Anti-racist advocates spar with village for cleaning up flyers, chalk
SARANAC LAKE — As the sun set Thursday night, 11 local residents posted hundreds of flyers around town and wrote chalk messages on downtown sidewalks, part of a continued fight against racism.
“This action was a direct response to the racism, hate, and vitriol targeting Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson following the news that she will move out of Saranac Lake to an undisclosed location where she feels safe,” those 11 people wrote in a letter to the village Board of Trustees Friday. “Much of this took place in the comment section of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise Facebook page, and it offers clear evidence that racism exists here.”
The reason they wrote the letter was because they were mad that village workers took down the flyers and washed off the chalk Friday morning, at the behest of the village manager.
The letter’s 11 signatories are Jenny Curtis, Sarah Marie Curtis, Danielle Delaini, Nick Delaini, Anna Gilbert Kittle, Shaun Kittle, Chris Morris, Kaetlin O’Brien, Brittany Sternberg, Erin Vennie-Volrath and Jacob Vennie-Volrath. They said they also were the ones who put up the flyers and chalk messages, although some of their young children helped.
Shaun Kittle said he believes 500 flyers were printed and posted.
“Someone told me the other day that the racist comments on Facebook were an unfortunate but vocal minority in the community,” he said. “For me personally, that means the majority needs to be louder … and this is a step in that direction.”
Hylton-Patterson plans to continue doing her job but said she is moving out of Saranac Lake because she feels personally targeted by racist graffiti found on a railroad trestle over the Saranac River two weeks ago. She had moved here seven months ago for the new, state-funded job.
The governor condemned the graffiti Wednesday, and the news has now been picked up by media outlets all over the state. It comes as the village hung banners from light poles Monday that say “Racism is a public health crisis” — a message now being looked at in a new light.
Meanwhile, village police are working with a State Police hate crimes investigator to try to find whoever spray-painted the racist slurs, expletives and the phrase “Go back to Africa.” Police urge people to call them with tips at 518-891-4422.
Some of the chalk messages said “Black Lives Matter” and listed names of Black people who died at the hands of police, people often named as martyrs of the BLM movement. They also wrote “I hear you, neighbor. I believe you. We can do better,” a message echoed in one version of the flyers.
“The messages that were in that sidewalk chalk were messages of love,” said Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, who wrote chalk messages with his wife and two young children. “We want this to be a town that everyone feels loved in, and that my children can grow up and feel supported in.”
The other flyer version was more pointed — and to some, more confusing. Below a headline, “What does racism sound like in our community?” it quoted comments people had posted on the Enterprise Facebook page in reaction to Hylton-Patterson’s departure — such as “It seems like this woman is seeking attention and division in an already divided time,” “If you don’t feel safe in Saranac Lake, something else is wrong,” “When people don’t feel safe they buy a weapon,” “If she’s ready to give up this quick, maybe she’s not the one for the job,” “Maybe she should grow a backbone” and “Isn’t her job to improve race relations?”
Below these the poster said “We can do better. #Saranaclake.”
The flyer did not put the quotes in quotation marks, did not attribute them and did not say whom the flyer was from. That led some people to misinterpret the flyer, thinking whoever made it was saying the things it was actually condemning. Enterprise Publisher Catherine Moore was one of those who read the flyers as being antagonistic to Hylton-Patterson until it was explained to her.
Asked about the confusion, Shaun Kittle said, “That’s unfortunate, but to me it’s very clear.”
Village Manager John Sweeney said he told village employees to clean up the flyers and chalk.
“I’m not opposing the content, but they’re everywhere,” he said. “I bet you there were 500 of them. They were stapled to everything. It’s the same thing I do every day, take stuff down.”
He cited the village’s code for “temporary use” signs, which requires people to get permits. That bans many unpermitted signs that are now common, such as yard sale signs on utility poles. Sweeney admits the code is not enforced perfectly but said he tries to be consistent, with no regard for a sign’s content. The reason for the quick enforcement of these particular flyers, he said, was “volume.”
He said he also ordered cleanup of sidewalk chalk in front of Grizle-T’s bar Thursday that had nothing to do with the anti-racism movement. He described it only as “somebody’s name and some rather derogatory stuff about it.”
Village board Trustee Rich Shapiro said he disagreed with this decision by Sweeney.
“I thought it was appropriate and it should not have been removed,” he said of the flyers and chalk messages.
The people who put up the flyers wrote to the village board that this cleanup “stands in stark contrast to the racist graffiti that was allowed to linger for weeks.”
This seems to contradict the account of Aziz Rashid, who told the Enterprise that he found the graffiti on June 26 and immediately reported it to police, who quickly allowed him to paint over it. He said he walks that area regularly and had not previously seen the writing.
Asked about that, Morris, one of the letter’s signatories, wrote by email, “Aziz only partially covered it, painting over select words that intoned racism. That is not the same as covering up all of it. As of this week, I was told by several people that much of the graffiti was still visible, and one individual inferred that they planned to finish covering it.”
“We understand issues of jurisdiction,” the letter said; “sidewalks and street lights are village property, whereas the train corridor belongs to the state. But in moments like this, where our actions in response to racism must be swift and unwavering, bureaucracy should take a backseat to doing the right thing.”
They called on the board to explain why the sidewalk chalk was removed and to “Declare that throughout the month of July, Saranac Lake will waive all permitting for temporary flyers, posters, and banners to spread messages of love, hope, and inclusion for our diverse neighbors.”
Mayor Clyde Rabideau responded to the group by email Friday evening, saying, “As hard as this week has been in regards to showing all of us on the Board our shortcomings as leaders of the Saranac Lake Community, we’re grateful to all of you, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, and ADI Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson, for starting a dialogue which will hopefully make us better leaders going forward and result in a stronger, better Saranac Lake.”
He said the board members did not know the flyers and chalk messages were removed until afterward, but he added that “the Village Staff Members who removed the signs thought they were doing the right thing by following established policies of the Village.
“We understand that the removal of the signs has further escalated the perception that we do not take the issue of racism in our community seriously and for that, we apologize.”
He said the events of this week have taught the village it needs to be “more mindful of inclusiveness and diversity.” He said all village employees and advisory group members will be required to attend diversity training, which he hopes ADI will help with.
He also said he is open to ways the village can make its sign permitting process more flexible.