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Black speakers ask whites to search their souls

Claude, left, and Gabby Goodman, of Saranac Lake, lead a crowd of protestors in shouts of “Black lives matter” at a rally on Tuesday. Gabby said they were there because they want their children, who are black, to grow up in an accepting and safe society. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Amid plenty of cheering and hopeful messages at a large Black Lives Matter protest Tuesday, there was also a theme that gathering is not enough, and that more action needs to be taken to address local racism.

Around 500 people turned out to protest the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Minneapolis police on May 25. The crowd also showed support for black people and passed around a petition asking the village board to consider a zero-tolerance policy on police brutality. But they also left with more to chew on.

Black speakers at the event asked the mostly white protestors to do some soul searching, take what they learn and do at public protests, and apply it to their personal lives.

“I am not here to make you feel good,” Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson told the crowd.

“It feels good to do something when the cameras are on,” she told the Enterprise later. “But what matters is what you do in the silence of your home, at the dinner table at Thanksgiving with your relatives, when you’re in the bar chilling and having fun. That’s what matters.”

Hylton-Patterson said anti-racist actions matter most when they don’t benefit you at all, when it makes you uncomfortable, or when you might lose friends, access and power because of those actions.

She spoke to the white protestors, whom she called allies of the black community, saying they need to work on improving themselves, listening to black people and learning.

“Be OK with me telling you that this community is not free from racism and is not free from oppression,” she said.

She described it as an “old racism,” saying she has lived all over the county but never seen more Confederate flags than in upstate New York.

What protesters say

Many locals at the protest said they have watched the nationwide protests over the death of Floyd, who was killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, and felt helpless, wondering what they could do.

“Just because we don’t see it every day in front of our eyes here … it’s happening,” Kiana Roach said. “We all have to show up.”

The recently formed High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America gave them the chance to show up by organizing the Tuesday rally. It was put together very quickly, but the local DSA has been working for a while now to get ready for events such as this.

Gabby Goodman was leading protest chants with a strong voice from the sidewalk, alongside her husband Claude Goodman. They said they’ve lived in Saranac Lake for four years and said they were there to ensure their children grow up in an accepting community.

“My husband’s black. My children are black,” Gabby said. “They need to be heard.”

She said Claude had worked at the deli at Tops for two years and had heard “older, racist comments” there.

“It’s terrible. I have black children … that I plan to raise here,” Gabby said. “This needs to be a place where they’re accepted.”

She said the huge crowd on the street with them was a sign that racism is not a defining characteristic of Saranac Lake.

“Overall, most people are pretty accepting,” Gabby said.

Young crowd

Hylton-Patterson said she has been to anti-racist protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Washington, D.C., over the years. She said the crowd gathered at Riverside Park was bigger than organizers had expected it would be, and she was pleased to see a lot of young people there.

“Young people are overwhelmingly represented here today,” Hylton-Patterson said. “They’re the future, right? If they are agitated enough, if they are uncomfortable enough, things will change.”

Nevertheless, she said many of these young people do not plan to stay in the area as they grow up.

She said when she moved to the area in December, she went on a “listening tour,” interviewing 145 people in Franklin and Essex counties, including 85 young people. She said these young people do not see a good social network or job opportunities for themselves here.

“So when all the young people leave … who want a different country, who want to enact racial justice and economic justice … who do you think we have left? The old guard,” she said.

She said older people are usually more entrenched in their ways and sometimes hold less inclusive views than young people. She said the area is at risk of losing its inclusive population.

Still, she said small communities such as Saranac Lake’s can make big change possible.

“The global dialogue starts with small towns, because America is not L.A. and New York City,” Hylton-Patterson said.

Another George Floyd protest in Tupper Lake has been planned for Monday 5 to 7 p.m., at the Municipal Park. A previous one drew almost 150 people Sunday in Keene.

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