After a drawn out election week ended in President Donald Trump’s defeat, a “Protect Democracy” rally on the Commons became a celebration of the Democratic Party’s victory Saturday afternoon.
Organized by the Tompkins County chapter of Just Democracy Coalition, the “rally to protect the results and build a better democracy” began around 1 p.m. with music and dancing as the crowd of around 200 filed in to the Bernie Milton Pavilion. Until around 3:30 p.m., local activists and organizers celebrated President-elect Joe Biden and Vice president-elect Kamala Harris, while urging listeners to continue fighting for progressive ideals.
In addition to celebrating, the rally aimed to bring attention to the efforts of the Trump administration to challenge the results of the election.
“We gather to prevent a coup. And if there is a coup we’re going to be here to reverse it,” said Todd Saddler, one of the organizers of the event. “It’s easier to prevent a coup than to reverse a coup. The coup-o-meter has been moved back one degree or two. Trump is not quitting neither am I. Neither are we.”
Many speeches — including from Tompkins County Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne and Southside Community Center board of directors chair Prof. Nia Nunn, education, Ithaca College — focused on ongoing systemic racism on both a national and a local level.
“We have to stand in the streets and defend our democracy from bigotry. And we did it with this vote,” McBean-Clairborne said in the final speech of the afternoon. “We showed up to say that we want to bring some decency and repeat to the White House. We showed up to say that bigotry, misogyny, inequity, the killing of black people in general, have no place or stronghold in our democracy.“
For many rally-goers, racism was an important factor of the 2020 election. “We need to figure out some way to work better with white America,” said Camille Tischler, a local resident. “They’ve got their heads on backwards.”
Paul Sirma said since Trump’s 2016 election, he has felt more unsafe speaking in public as an immigrant with an accent. Although he expressed skepticism over Biden’s history on race, he said he sees the Democratic victory as a good step toward working on the country’s legacy of systemic racism.
But the excitement wasn’t always specifically for the Biden-Harris ticket platform — it was often more for Trump’s defeat and what he stood for.
“I’m not a fan of Biden,” said Richard Rivera, a local researcher and activist. Rivera pointed to Biden’s support of the 1994 Crime Bill, which many critics have said led to the mass incarceration of Black people in the United States. “It doesn’t matter who the hell wins. It matters that the world we want hasn’t been realized,” he said.
Phoebe Brown, central New York coordinator for the human rights group Families for Justice Alliance, echoed the sentiment: “Nobody wanted Biden. Nobody wanted Kamala.” But she still encouraged celebration of a Biden presidency as an opportunity “to get outside the systemic box.”
Emily Turner, a rally-goer, said Biden did not run on the progressive platform that she hoped for, but she was confident that Biden will have a better approach to the COVID-19 pandemic than Trump.
Throughout the afternoon, event organizers encouraged non-violence, passing around fliers that outlined non-violent principles including, “We will express our feelings but will not harbor hatred,” and, “We will be honest, treat everyone with respect, including law officers.”
Before sharing two poems about her personal experiences with racism, local poet Peaches Gillette further emphasized the importance of non-violence to this advocacy: “There are times for fights and there are times for battles, but that is not the first step you take for change.”
Speeches were separated by dancing and music, including protest songs sung by event organizers and the crowd.
The festivities swept the downtown area. Only minutes after major news outlets announced that Biden defeated Trump, cars driving down Tioga Street and Aurora Street honked as pedestrians waved and cheered. People leaned out of apartment buildings to cheer and bang pans and customers at the downtown Collegetown Bagels applauded.
One person, retrieving his order at the counter, looked at his phone and yelled “It’s all over!”
After the final speech and repeated calls to continue the protests and activism of the past several months, the celebratory spirit continued, as rally-goers danced in the Commons to Bob Marley and mingled.