National movement grips rural Rensselaerville as more than 100 march for racial equity

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Hébert Joseph, who chairs Rensselaerville’s Democratic party, right, marches with a sign that reads “Hate has no home here."

RENSSELAERVILLE — Nearly three weeks after George Floyd, a black man, died as a white police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds despite his pleas that he couldn’t breathe, Rensselaerville became one of hundreds of municipalities across the country that have seen protests or other anti-racist demonstrations. 

And although Rensselaerville — with a population of less than 2,000 — doesn’t have its own police force, is 97-percent white, and is arguably far removed from the tensions laid bare by the death of Floyd and other black people at the hands of police in recent weeks, nearly 120 people came out to march and show their support said co-organizer John Arrighi, who told The Enterprise that he was “totally blown away by the turnout.”

“It is always difficult to predict attendance at anything in Rensselaerville,” Arrighi said, “but my hope was that we might attract 50 people.”

The turnout in this “small, rural, heavily white community,” as Arrighi put it, is emblematic of the white support the Black Lives Matter movement has seen across the country which, according to author Ta-Nehisi Coates, distinguishes it from the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, which was mostly a function of black participants and white observers. 

It’s different, even, than the protests against police and racism in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown in 2014, said Stanford sociologist Douglas McAdam to The New York Times. 

This week, The New York Times reported on research that suggests more than half of anti-racist protestors in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles over a single weekend were white.

Hébert Joseph, a black Rensselaerville resident who attended the protests, and who chairs the town’s Democratic party, told The Enterprise that he was heartened to see so many people support a movement that doesn’t directly  affect them.

“I did not think that race was an important issue in Rensselaerville,” said Joseph. “Even though the area is predominantly white, I have never personally experienced racism in this area … The people have always been very welcoming and supportive of me. So it was really encouraging to see so many people come out on a Sunday afternoon to support the Black Lives Matter movement.”

He also pointed out that he’s seen Black Lives Matter signs posted around the Hilltowns, all of which, like Rensselaerville, are predominantly white.

When asked how and why the event came together, Arrighi cited his experience with a march in Troy, and parallel thinking with other members of the Friends of Conkling Hall board.

“I attended the march on June 7 in Troy,” Arrighi said, “and was very moved by its power and peacefulness. I immediately started thinking about how my little town could participate in this effort to continue to advance the ideals voiced in the Declaration of Independence.”

The next day, he said, he got a text from the Friends of Conkling Hall board’s vice-chair, Diane Baillargeon, who wanted to know if the group could organize their own event, and the two asked board member Tim Lippert for help.

“After that,” Arrighi said, “everyone just moved super quickly and pulled this together. Obviously, a lot of the community was primed for this. We didn’t do much. It was the community that really wanted to show their support. We also, of course, knew that June 14 is Flag Day and we wanted to demonstrate that this country, as imperfect as it may be, has always striven to provide ‘liberty and justice for all.’”

Michelle Hinchey, a Democratic candidate for the State Senate in the 46th District, also attended the march and told The Enterprise that it mirrored those she’s attended in nearby Kingston, and Saugerties.

“With over 100 people in a predominantly white community,” Hinchey said, “the march was peaceful and meant to inspire action and conversation. It’s marches like these that truly change the world.”

In a speech to the marchers on June 14, Hinchey said that it was small towns that make the biggest difference.

“It’s small towns like this that define what we stand for,” Hinchey said, “and when you choose to come out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to stand up against injustice and demand better, even when your community is predominantly unaffected, that’s what makes the difference. That’s what drives change.

“People’s voices, banding together, to stand up for what’s right is what moves government forward,” she continued. “It’s trickle-up power and grassroots movements that determine the trajectory of our state.”

But whatever impact the protests have beyond the borders of each small town, the local impacts are all but guaranteed. 

“The mission of this event,” Arrighi said, “was to demonstrate that a small, rural, heavily white community sees and hears the pain of people of color subjected to systemic racism on a daily basis and commits to working to reduce and, ultimately, end it. 

“We recognize we have a very long way to go,” he continued. “I am hopeful that we accomplished that but it is up to others to determine if we did. In addition, I am hopeful that people of color might learn of this event and see that we are a welcoming community.”

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