Ayah Osman stood with poise and confidence as she read a poem to hundreds gathered for a Black Lives Matter rally on Sunday outside Niskayuna Town Hall.
Osman, a Niskayuna High School senior set to attend Union College in the fall, read from her own poetry, a pair of powerful ruminations on the lives of black women, lives she said have too long been “cropped out of the picture” of racism and police violence.
“We live in a world where simply intersecting as both black and woman is so hard to do it is to possess magic, to be supernatural, to be the witch that wouldn’t burn,” she said. “But we do.”
Osman was one of about 10 youth raised in Niskayuna who addressed growing up as a person of color in the predominantly white town. They discussed being the lone black student in a class or hearing classmates say they couldn’t be friends with a black kid. They described the racism their parents have faced and the fear underlying any interaction with police. They urged their supporters to listen and hear their stories and to stand up to racism and bias they witness – even when black people are not around.
Uyi Omorogbe, 22, who grew up in Niskayuna, recalled a series of stories from his life, underlying the realities black youth face from a young age. When he was 13 and his dad was driving him to soccer practice, his first on a new team, police followed them all the way to the field. As Omorogbe got out of the car, an officer, with his hand touching his gun, yelled at him to get back in the car. Omorogbe said he froze for a minute before the cop asked if Omorogbe, who was holding a soccer ball and cleats, was there for soccer practice. He said yes, and the officers drove away, as his new teammates and coaches looked on.
“Here I am, feeling like I am something I’m not, that I’m a criminal,” he said at the rally. “As black people, it doesn’t matter how educated, how smart you are, you can never avoid being racially profiled and targeted.”
Messages like those embedded in Osman’s poetry and Omorogbe’s story echoed across the Capital Region Sunday as thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds gathered at rallies and protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for an end to systemic racism.
Over 1,000 people marched in Saratoga Springs; hundreds filled the park in Niskayuna; scores of protesters rallied outside of the Amsterdam police department; and, a group of more than a dozen participated in a vigil walk in St. Johnsville. All the while, thousands marched through the streets of Troy.
In Niskayuna, before the speeches, organizers led the crowd in a moment of silence lasting eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd, a black man killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck for that length of time.
Some in attendance laid face down in the ground, while others sat quietly. Couples clasped hands, a young boy buried his head in his mother’s lap. The extended silence – punctuated only by the consistent chirp of birds, an occasional dog bark and the rustle of wind echoing through loudspeakers – offered a long moment of reflection on the pain of black Americans, who in the past two weeks have again reminded the country they have always lived in fear for their lives and those of their loved ones.
“I’m sure a lot of us just realized how long eight minutes and 46 seconds really is,” said Ayo Elefontuyi, a 2016 Niskayuna graduate who helped organize the rally.
Ava Giagni and Jamila Mesbahi, two Niskayuna students, described white privilege and led the non-black attendees in stating a shared commitment to listen to and support black lives.
“I am not black, but I hear you. I am not black, but I see you,” they said. “I am not black, but I will fight for you. We are not black, but we stand with you.”
More than 1,000 people marched in the street in Saratoga Springs’ on Broadway, shut down by police on Sunday afternoon, before heading into Congress Park as part of a peaceful mass gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The outpouring of interest surprised teenage organizer Jamie McCallion, a 17-year-old Saratoga Springs High School junior.
“We went to the protest in Albany a week ago, and we formed a group chat a week ago and this happened,” McCallion said. “We didn’t expect more than maybe 100 people, but it seems like there is almost 1,000 here.”
Saratoga Springs Lt. Robert Jillson estimated the crowd as between 1,000 to 1,250 individuals in a phone interview after the event. McCallion credited social media with the massive turnout.
“We have a Google form linked on our Instagram account [@Saratogaagainstbrutality] and we asked people to sign up through that, and over the past week we’ve been checking it every day,” McCallion said. “I’ll send a screenshot of the results to our group chat and everyone will go ‘Oh, my god. There are 800 people coming, 900 people coming. It was crazy.”
Since the death of George Floyd, Saratoga Springs has been the site of several peaceful protests and marches. Sunday’s event appeared to be the largest yet.
With the assistance of the Saratoga Springs police department blocking traffic along the route, the protesters began at High Rock Park, turned onto Lake Avenue, then onto Broadway before reaching Congress Park.
Several speakers were invited to speak at Congress Park to the assembled crowd, including 24-year-old Chandler Hickenbottom.
