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Governor condemns racist graffiti in Saranac Lake

Fallout continues from ADI director saying this village isn't safe for her to live

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during his daily COVID-19 press briefing May 13 at Jefferson Community College in Watertown. (Provided photo — Sydney Schaefer, Watertown Daily Times)

SARANAC LAKE — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement Wednesday evening condemning racist graffiti discovered here two weeks ago.

Slurs, expletives and the racist phrase, “Go back to Africa” were spray-painted on a railroad trestle bridge over the Saranac River between Pine and Woodruff streets. Other graffiti was found on a nearby bridge that carries Forest Hill Avenue over the train tracks.

A village resident discovered the graffiti June 26 and reported it to police, who opened an investigation but have not yet charged anyone. With police permission, the man who found the graffiti painted over it.

“I was disgusted to learn of racist slurs spray-painted in Saranac Lake recently,” Cuomo said in a press release Wednesday. “This despicable act goes against our values and we will do whatever it takes to help ensure that people feel safe and welcome in their own communities.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again, we have absolutely zero tolerance for bigotry and hate in our state, and we will continue to call it out whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.”

The governor directed the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to help village police find the perpetrator. Village police Chief James Joyce said he met Thursday morning with State Police Troop B leaders about the matter and that his department will meet soon with Troop B’s Hate Crimes Task Force detective to share information and start a joint investigation.

Joyce encouraged people to call village police at 518-891-4422 with any leads. He said officers will follow them up, like they are following leads they already have.

“This is a high-priority investigation,” he said. “This has already impacted people in the village, and we don’t even have a good picture of how many people this is impacting. For visitors and residents of the village, this is something that has big implications.”

Diversity leader moves

The graffiti received new focus Tuesday when Nicky Hylton-Patterson, director of the state-funded Adirondack Diversity Initiative, told the Enterprise she is moving out of this village because of the graffiti.

She thinks it was aimed at her because she would run by that bridge most mornings, and she said she hasn’t felt safe living here, as a Black person, since it was found.

She said she will continue with her job but is moving to an “undisclosed location” elsewhere in the Adirondacks.

She said ADI had reported the graffiti to the governor’s office, and she also told Joyce about her concern that the was the target of the graffiti, Joyce said.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos tweeted about it Wednesday evening.

“This is terrible and unacceptable,” Seggos wrote, linking to the Enterprise story on the matter. “My condolences go out to Ms. Hylton-Patterson. @NYSDEC is a proud partner with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative — we provide $250k per year from the EPF [Environmental Protection Fund] for their work — which is more important than ever.”

Another reason Hylton-Patterson gave for moving is that the village mayor and the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce did not immediately issue statements condemning the graffiti. Both issued statements Wednesday condemning the graffiti and apologizing to Hylton-Patterson for not doing so earlier.

The chamber said that at least three of its board members and its executive director will participate with ADI in the future.

“We are sad to learn that we will be losing Nicky Hylton-Patterson as a valuable resident of Saranac Lake,” they wrote. “We have much to learn about the myriad of ways that racism affects our society, and in particular how it affects our village, its residents, visitors and businesses.”

Mayor Clyde Rabideau issued a follow-up Wednesday to an earlier statement Tuesday.

“So, what is the best way to overcome prejudice and ignorance?” he wrote. “I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe listening to those who have been marginalized by racism is a start and then learning from their experiences and then using that knowledge to act in a fashion that is without bias.”

Local reaction

The news of Hylton-Patterson’s move prompted a massive, divisive reaction locally, as well as statewide.

On Facebook, hundreds of comments flowed under the Enterprise’s post to the story: many sympathetic to Hylton-Patterson, many not.

Some were outright hostile to her.

“Good bye, so long… one less race baiter!!” Travis Isham wrote.

Many others cited such comments as examples of the racism Hylton-Patterson is scared of.

Quite a few objected to the notion that Saranac Lake is a racist place, dangerous to people of color.

“She’s just trying to stir up the pot,” wrote Bruce Sleeger. “One idiot writing something racist scares her that much? I could understand it if she received threats or if someone got in her face. SL is as a safe as town as there is anywhere.”

Others disagreed, giving personal testimony about racism they had experienced.

“(A)s a half asian growing up in Saranac Lake, I can assure you that I cannot wait to leave,” Kimberly Collins wrote. “I have received racist remarks throughout my life and especially during highschool.”

“As a person of color myself who did graduate from Paul Smith’s College and did live in Saranac Lake. Racism is a issue!!” Felipe Brandel wrote.

“Having had a black best friend in high school and in college, racism very much IS alive in this town and it’s sad,” Ashton Bushey wrote. “Just because you haven’t seen it or dealt with it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in our town. I’ve seen it happen multiple times, first hand. The amount of people that would call her the ‘n’ word in ONE day, was sickening and the reason she moved out of this town.”

Context

All this comes just as the village hung new banners from downtown light poles Monday that say, “Racism is a public health crisis.”

Saranac Lake’s residents, who are 93% white according to the latest available census data, have recently shown strong support for the Black Lives Matter movement. About 500 people came out to a rally against racism and police brutality on June 2 in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police police. That momentum has continued — along with its backlash — as subsequent disruptions poke holes in the belief of racial harmony here.

On the same day as the racist graffiti was found, Saranac Lake High School graduates heard their valedictorian Frannie Newman give a speech about anti-Asian racism she endured all through her school career. The local reaction was predominantly to embrace and support Newman.

Newman is not the first Saranac Lake student to go public about racist bullying. In 2011, local couple Amy and Hiram Oliveras — Hiram is Puerto Rican — sued the Saranac Lake Central School District in federal court over what they said was repeated racial bullying and harassment of their daughter. Among the incidents they cited, and one the district admitted took place, was one in which Saranac Lake Middle School students used her deodorant to write a racist slur on the sidewalk outside the school, which school officials did not wash off for eight days.

A judge dismissed the suit in 2014, saying the harassment didn’t rise to the level of “severe and pervasive racial hostility.” School officials said this “vindicates the school district and demonstrates that (it) acted reasonably and in good faith.” The couple’s lawyer said the suit was part of a broader process of “tackling racial animus” in the community.

“While students of minority background continue to face hostility, the family is optimistic that more positive change will come from the process of self-evaluation and healing that the community is undertaking,” lawyer Josiah Pertz of Remsen wrote in an email.

Two months later the couple dropped their appeal.

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