ITHACA, N.Y. –– On Saturday, Oct. 24, hundreds of local racial justice activists came together to hold an “Antiracist Festival Against Hate” at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Ithaca Commons in response to a “Back the Blue” right-wing gathering planned for the same afternoon.

Originally planned to commence at the same time as the “Back the Blue” rally starting at 2 p.m., the “festival” organizers, who included leaders from both the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ithaca chapter and the newly minted racial justice advocacy group the Ithaca Pantheras, pushed their meeting time to noon on Saturday in an attempt to head off the pro-law enforcement gathering.

In the early hours of the gathering, music played while wooden shields were dispersed among the crowd and protesters took turns painting a large poster that doubled as a sort of barrier between Bernie Milton and the rest of the Commons.

Throughout the early afternoon, speakers from both DSA and the Pantheras addressed the crowd of over 200 people and advocated for not only anti-racism work, but the radical breakdown of social structures including capitalism, systemic racism and fascism.

One of those speakers was Russell Rickford, professor of history at Cornell University and DSA member, who has continued to be a voice for the far left at the weekly racial justice rallies over past months.

“We need to be clear about our vision of democracy, our vision of equality. We don’t reach that goal by affirming liberal principles. We don’t reach that goal through liberal tactics. We need a radical, democratic movement, right here in Ithaca and Tompkins County,” Rickford said. 

He continued, “We’re going to start with defunding. Why? Because in recent decades, as capitalism has accelerated its assault on working people, it has built up a massive police apparatus in order to protect the interests of the ruling class from working people and from poor people.”

While these speeches were going on at the Bernie Milton Pavilion, Back the Blue ralliers began arriving on the opposite end of the Commons, congregating outside the Cornell store. There, rally organizer Rocco Lucente gave his own remarks regarding the necessity of the gathering.

“We are here today to support our police officers, to back the blue, to push back against these false narratives which have been pushed by many local media outlets, have been pushed by our local politicians, by our mayor, by the leaders of our county legislature, and we are here to say that we support our police officers, we reject our politicians who are doing these things and we back the blue,” Lucente said.

The “false narrative” Lucente railed against during his address to the 15 or so “Back the Blue” ralliers — whose ranks included Syracuse-based members of the far-right “Proud Boys” group — was unclear, but seemingly included any coverage or acknowledgment of the public’s call for police reform and/or abolition.

Also included in Lucente’s remarks were mentions of previous clashes between right-wing and left-wing activists –– notably including violence that broke out last week at a local Trump rally. Lucente referred to the left-wing activists present at the Trump rally as “a mob of vicious thugs and criminals” and “terrorists.”

Also expressing concern over past behavior by protesters, and looking to prevent future violence, local officials including Ithaca Police Department Chief Dennis Nayor and City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick released public statements Oct. 23 warning the public that safety could not be guaranteed and discouraged attending Saturday’s events.

Those concerns played out Saturday as the heavy law enforcement presence was felt all day, with officers from multiple agencies including IPD, New York State Police and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office keeping a watchful eye on protesters.

Police presence was felt most as “Back the Blue” advocates approached Bernie Milton and positioned themselves across from the racial justice gathering. IPD officers and Sheriff’s Deputies stood close by while the groups chanted back and forth.

Some people did cross the party lines and engage in dialogue with one another, and despite the high-energy, the day remained peaceful.

“I’m very pleased,” Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne said about the day. “We saw a lot of people on both sides talking to each other. It was very peaceful, which is all I could ask for.”

As the day wore on, nearly all the Back the Blue members gradually left the Commons, including organizer Lucente, who left before 5 p.m. By 6 p.m., the protesters occupying Bernie Milton declared the day a success and replaced chanting with celebratory dancing.

“This went amazingly, and this showed as a community, we do not let hate in and we protect others when they’re under attack,” one of the Pantheras members going by Ray, said. “This is the most immaculate display of community.”

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com