Potsdam, N.Y. — As the “March against Racism” began on Saturday morning in Potsdam, New York, organizer Jennifer Baxtron told the crowd to raise their signs and let their voices be heard.
“Show everybody that even in this little town, love conquers hate,” she said. “Love overpowers hate.”
Baxtron organized the march in response to the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which two white male gunmen killed a total of 31 people and wounded dozens more. Minutes before the El Paso shooting, the gunman posted his white-supremacist, anti-immigrant manifesto online, the contents of which, as many note, bear a striking resemblance to the worst of President Donald Trump’s frequently racist and xenophobic remarks. To honor the victims of these latest mass shootings, Baxtron wrote their names on the dress she wore to the march with “RIH”—rest in heaven—underneath.
A crowd of more than fifty turned out for the demonstration. It began at Potsdam High School, 29 Leroy St., continued up Leroy to May Street, and made its way onto busy Market Street, where the group demonstrated outside Burger King at 176 Market St., A1 Chinese Restaurant at 80 Market St., and at the corner of Elm and Market streets in downtown Potsdam. Chants included “Love, not hate, makes America great”; “No hatred, no fear, immigrants are welcome here”; and “Vote out racists.”
Baxtron said she moved from Syracuse, New York, to Potsdam about six years ago. According to the 2010 census, the village of Potsdam has a population of about 9,400. Both Potsdam and St. Lawrence County, the largest county in the state by area, are more than 90% white. Baxtron said being a person of color in this place—in the far “North Country” of New York state—has often been difficult for her and for members of her family.
“I’ve faced plenty of people rolling their windows down and hollering out the ‘n’ word,” she said.
Just last week, while posting flyers for the march, Baxtron and her 5-year-old granddaughter Sarah Evans heard nasty words that again echoed President Trump: this time recalling his recent tweets that told four minority Congresswomen to “go back” to their home countries (despite the fact that all but one of the women were born in the United States). In Potsdam, a man yelled out his car window that Baxtron and her granddaughter should “go back home.”
“That’s why I made this,” Baxtron said. She held up a sign she made for the march and read it aloud: “I am home.”
She said events like Saturday’s march are important because despite the prevalence of incidents like the one she and her granddaughter experienced, people in the North Country are often reluctant to talk about the problem of racism in the area.
“It’s sad,” Baxtron said. “So many people deny it… They really don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to admit that it’s right here. I talked to a guy yesterday, and he was like, ‘Democrats this, and Republicans that.’ It’s about people. Not titles. It’s about people and how they treat each other.”
At one point the march continued down Market Street past the former home of Garrett Phillips, the 12-year-old Potsdam boy whose 2011 murder, coupled with the subsequent trial against his mother’s ex-boyfriend Oral “Nick” Hillary, a Jamaican immigrant and soccer coach at Clarkson University in Potsdam, intensified racial divisions in the area and became a national news story. Last month a new documentary, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, directed by Liz Garbus, debuted on HBO. The documentary exposes the dogged single-mindedness of local law enforcement’s investigation into Phillips’ murder, a single-mindedness Hillary’s defense would later argue had been racially motivated. Hillary was acquitted at the conclusion of the murder trial in 2016 but filed a civil lawsuit against state police, local police, and St. Lawrence County prosecutors for their handling of the case. Though a federal judge threw out many of those claims this March, others—which include claims of racial discrimination leveled against local police—are still pending.
Baxtron said Hillary’s trial definitely brought racial tensions to a new high in the village.
“It was scary because during that time there was a few occasions when I was walking down the street and people would just roll their window down and holler out, ‘n-----' this and ‘f------' that. I could never respond the way I wanted to because I had the kids with me. So that was scary. But then it also affected my son, because there’s a lot of racism in the school, and I had to go there numerous times because of the ‘n’ word being used quite often.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s scary. Just knowing that I live in a place where people hate me because of the color of my skin. I’m a single mom and grandma. It’s scary.”
Two Potsdam residents who participated in Saturday’s march, Jamey Merkel, a SUNY Potsdam graduate student in Public Health, and Jacky Ryan, a recent graduate of the Education Curriculum and Instruction graduate program at SUNY Potsdam, said they wanted to come out to show their support for the fight against racism and white supremacy, especially after the recent mass shootings. They said universities in the Potsdam-Canton area bring in a younger, more diverse crowd that makes demonstrations like a “March Against Racism” possible in a place like the North Country.
“It’s nice to see people organizing things, especially in such a small community and red county. It’s good to know there are so many like-minded folks in this area,” Merkel said.
Merkel said despite a few comments shouted from passing vehicles—one simply proclaiming, “Trump 2020”—the community’s response during the two-hour march appeared “overwhelmingly positive.”
Ryan, who moved to Potsdam seven years ago from Massena, New York, just 20 miles to the north, said, “In Massena, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable starting a rally or something like this. I don’t know if I’d get a crowd, and if there was, I probably wouldn’t feel safe.”
When asked, “Do you feel safe here today?,” Ryan said, “For the most part, I think I do. I’m still constantly aware of what could go wrong. But I know there’s enough support from different people around the area here that overall I feel a sense of safety that I didn’t before.”
At the conclusion of the march, back at Potsdam High School, demonstrators shared their final thoughts on the event and its importance to their community.
Jane Lammers, Canton resident and board member for the North Country Children’s Museum, 10 Raymond St. in Potsdam, addressed the role of assault weapons in the recent mass shootings. She said given recent polls indicate 70% of Americans support an assault weapons ban, Congress needed to step up and do its part to make it happen.
Laura Fair-Schulz, who teaches in the Art department at SUNY Potsdam, spoke to the need of addressing racism and related injustices on not just a personal but also on a broader, systemic level.
“We need to think about what’s going on in our country and the ways that our system beats people down and discriminates against the poor, discriminates against immigrants coming in,” Fair-Schulz said. “South America is filled with difficulties that the United States helped to foment. And so we have to take responsibility to understand that some of these people coming across the border that are victims of these mass shootings are Native Americans. I mean, who can be illegal on stolen land? We have to really think systemically about what’s going on in our country and how to make this better. Because we could all be nice tomorrow, but we’d still have systemic racism and we’d still have all these problems at the prisons—prison representation being minority and poor people. So that’s maybe something that we can take home from this as well. But thank you. It’s so encouraging to see all of you—your commitment.”