A pandemic, a weather-induced postponement and some virulent community opposition couldn’t stop three Putnam Valley High School students from organizing and holding a solidarity rally for Black lives last Friday at the Town Park.
Spurred on by the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the nearly two-hour late afternoon program was put together by rising juniors Gabriela Lee, Ilyanna Garcia-Alicea and Priscilla Fonte. With more than 100 community members in attendance who socially distanced on the park’s field, the rally featured speakers, including students and adults who called to correct injustices in society and end both overt and under-the-surface racism.
Student Nia Givan said it’s no longer sufficient to be a bystander and remain neutral on issues of race; what is needed now is to be anti-racist.
“COVID has given us plenty of time to stop and think about the world around us,” Givan said. “Do we like what we see? Is it time for a change? We need to talk to each other, put our defenses down and listen and learn. It’s obvious the way we’ve been doing things is not enough. We have to do things differently. Doing nothing is not the answer.”
Rabbi Steve Altarescu of the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley said while Americans come from all different backgrounds, the quest for equality is shared by all.
“We’re not different in our essence,” Altarescu said. “We are all different. We are all unique individuals but we share all have the same equality and justice.”
Community member Jennie Fu and Stephanie Keegan, who is running for the state Assembly, lauded the students for stepping forward and organizing the event. Both said they would never have had the courage to do what the organizers did when they were high school students.
“These kids that organized this, I could never have done it at 16, 17, 18 years old, what they’re doing,” Keegan said. “It never would have occurred to me to try.”
Lee said there have been incidents at Putnam Valley High School when students of color have had to endure insensitive comments or racial taunts. She and her fellow organizers have appealed to the administration and the Board of Education to enhance education on history racial issues and increase staff diversity. A task force that will include faculty, administration, students and the community will convene during the upcoming school year to address those and other issues.
“I think we’re really lucky to have a really supportive school,” Lee said.
Garcia-Alicea said that some of their peers at school think it’s okay to use racial slurs as part of jokes simply because they may have a friend who is Black or part of another ethnic minority.
“It’s never okay to say those words. It’s never okay to say those terms and it’s never okay to stop educating yourself on the problems,” she said. “I think part of privilege is not educating yourself.”
Lee said they had wanted to hold the rally shortly after Floyd’s death in late May. However, they were thwarted because the park, one of the few suitable places in town to hold the event, was closed until early July because of the pandemic. When the park reopened earlier this month, the rally was scheduled for July 10, but heavy rains forced its postponement until last Friday.
There were also repeated threatening comments on local social media platforms. At one point during the rally, about two dozen vehicles, mostly pickup trucks with American flags and several with Trump 2020 flags, rode into the park honking horns during the rally. Putnam County sheriff’s deputies were on hand and there were no confrontations.
Fonte acknowledged being frightened reading some of the online comments but that only hardened the resolve of her and her friends to follow through with the event.
“I got extremely scared for my life and I was like now I know what it feels like to be a person of color in this town,” Fonte said. “I understood a little of what it felt like.”
Town Supervisor Sam Oliverio said when the students approached the town to ask for use of the town park for the rally, officials were going to support them. He said there has been an “undertone of dislike” from some members of the community.
“All the kids want to do is talk about what’s going on nationally and bring it home to Putnam Valley,” said Oliverio, a retired assistant principal at Putnam Valley Middle School. “There is racism in every single community. I’ve seen it at the school, and I see it here in town.”