SOMERS, N.Y. - Town leaders have let Supervisor Rick Morrissey know they have his back after he received what he called “disturbing” emails and voicemails last week.
On Tuesday, June 2, Morrissey notified the community via a Facebook post that a Solidarity Rally for Black Lives was being put together by several young residents with the help of the organization, Race Amity of Northern Westchester & Putnam, and it would be held at Reis Park.
He explained that because the event was in “direct conflict” with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order banning large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the town had refused to issue organizers a permit. (Fifty attendees were expected; 300 showed up.)
However, the supervisor said, the Constitution “provides citizens the right to hold peaceful rallies” and state and local governments “cannot interfere with their rights to free speech.”
Morrissey’s post also acknowledged the community’s frustration over pandemic restrictions, “especially given the fact that an in-person graduation ceremony for Somers High School seniors cannot be held.”
He noted that the organizers had recognized the need for social distancing measures and face coverings and had “proactively contacted” the state police, who then coordinated with town police to “provide a safe environment for all.”
Reis Park was selected because, Morrissey wrote, it was “the best site for social distancing and public safety.”
The post drew about 1,000 comments, many wondering why churches couldn’t hold “rallies” on Sunday mornings or why open-air graduation ceremonies couldn’t be held in the park. Others expressed fears about potential property damage and the spread of COVID-19.
There were many positive comments, too. Some praised the town for “stepping up and doing the right thing” in light of ongoing racial injustices and inequality. And after the event was over, subsequent posts talked of how educational, inspiring and peaceful it was.
State Sen. Pete Harckham, D-South Salem, was one of the speakers. Among the local officials known to have been at the Thursday, June 4, solidarity rally were town Councilmen Tom Garrity, Rich Clinchy, Anthony Cirieco and William Faulkner.
Morrissey couldn’t attend because he was at his grandson’s 6th birthday party.
They recapped their experiences hours later at the Town Board’s virtual work session, expressing both understanding for the concerns some residents may have had and praise for the way the event went off without a hitch. (Or even litter to pick up afterward.)
However, Garrity said Thursday that he felt compelled to comment on the blowback from certain quarters.
Looking straight into the camera, he told Morrissey, “The first thing I’m going to say, Rick, is that you and I don’t always agree on everything. But what you did was 100 percent for the public’s safety and you’re 100 percent right.”
If the rally had been held at the original proposed location, Bailey Park, and participants overwhelmed the smaller site and blocked traffic—as has happened at protests elsewhere—“it would have been a nightmare.”
Holding it at Reis Park, where traffic could more easily be controlled and crowd behavior better monitored, was “much safer,” he said.
“And in so doing, you have had the brunt of some of the most awful comments,” he told Morrissey. “I’ve served on various boards, on the Town Board for 20 years now, and I’ve seen comments on everything,” he added, getting emotional.
A lifelong Somers resident, Garrity swore that he had never seen such “out of line” reactions. He said he was particularly shocked by comments that contained phrases such as “locked and loaded” and “I’m strapped.”
Reacting to the last communique, Clinchy interjected Thursday: “Yea, that one got me.”
“When Rich (Clinchy) and I got on the board 12 years ago, one of the reasons was to have more civil discourse,” Garrity said.
“That’s actually why I ran for supervisor,” Morrissey agreed.
Board members don’t always see eye to eye on issues, but they “respect each other,” said Garrity, adding that he was, however, heartened by the fact that many were acknowledging that by letting the rally take place at Reis Park, the town truly had the public’s and town employees’ safety in mind.
Garrity said he understood how some people might be anxious after seeing national news coverage of such events, but peaceful protests and destructive demonstrations are two completely different things. He calling the rally “impressive” and the speakers “fantastic,” and praised the supervisor for the way he was handling the fallout.
“I know it wasn’t an easy few days for you.”
“No, no it wasn’t,” Morrissey admitted, shaking his head.
“But I know you had the public safety at heart,” added Garrity. “You know me; I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.”
“Right,” responded Morrissey. “I have two words: First Amendment rights and public safety.” That’s what he said drove his “decision making through this whole process.”
Morrissey had had several conversations with the rally’s young organizers and had met with them at Reis Park earlier Thursday afternoon.
“These girls did a great job organizing this. It’s something that the town could not condone; it’s outside our purview,” he said.
Pandemic health directives urge social distancing and forbid more than 10 people at a gathering. The organizers painted circles on the lawn in front of the park’s stage so participants could sit 6 feet apart.
“With that understanding, I was not going to allow this protest to go out into our streets. Bailey Park was inappropriate. Look, I made these decisions based on direction from legal counsel and with the police,” the supervisor said.
Organizers were Somers High School students “past and present” and speakers included teachers and clergy, Cirieco said.
Cirieco also praised Morrissey for not having a knee-jerk reaction to social media posts warning about the event possibly being marred by outside agitators.
“Right, it was fearmongering,” the supervisor responded.
“This is a funny time. People are just frightened,” Cirieco said, acknowledging the anxiety-producing impacts of televised scenes of violence and destruction.
Garrity said “everybody knows the stuff we’ve seen on TV is terrible.” However, that’s “just of small fraction of what’s happening now.”
Garrity said his sister told him her Virginia community held a solidarity rally and police came and made “burgers and hot dogs for everybody.”
“The vast majority are peaceful,” he said. “They’re good people. They’re just trying to get the word out there and educate some people.”
He emphasized that “99.9 percent” of Somers residents understand that.
A high school teacher, Clinchy said he was impressed by the sincerity and maturity of the college-age organizers and the honesty of the speakers they brought in. “It was really heartfelt,” he said.
Listening to personal stories of being targeted for the color of their skin can “make you think of things in a little different way,” said the councilman, who was particularly moved by one who declared, “I just want to be able to go out of my house and feel as safe as any of you feel going out of your houses.”
As a parent, “you can feel that that could happen to somebody’s kid, who didn’t do anything,” he added.
Speaking of some of the concerns posted on Facebook, Clinchy said: “Litter, violence: None of that happened. And in the end, they cleaned up the park!”
Resident Jonathan Harwood called in Thursday to say, “It was a great rally. I think it showed Somers at its best.”
He also said he was glad town leaders could see through any “hurtful comments” and allow the rally “to go forward and seeing what the town could do and what a positive thing this could be.”
“Thank you for your comment, John; it’s appreciated,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey said that some of the critical emails and voicemails he got last week were “very surprising, very disturbing.” And while he usually “makes it a habit” to answer every email, in this case, he “will not be doing that.”
Morrissey said he’s saved some of them, but didn’t go into detail.
“But once again, I have two words for all the people that were opposed to someone having a peaceful demonstration, and those are: First Amendment. I will stand by the First Amendment as you all (board members) will. We swore an oath.”
“I am so pleased that we had a peaceful rally today. It was due in a large part to the organizers and the fact that we had our local, state and county police providing public safety,” he said.