This story has been updated.
Black-clad counterprotesters filled the Ithaca Commons Saturday, toting signs and chanting slogans of “Black Lives Matter” in response to a Back the Blue rally scheduled later that afternoon.
By 2 p.m., a black American flag with a blue stripe — the “Blue Lives Matter” symbol — had been unfurled in front of around 50 demonstrators on the west side of the Commons; the rally had begun.
On the other side of the Commons, the number of counterprotesters in the competing demonstration swelled to fill the Bernie Milton pavilion since beginning to filter in at 11 a.m., the original intended location for the Back the Blue rally.
But by 2:45 p.m., tensions escalated as Back the Blue rally-goers marched down the Commons to confront the approximately 250 person Black Lives Matter protest.
“Where we are right now is almost a state of soft civil war,” said Rocco Lucente, the organizer of the Back the Blue rally, to the crowd holding American flags and “Blue Lives Matter” signs at the west end of the Commons.
The clash ended by 4:30 p.m, leaving only one Back the Blue member — the only member of the group who actually resides in Ithaca, according to him. “This is my home,” he said to protesters telling him to go home.
There were many police officers present at the protest — officers covered street corners, blanketed the Commons and perched themselves on overlooking rooftops. Black Lives Matter protesters directed their chants toward the group of Back the Blue supporters.
This was the strategy from the outset, according to Cornell Abolitionist Revolutionary Society organizer Nadia Vitek ’22, who hoped to de-escalate tensions with the police to prove that community-based protections actually work. Vitek said she was pepper sprayed by Ithaca Police Department officers while peacefully protesting Thursday outside the department headquarters.
CARS is a student-led organization that aims to abolish the Cornell University Police Department, divest from prisons and invest in transformative solutions to policing. Along with the Ithaca Pantheras and the Tompkins County Democratic Socialists of America, CARS was heavily involved in setting up the counterprotest.
“We’re not going to be antagonizing the cops,” Vitek said, “if we were to say [that the] cops and klan go hand and hand, they’re just going to get pissed off and start supporting the Proud Boys.”
Organizers enforced this principle: At one point, a small group of protesters started chanting “no good cops in a racist system,” before they were quickly stopped by Ithaca Pantheras leaders.
The counterprotesters counted on high levels of coordination for the event. The Pantheras distributed specific color-coded armbands to protesters: Orange for Panthera members, green for “wranglers,” who spread information and yellow for protesters armed with shields as a defense against any provocation by Back the Blue demonstrators.
Before the Back the Blue members marched to confront Black Lives Matter protesters, Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne told The Sun he was fearful of violence.
“I’m afraid if the two sides come together there’s going to be problems,” he said.
Despite his fears, there was no violence between the two sides, which Osborne later said he was happy to avoid.
“I think it’s gone as good as could be planned,” Osborne said as the rally wound down. “I see both sides talking with each other and I think that’s a good thing.”
Lucente said he was protesting to protect his rights of expression and in support of law enforcement — an institution he believes is fundamental to democracy.
“Without the police, we don’t have the ability to resolve our differences without the citizens escalating to force themselves,” Lucente said. “The police are supposed to be the neutral moderator, who allow us to settle these views and protect all of our rights from those who would encroach upon them.”
Lucente was ardent in his position that the Black Lives Matter protesters encroached on his rights, and said the event “may be attacked by a mob of Antifa counterprotesters.” He said he had been tipped off by city insiders that the counterprotesters intended to use violence at the rally.
While no violence had occurred, the prelude to the demonstrations had been marked by growing tension between right-wing and left-wing protesters. Dueling protests on Oct. 16 led to a confrontation at the Tompkins County Republican Party headquarters, which had turned violent.
On Oct. 22, Ithaca police arrested six protesters and pepper sprayed many more outside of police headquarters, in response to a demonstration against three arrests made earlier in the afternoon.
Antifa loosely refers to groups of Americans protesting the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the U.S. government and systems of racism. Antifa movements can be distinguished from other forms of far-left activism for its willingness to use political violence in self-defense.
Ithaca Police Department Chief Dennis Nayor and other public officials urged protesters to not demonstrate on Saturday, citing rising tensions and increased arrests over the past week.
“Support for any position must occur peacefully and if any participant from either side has any intent other than peacefully demonstrating, then I implore you to stay home,” Nayor wrote in a media release, calling the violence at last week’s rally and counterprotest “unacceptable.”
Students and Faculty alike were in attendance behind the Black Lives Matter banner.
Prof. Jane-Marie Law, religious studies and Asian studies, attended the rally with her daughter, Tamar Law ’17. Law was perturbed by the prospect of Proud Boys looking for trouble.
“Those of us who know the signs of nascent fascism recognize this moment, and we can’t not be here,” she said.
While the Proud Boys — a far-right group with a history of engaging in political violence — did not attend the event in any official capacity, a Back the Blue protester donned a bulletproof vest with a “Proud Boys” logo patch on the front.
Egan Hiatt, a first-year law student, attended after reading that the protest was occurring in a group chat. She said she was worried about her safety, both from threats from officers and back the blue protesters.
Lisa Bagliaro, an Ithaca resident, led Black Lives Matter chants in front of the group’s sign in front of the Back the Blue protesters. She shared that she did not feel safe and that she was shocked at the tension of the event in her community.
“It’s kind of blowing my mind,” Bagliaro said. “It’s emotional.”
As the cold set in, two lively dance circles formed at each end of the pavilion among the Black Lives Matter protesters. Pantheras organizers declared “victory”, and the protesters came together as one to dance one last time to the late Pop Smoke’s “Dior” before dispersing prior to dusk.