UPDATE: The original version of this story misidentified the person who attempted to steal the flags before they were burned, setting off a small fight at the event. Their name has been removed.

ORIGINAL STORY:

ITHACA, N.Y.—Protesters clashed again in Ithaca on Sunday, March 14, this time squaring off over support for police, Black Lives Matter and the ongoing effort to reimagine public safety locally. It was the first major protest and counter-protest action since violence marred a string of protests in the fall as the presidential election approached.

A group of about 25 Back the Blue supporters, angered by the recently announced public safety reform proposals, planned a vehicle march and rally at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Commons in downtown Ithaca. Once they arrived, they were met by a group of about 60 counter-protesters, many of whom were common fixtures at the local weekly protests last year demanding that the police department be defunded.

Though the stage was draped with a “Cuomo Must Go” sign, something likely everyone in attendance on Sunday agrees with for one reason or another, that was the extent of the unity. The two sides spent the majority of the afternoon, starting around noon, trading cheers and chants back and forth. Organizer Rocco Lucente, joined by local right-wing activist Zack Winn, held the stage for most of the event, with Rocco and Winn both delivering extended remarks after large interludes of arguing between both sides.

“We are here today because Ithaca is not a safe place to live anymore,” Lucente said, reading from his phone, and after saying a prayer with the rest of the crowd. Lucente used the crime statistics published last week by IPD to bolster his arguments. “What has Svante Myrick proposed that we do during this crime epidemic? He proposes that we put in a civilian executive director to be in charge of city law enforcement. (…) His proposal is a very simple message: the City of Ithaca is waving the right flag and surrendering its effort to reduce the crime rate that has engulfed this city.”

Lucente further claimed that if “(the counter-protesters) get the police out of the way, they can enforce mob justice on those who they oppose, that would be all of us, that would be all of you.” Lucente, growing more angry, said the end goal of the counter-protesters was to “come after you and your family.” It is important to note, though, that Myrick’s plan would not remove Ithaca Police Department officers, but does say that they should be, in a sense, repurposed to have less responsibilities and that Ithaca would still have a group of armed Community Safety Officers.

While Lucente was painting a vivid picture with his words, some of his specific examples were questionable. He cited the shootout and car chase that left one person dead on March 13, but that took place entirely in the Town of Lansing; he also mentioned the woman’s body that was found March 12 in the Canopy by Hilton hotel in downtown Ithaca, which police have said was “suspicious” but have not actually announced whether anything criminal took place. Regardless, his remarks were met with cheers from the rally attendees, even as his words were drowned out at times by the counter-protesters.

Eventually, the event’s structure broke down a bit as Back the Blue supporters made their way to the center of the Commons, approaching the counter-protesters. Common Council candidate and former protest leader Yasmin Rashid spoke to several of the Back the Blue supporters to try to maintain calm. Rashid later scolded fellow counter-protesters and called for conversation and willingness to listen on both sides.

The event was very tense at points, though largely peaceful, except for two instances of brief violence. As Winn and other Back the Blue organizers poured lighter fluid on a set of three flags, representing Black Lives Matter, antifa and China (likely because of China’s Communist rule), with intentions of burning the flags, an unidentified counter-protester attempted to steal the flags. As they ran away pulling the flags, Winn caught up and shoved them to the ground, followed by an attempted shove from Max Lucente. One woman then rushed Winn and appeared to land a kick before Winn put her in a headlock (though it is not shown in the video below, the woman said she was hit before the kick and thought that Winn was the culprit).

A few people from both sides then came together for some miscellaneous pushing and yelling, but most were acting as peacekeepers and the two sides separated again. Winn then successfully burned the flags in a trashcan on stage—adding a call for people to burn their masks as well.

Shortly thereafter, ostensibly inflamed by something said on stage, counter protester Massia White-Saunders rushed the stage in an apparent attempt to confront Winn, the Lucentes and others who were hosting. By that time, the Ithaca Police Department had increased its presence and was able to quell the situation fairly quickly.

There did not appear to be any injuries during the event. IPD Chief Dennis Nayor confirmed to The Ithaca Voice that there were no tickets given out or arrests made in connection with the event Sunday. Days before the event, it had been disavowed by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, who thought that it would detract from their messaging in opposition of the public safety reforms.

Lucente, and his brother Max, also both took the opportunity to posit rather negative opinions about local media coverage and the integrity of a certain online-only non-profit news organization in Ithaca.

Once things had calmed down, Winn gave extended comments on the microphone and showed a few videos of previous protests using a small screen they had set up. He followed with a slightly meandering speech that included some ugly rhetoric, bouncing between calling the counter-protesters “retards” and “Communists,” to pointing out transgender activists and insulting their appearance (he was admonished for that by another rally attendee) to calling for unity to voicing support for the police. In the speech’s uglier moments, he also minimized the deaths of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police last year setting off weeks of protests, and Dejour Gandy, who was killed in his home in Newfield in December 2019 in a crime that has still not been solved.

To illustrate one of the apparent points of the event, Winn also dabbled in a karaoke performance of sorts, singing parts of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” onstage.

He was followed by an unidentified man who grabbed the mic and began trying to rank the world’s races of people, using his hands to show that white people would be first, followed by transgender people, then Black people farther below. Interrupting him, Winn took the mic back and said he “didn’t want any of that racist sh*t here.”

Numbers of Back the Blue supporters steadily dwindled throughout the day until, after about three hours and a request from IPD officers to finish up, they left, though both groups were still trading insults as they began to leave.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com