GREENVILLE — More than 150 people descended on the George V. Vanderbilt Town Park Saturday afternoon to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, holding handmade signs with slogans such as “Say No to Racism,” “Unite for Equality” and “Help Open Peoples’ Eyes.”
Protesters walked the mile-long loop from Vanderbilt Park to Veterans Park and back, bringing attention to what several people called “a culture of close-mindedness” in Greenville that fosters hostility towards people of color.
But not everyone who came out Saturday appreciated the marchers’ message.
The Black Lives Matter supporters were met at Veterans Park by fierce opposition, including a group of about 25 counterprotesters and a separate group of about 20 veterans who said they were there to protect the park from vandalism.
One counterprotester drove his motorcycle in front of organizer Azraelle Story as she passed the Greenville Library, an incident that Story caught on camera. The driver was ticketed by police, Story said.
A different motorcyclist drove in front of a group of marchers, clipping one of them. Visibly upset, the marcher who was struck filed a report with a member of state police who was on the scene.
Some of the counterprotesters shouted obscenities at the crowd and several crossed the street to confront the Black Lives Matter protesters.
Story said she was taken aback by the vulgarity of the counterprotesters, but encouraged the Black Lives Matter marchers to remain respectful. She marshaled the crowd away from Veterans Park as tensions escalated, she said.
Many participants, including Story, expressed their surprise at the high turnout. The march was intended to bring the town’s Black Lives Matter supporters out of the shadows, she said.
“I never realized how many people are like-minded,” she said. “I have never felt more connected to my community than I did today.”
Many marchers expressed similar sentiments.
“We need to show support for anti-racism in our rural community,” said Jaime Winans-Solis, who marched with her husband Jake Solis and their three children, who she said are among the “handful” of Latino students attending Greenville schools.
“People often say, ‘Racism doesn’t exist here,’ but just because people don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not here,” Winans-Solis said.
The couple felt it was important to make their children aware of the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements.
“This is my first protest, but it won’t be their last,” Solis added, pushing a stroller as his toddler walked alongside him.
The group of counterprotesters, most without masks, stood on the opposite side of the road holding flags and signs with messages in support of the police.
Lynda Costello, of Freehold, said she rejects discourse that pits protesters against police.
Opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement often perpetuate a “false choice” between Black Lives Matter and the police, Costello said.
“It is specifically intended to divide,” she said.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s march, opponents of the march posted threats on social media and circulated rumors that protesters would be brought in on buses from out of town.
The “bused in” protesters never materialized Saturday.
The attendees came from the local community, said Chris Karle, a 10th-grade teacher at Greenville High School who brought along his kids, aged 11 and 14.
Karle said he was “impressed and overjoyed” by residents’ support for the march.
“Everyone I saw was a local,” Karle said, adding that many of his students and former students attended, some with their parents in tow.
Several of the people who attended in opposition to the march said they did so out of fear that the protesters would become destructive.
A group of veterans, organized by Don Savino, of South Westerlo, stood guard in front of the gazebo at Veterans Park during the march.
The veterans were there to protect the park and show support for “the men in blue,” said Savino.
“We are protecting hallowed ground,” he said.
Ray Kosorek, of Westerlo, said he was afraid the Black Lives Matter protesters would deface the park’s veteran’s monument with spray paint.
Such fears were unfounded, protesters said.
Story emphasized the peaceful nature of the protest.
“We wanted to bring no harm to the town,” she said. “We wanted to leave the town better than we found it.”
Story organized Saturday’s protest after unexpectedly witnessing the Hudson-Catskill Juneteenth Freedom March that took place on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge on June 20.
Story and her family watched from their car as a torrent of people marched past holding signs and chanting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The experience galvanized Story to organize her own protest in solidarity with the Juneteenth marchers. But the organization process was not always easy.
Story said she faced hostility and intimidation on social media while publicizing the protest, which prompted her to alert state police and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office to the threatening nature of the online discourse.
Story advertised the event on a Facebook page for Greenville parents, but her post was removed by the page’s administrators.
Undaunted, Story moved forward with the planned march.
“I am so proud of my community,” she said Saturday evening. “I want it to keep going. I don’t want it to stop here.”