Photo courtesy of the The People’s Peaceful Protest. Used with permission.
On July 19, Frank Gaglianese, an elected at-large member of the city council of Geneva, New York, said that he wished that he “could have got a gun and shot the squares on my computer screen and killed everybody” who participated in a recent virtual forum on police accountability. Gaglianese made his remarks at a Back the Blue Ride and Rally event at the Finger Lakes Welcome Center in Geneva’s Lakefront Park. In addition to expressing a desire to shoot those advocating for police accountability, he referred to them “as little squawkers who think their voice is being heard … it’s not.” His remarks were live-streamed.
Hosted by a local college, the online forum had over 80 participants including young Black organizers of the People’s Peaceful Protest, who have been demonstrating near daily since the killing of George Floyd. Also participating in the forum were a diverse cross-section of college faculty, students, and community members as well as leaders from the local NAACP.
Despite calls for his immediate resignation, the councilor remains in office.
The dialectics of organizing against the police in a small city
Following a mass uprising in nearby Rochester, NY, Geneva city officials issued panicked messages on May 31 warning residents of upcoming “looting and destructive behavior” and advising them to stay home. Multiple downtown businesses, having only recently reopened after closure because of the pandemic, were boarded up. Armed owners sat out front. Scores of people nevertheless gathered in front of the police station for the first of what would become months of peaceful protests demanding justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and calling on the community not to forget Corey Jackson, who was shot and killed by a Geneva police officer in May 2011.
Over the next months, protesters marched nightly throughout the city’s various neighborhoods, making it clear that Black people should be free to walk anywhere, anytime without having to fear for their lives. The nightly processions also energized city residents: parents brought their children out to the sidewalks to cheer and join in the chants.
Not everyone supported the PPP. On June 2, a tractor-trailer driver aggressively threatened to run over protesters in the streets. Later, the same truck drove through the protest dangerously and recklessly. Police, who were clearly visible down the block during both incidents, failed to respond to a 9-11 call reporting the near-miss. The PPP adapted by increasing the number and discipline of street marshals who use their cars and bodies to block traffic while the marchers chant and demonstrate in the street.
By the end of June, the People’s Peaceful Protest had prepared a set of resolutions that would create a framework for police accountability. The centerpiece was a community-controlled accountability board with subpoena and disciplinary powers modeled after legislation long fought for and recently implemented in Rochester (aspects of which are still in the courts).
At the same time, right-wing opponents of police accountability trolled activists’ social media, using disinformation as their key tactic, photo-shopping and misrepresenting photos and posts. Following Trump’s script, they attached a “Marxist” label to BLM, and actively worked to discredit local organizers. They consistently demeaned and disparaged the only socialist on city council, Party for Socialism and Liberation member Laura Salamendra.
White supremacists took to the streets on July 1. A “Back the Blue” cookout was organized by a soon-to-retire cop at the very place and time of a planned PPP demonstration. Not only did hundreds of “Back the Blue” supporters show up for the event, uniformed policemen, firefighters with trucks and EMS crews also attended. PPP activists stood in a silent demonstration along the street in front of the police rally, disciplined even as they were taunted by racists with “fund the police” and “blue lives matter” signs.
That evening, the Geneva City Council voted 5-4 to adopt a police accountability board. The city, the cops and their supporters reacted immediately, slowing the process and canceling the public hearing on the new local law. Undeterred, the PPP and community groups educated themselves on models for police accountability and continued to build wide-ranging support for their demands.
The white supremacist forces were also active. On July 19, a caravan of hundreds of bikers, trucks, and “blue lives matter” supporters drove to Geneva from the other end of the county. They were joined by uniformed police from multiple agencies from across the region, including the New York State Police. It was this rally that emboldened Gaglianese to call constituents favoring police accountability “little squawkers who think their voice is being heard” and to fantasize, in public, about killing them.
Other members of the community are following Gaglianese’s lead, intensifying the culture of intimidation and violence in support of white supremacy. On Aug 5, former detective Brian Choffin sat on his horn in front of Salamendra’s house while she was in a City Council zoom meeting discussing police accountability. His intimidation continued on social media, becoming increasingly racist, sexist and hateful, and supported by his “friends.” In subsequent days, far right reactionaries on social media called for violence against PPP demonstrators, shared schedules of PPP events and said that they should be put in the hospital. Some gave advice on what to bring if one lacked a pistol permit.
The state and racism go hand in hand
From the very first day of the revolt against racism in Geneva, the local forces of the state have worked to thwart change and uphold white supremacy. Let’s be clear: In Geneva, the call was not to abolish the police, nor even to defund it. The call was to end police committing violence with impunity against the people of the city. Just one year ago a Geneva cop was caught on video choking a woman in his custody at the police station. He continues to be employed by the Geneva police department.
In City Council open comment sessions, those opposed to police reform vilify protesters and reject even the suggestion that police should have to answer for their actions. A police accountability board is a reformist measure at best. But it is the demand of young people who experience racist police terror regularly. The bigoted and violent response by those who represent the state to mild police reform measures makes clear that that they see the movement as a threat: a threat to the police’s role as a personal security force to white property owners; a threat to the forms of social control that allow a small minority in Geneva to maintain power; and a threat to a system that values private property over Black lives.
Attempts to repress and co-opt the movement serve only to deepen and broaden the struggle. Bourgeois government has failed the movement again and again: local educators were subjected to death threats from a city councilor who, two weeks later, remains in his seat; “Back the Blue” rallies are sanctioned and supported financially by the city, while peaceful protesters are subjected to threats and harassment; and legislation, duly voted in by a majority of the city council, is sabotaged by the forces within city administration that opposed it, and has yet to see the light of day. Frank Gaglianese’s words are now an example, for the whole world to see, of the insidious and everyday operation of the racist and patriarchal violence at work in small towns and big cities, from the police on the streets to elected officials.
From Portland to New York, the forces of white supremacy are mobilizing to defend the decaying order of racial capitalism, and they are using the state to do so. Anyone who stands up for Black lives risks arrest, brutality, harassment, and threats. But the people are standing strong in the face of violence and repression, as every day it becomes clearer and clearer that bourgeois law will not protect the people. The only remedy is mass struggle and organization.
While Gaglianese and his friends actively foment a violent vigilante climate in Geneva in which cops (and their families and friends) play the victim while acting with impunity, everyday people agitate for justice, build new organizations and defend one another. Fighters in the struggle against racism from cities like Geneva fight in solidarity with people in villages, towns, and cities small and large. Everywhere, the people are learning. Instead of becoming more fearful in response to state repression, the people are losing their fear. They recognize that the cops are an occupying force, not an association for community protection. They recognize as well as that the local institutions of the state do not express the will or interests of the people, no matter which party is in charge. Best of all, they realize that the organized people are themselves a power.