CATSKILL — Three weeks after the village board announced it supported two Black Lives Matter banners in place of a requested Main Street mural, the village board reversed its decision Wednesday and said no type of messaging will be allowed on village streets.
The Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition first requested the mural on June 14. The group also requested a mural on Second Street in Hudson, which was painted Monday. In Our Own Voices, a social justice organization in Albany, orchestrated a mural on Lark Street on June 9 — the same day a mural was painted on 16th Street in Washington, D.C.
In the June 30 decision given by the board of trustees, the board laid out several reasons why it supported banners instead of mural including that any mural or signage would need to go through an approval process by the planning board, the banner would be more visible and receive more exposure, the banner is mobile and more inclusive, the banner will be more durable than paint on the street which will fade, the mural would interfere “with the daily vitality of [the] town” and would “have a much more detrimental impact,” and the lettering could cause confusing for drivers.
Village President Vincent Seeley read a statement Wednesday outlining the reason the village would not approve any mural or banner.
“After a lengthy discussion with our attorney, board members and other consultants, we will not be approving any message to be displayed on any village street,” Seeley said. “If we allow this for one, we would have to allow this for all. By not doing so, we bring up violations of equal protection and the First Amendment.
Seeley said the trustees had to take responsibility over village property. “We are stewards of all village property, and being stewards of that property, we feel we do not want to display any message, be that a mural on a street or a banner,” he said. “The only exception is an event that the village is sponsoring. As of now, we are not putting up any murals, or any banners with any message.”
WGXC Artistic Director Tom Roe criticized the lack of information posted on the village website about the meeting, calling it “completely undemocratic.”
Roe became muted on the virtual meeting and other trustees alerted Seeley, at which point Seeley unmuted Roe.
“You have to have votes in public,” Roe said, citing an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo dated March 7. “You can’t have votes in email like you did last month.”
Seeley disagreed that a vote took place via email.
“You said at the last meeting you voted unanimously to not have a Black Lives Matter mural in an email.”
“We made a recommendation for a banner,” Seeley said.
The board also reached an agreement over email correspondence in June to permit filming of a documentary with the working title “Trumpland.”
Seeley said the proposal did not require a public vote.
“We don’t need a public vote,” he said. “It was a request like any other that comes in.”
Roe also asked if the trustees took state-mandated special harassment training.
“Of course we did,” Seeley said.
“Last month you said you couldn’t do that with racial classes,” Roe said.
“Because they’re not mandated,” Seeley said. “I can’t force a trustee to do something.”
Roe questioned if village displays that read, “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy Holidays,” will also go by the wayside, arguing that these sayings have become political.
“That’s not true but that’s OK,” Seeley said.
Seeley questioned where Roe was going with his comments.
“Open government,” Roe said. “I want open, fair government. You can’t do this in the shadows.”
“This is the most open meeting we’ve [ever had],” Seeley said.
“The number of people does not make it open.” Roe said.
About 60 people had tuned into the teleconference.
“Making it open means providing details to the public and voting in public not in an email.”
Trustee Natasha Law said the village publishes notices of its meetings in the local paper.
“The village does not control the newspaper, it controls the village website,” Roe said.
No meeting minutes have been uploaded to the village website since March.
Later in the meeting, Seeley assured residents the village staff would do a better job at updating the website.
Niva Dorell expressed her disappointment with the board.
“I know its hard to manage all the different voices and constituents,” she said. “As a whole, I’m disappointed in Catskill right now. I don’t think it’s anything about following what other cities or towns do. I think Pete is right, Catskill has to do for itself what it thinks is right. I think that Catskill is not standing up for its people-of-color constituents. I think that is very disappointing. It shows a lack of understanding of the issues at hand, locally, nationally. It’s the lack of understanding and compassion that I find very disappointing.”
Seeley emphasized that the board’s decision does not come from a lack of understanding.
“I don’t want it to be lost that we don’t care or that we don’t know what the problems are but we have a village to protect,” he said.
Dorell also mentioned a Confederate flag on Main Street she found disturbing.
“That’s freedom of speech,” Seeley said. “It really comes down to First Amendment rights. It bothers us, I think it’s silly. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
The First Amendment issue is exactly why the village made this decision, Seeley said.
“As painful as this decision was for us, it’s going to be for the better of the community,” he said. “It really would have been the next group wanting to put something on.”
Catskill resident Joseph Izzo, who serves on the town’s planning board and a former chairman, requested to be on Wednesday’s agenda to propose an All Lives Matter banner.”
“I’m comfortable with what the board has decided,” Izzo said. “That in essence, messages that involve politics or news or other items that are hot topics should not be put up by the village. I believe strongly there is a First Amendment right to everybody, if the board went that way. I’m happy the board went that way and I’m not going to make any further requests.”
Resident Jordan Brantley criticized the board’s decision to hide behind the First Amendment, calling it an excuse.
“The statement Black Lives Matter is not political because it’s Black lives matter. Period,” Brantley said. “All Lives Matter is a protest against Black Lives Matter and when the opportunity presented itself for the board to support the Black community against an All Lives Matter banner, we got nothing. And we got nothing as far as a Black Lives Matter banner anywhere because the excuse is its political.”
Brantley cited the court decision Pleasant Grove City V. Summon, arguing that it would be legal for the board to approve the Black Lives Matter banner and still maintain discretion over other proposals.
“Your excuse is irrelevant,” he said.
Seeley was not interested in the banner debacle turning into a lawsuit.
“I personally don’t want to take those chances with Catskill’s taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Laura Anderson with the Greene County Youth Bureau was disappointed with the decision.
“I’m incredibly disappointed that making a statement that protecting Black lives that’s important is political,” she said. “It makes me afraid for the young people I work with.”
Seeley spoke of the backlash the board received for its proposal to have the mural on Water Street instead of Main Street.
“I took a ride over to Hudson,” he said. “On the last block on Warren Street, it says Black Lives Matter. It looks great. It’s one or two blocks from Bliss Towers. It is the last block. There’s no retail stores.”
Housing Coalition Program Coordinator Molly Stinchfield said the location is where the black community in Hudson wanted the mural and it is placed between the Amtrack and Warren Street.
“I’m a little bit disappointed you’re calling it out like it’s not a good location,” Stinchfield said.
The black community in Hudson feels so proud, so seen and so heard, Stinchfield said.
“Why can’t we have something that celebrates black lives in Catskill?” she said. “They’re seeing the mural not being granted. You can’t even back this one symbol they asked for, how are you going to stand up for policy changes that affect their lives?”
Anderson felt free speech was being prioritized over safety, she said.
“You’re saying you’re protecting everyone’s speech equally but not everyone’s bodies are being protected equally, and by saying no to this, you’re saying you’re not willing to stand up for that.”
Robert Tomlinson called for greater leadership.
“Banning all banner is not a solution,” he said. “You are our elected leaders. We need you to lead no matter how uncomfortable or complicated it gets. Let’s not miss the opportunity to address this at the local level.”