“More and more, I’ve noticed that there are so many people that are willing to put themselves in the position of African Americans,” Hickenbottom said. “They want to listen to our stories. They want to understand what we go through.”
Hickenbottom protested on Broadway several years ago after the death of Darryl Mount Jr. in 2013.
“There were only 15 people out here supporting us. . . . Now, we have 1,000 people supporting us,” Hickenbottom said. “It just goes to show that there is a good percentage of Saratogians that are through with the way that this world has been. They are through with the way that the police act towards us, through any type of racism. It’s time for change.”
In Amsterdam, Fort Plain resident Joelle Nemecek stood in the parking lot of the city’s Public Safety Building Sunday and told a crowd of protesters, members of law enforcement and elected officials why standing up against injustice and racism should matter to them.
Nemecek said she is the mother of a police officer, and when she watched the video of Minneapolis man George Floyd being killed, she became paralyzed with emotion. She read a poem expressing her sorrow, pain and horror.
“He, like so many others, didn’t have to die,” she said. “My job, as the mother of a police officer, is simple: to teach y’all empathy. Empathy will bring about the highest standards of humanity, and that is what will bring about unity, and unity will bring about change.”
Nemecek was the first speaker at the peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Amsterdam Sunday, which included approximately 300 protesters, and was coordinated with the Amsterdam Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. No speakers expressed enmity toward local police, although criticism of systemic racism in law enforcement broadly was clear from many of the signs held up by protesters, including one that said, “No more bad apples.”
New Amsterdam Police Chief John “JJ” Thomas and Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith both spoke and interacted with protesters throughout the approximately two-hour event, which stretched from the Amsterdam Free Library around Guy Park Avenue in front of the Public Safety Building. Neither, however, gave speeches.
One of the protest organizers was Nydia Hill, who said she offered to allow the police to speak, but they declined telling her that the event should be about the views of the protesters.
Thomas said law enforcement was there to keep the peace and to listen. He also praised Hill.
“I’ve known Nydia my whole career, and she’s a wonderful woman, and I knew we wouldn’t have an issue today,” he said.
Sunday in Amsterdam, the protest was attended by some elected officials including Mayor Michael Cinquanti, Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort and District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell, but only Cinquanti spoke.
“I’m here in a dual role,” Cinquanti said. “I’m here to join you in your protest. The death of George Floyd disgusted me. More importantly, as mayor — I have a police department — and that police department, every one of them I spoke to was just as disgusted as I was.”
Cinquanti took a knee with protesters at the conclusion of the protest. He said last week he intends to review the police “Use of Force” policy with the new police chief, something former President Obama has suggested mayors and police departments do throughout the United States.
Thomas said Amsterdam does not permit choke holds during arrests.
“We do follow state and federal guidelines, but everything will be reviewed,” Thomas said. “We don’t do choke holds. We don’t do anything with knees to the neck. We don’t do anything that cuts off circulation. That’s something that’s not trained at all. Officers are instructed to only use trained techniques that they learn in the academy, or in defensive tactic instruction.”
During the event a group of men wearing biker outfits stood in the parking lot of the city’s fire department across the street from most of the protesters, but no altercations occurred between them and the Black Lives Matter protesters.
One protester, who seemed to be helping to organize where protesters would stand, was Chris Town, a 2015 graduate of Gloversville High School. Town had been to protests in Albany, and said he was inspired by the three silent protests in Fulton County organized by Gloversville resident Lashawn Hawkins to help ensure protests in Fulton and Montgomery counties remain peaceful.
Town said he spoke to members of the biker group prior to Sunday’s protest. He assured the Black Lives Matter protesters the biker group was “with them” and had no negative intentions toward them.
“Some of them have gotten really close to Lashawn, who has gotten hate mail, and people have driven by her house revving their engines,” she said. “We’ve had these bikers circle her house at night to make sure she’s safe, because they want justice for all, but, until everyone is treated equally, we’re not going to have that.”
In St. Johnsville, a walking vigil took place Sunday to honor George Floyd, and to pray for a community that’s endured several months of uncertainty and hardship.
“It is in response to the killing of George Floyd, and it’s also in response to the very heavy burden our community has been under for the last two months,” organizer Julie Eisele said of the event
Before walkers departed in separate directions, they were asked to obey all laws and executive orders, and to walk with members of their own respective household in groups of 10 or less. Prior to the walk, Eisele commented to the dozen-plus attendees: “I hope that during this time, we can bring ourselves humbly before God, open to hearing the changes we need to make within ourselves to bring peace to our land.”
Josh Thomas contributed to this report.