he respects the BLM group’s First Amendment rights and said he has no ill feelings toward them.
“I want them to respect my opinion, and I respect theirs,” he said. “There’s no animosity toward them.”
The BLM group that came to Ives Park had broken off from the larger demonstration, and Potsdam BLM organizers said they had told their group to not engage the Back the Blue people.
John Youngblood, one of the Potsdam BLM organizers, went to Ives Park and told them to disperse. He said he doesn’t think they should have gone down there, but he isn’t upset with them for doing so. Youngblood also joined several Back The Blue ralliers in a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” as he escorted the Black Lives Matter group from the park.
“As soon as I told those people ‘this was not the right place for this to be done,’ they left,” Youngblood said.
He was upset with Back the Blue ralliers who gathered around the BLM folks and chanted things like “all lives matter” and “white lives matter.”
“This group would never do that,” he said of his fellow Black Lives Matter activists.
Youngblood also spoke in favor of first responders. He said if the parade had not had a title like “Back the Blue,” Potsdam Black Lives Matter would have participated alongside them.
“I wish [the parade] had been titled ‘Parade to Celebrate First Responders in the North Country,’ and not ‘Back The Blue.’ We would have been involved in that,” he said.
Youngblood also gave a thank you to the Norwood Fire Department. He said after moving into a home in Norwood, he was having electrical problems, which which quickly turned into a hazard that threatened to burn down his home.”
“Norwood Fire Department was there within five minutes,” Youngblood said. “I never felt intimidated, never felt like my life didn’t matter. I felt I very much mattered to them and my home mattered.”
He held up a sign that said “my life mattered to Norwood firefighters” on one side and “thank you Norwood Fire Department” on the opposite side.
At one point, a Norwood fire truck drove by the BLM gathering and honked their horn as they passed, which drew appreciative cheers from the group.
Youngblood also spoke out against the use of public fire departments and rescue squads for what in his opinion was a poorly veiled anti-Black Lives Matter message.
“They used institutions. You see what systemic, institutional racism looks like,” he said. “The taxpayers were exploited.”
Another plainly visible area of division between the two rallies was usage of a face covering to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. Every Black Lives Matter demonstrator observed by North Country This Week wore a mask. The majority of the Back The Blue gathering wore masks, but many did not.
Potsdam Black Lives Matter also offered to give photos of Breonna Taylor to any first responder who wanted to show one during the demonstrations. Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT, was killed in her Louisville, Ky. apartment in March by three police officers who were serving a no-knock search warrant on suspected drug dealers. The plain clothes officers entered her apartment, which was the wrong address, by breaking the door down with a battering ram. Taylor was killed when her boyfriend exchanged gunfire with the officers, who the couple believed were intruders. She was killed by the police gunfire. More details about Taylor's killing are here.
A man who declined to give his name shouts 'all lives matter' at a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters. The BLM chanted 'Black lives matter' while some of the BTB participants surrounded them and chanted 'all lives matter,' and some chanted 'white lives matter.' North Country Now photo by Andy Gardner.