The Town of Bethlehem is 91 percent white, with a Black population of 2.7 percent according to the latest U.S. Census. After the death of George Floyd, many Bethlehem residents came together to hold a vigil. However, in the days following, residents seemed to become divided rather than united.
On a Monday evening on June 8, over 1,500 people gathered at Bethlehem’s Four Corners. Here, protesters took a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds: the amount of time George Floyd was on the ground. Then, the protest took an unexpected turn when demonstrators marched down Delaware Avenue and around Delmar. “We wish to honor Mr. Floyd’s memory, and also honor the pain and exhaustion caused by the systemic racism at work in our country,” organizers wrote on Facebook prior to the event.
At the front and back of the crowd were Bethlehem police officers who closed off the road to traffic. Town Supervisor David VanLuven said this was the largest march in Bethlehem’s history. “It is important for people to have a safe forum in which to express their views. The police department, I think, did a terrific job adapting to the unplanned march to close streets and reroute traffic.”
For Bethlehem Police Commander Adam Hornick, this was no easy task. “I had one person in my left ear calling me some very unfriendly names and vulgarities, and a person in my right ear asking for a hug. I knew neither one of them.” Hornick said that when police encounter situations like this, they try to open up dialogue with protesters.
“We’re not saying reform is not necessary, but we’re saying we want to be part of that dialogue to have that reform because every community is different,” Hornick said.
This dialogue has begun and started with a group of young residents demanding change. The following week after the march, recent Bethlehem Alumni set up tables at the four corners to showcase their list of demands from the Town Board and School Board. Attendees were given the opportunity to sign these demands and donate to charities. The goal of Xavi Cruz, one of the organizers, was to create a list of tangible demands for the town.
The group’s demands from the school board called for several Black authors to be added to curricula and teaching Black history in schools. This is something that Superintendent Jody Monroe addressed in a statement to the Spotlight. “Teachers have flexibility to add literature and text to their courses as it relates to the curriculum. We will be encouraging them to exercise this flexibility so what our students read, interpret and discuss includes the vast contributions of Black authors and other people of color,” Monroe said.
Demands placed upon the police department included automatic firing of police for racist behaviors, abolition of no-knock warrants and refusal of Bethlehem PD to participate in riot containment outside of the town.
“Obviously we do not have that much of an issue with police brutality in our little town, but Albany does,” Cruz said. Some of these incidents happened as recently as January when eight Albany police officers were suspended after an altercation on First Street.
When asked about assisting Albany PD during riots, Hornick said, “I can understand that some people were upset, but they do not know what our officers did in the city at that point.”
Hornick explained Bethlehem’s role in Albany was to prevent further damage to the city. “Some of them were involved in simple security of police stations… as well as supporting other officers in getting equipment and preventing looting and violence.” He added that during the protests in Albany, Bethlehem officers were also working to prevent violence in Bethlehem based on intelligence they had gathered earlier in the night.
But minor threats in Bethlehem have not ceased. Multiple residents in Slingerlands had Black Lives Matter signs stolen from their front yards, an act resident John Sherman was intimidated by. “They’re coming on our property and there is a bit of an intimidation factor,” Sherman said.
Kate Sipher also had a sign stolen less than 24 hours after she put it up. “I was really disappointed,” Sipher said. “I’m not surprised because there’s so much tension.”
After the signs were taken, Sherman ordered 20 more in its place and Sipher placed an order of her own to replace her sign.
The tension Sipher addressed has been increasing in more ways than one. After the event at the Four Corners with the list of demands from the town, attendees were given chalk to write messages on the sidewalk and outside of Town Hall. These messages included, “BC loves BLM,” “Justice for Breonna Taylor,” and the names of several people of color who have been killed by police.
According to Cruz, about 30 minutes later, two women went to the spot with buckets of water and brooms to clear the messages on the sidewalk. “If that threatens you so much to say that you would want to destroy it, I think that is an important attitude in Bethlehem that needs to stop,” Cruz said.
VanLuven said that he was aware that the sidewalks were cleaned; however, he said those who cleaned the sidewalks of the chalk were not town employees. Hornick said the two women “worked to clean” Town Hall after the event and that they “erased some of the markings that were on Town Hall itself that contained derogatory or offensive terms.”
“Either way, chalk is ephemeral, it’s going away tomorrow,” Cruz said following the event. “The fact that you needed to come out with soap, water, and buckets, shows that you needed to make a statement.”
Statements continue to be made, with the most recent demonstration outside of the high school. Protesters gathered to advocate for educational change while teachers and administrators were inside, none of whom came outside. There was also a read-in demonstration where students called for more Black history to be taught in the educational system, an event that district administrators attended. Superintendent Monroe said, “Part of our mission is to prepare students to be engaged community members and I’d like to think the district has contributed in some way to the strong voices they present on issues that matter.”
Monroe also spoke of several educational reforms BCSD has been trying to make since 2017. “In our classrooms, we are actively working to update the curriculum to make it more reflective of our students’ experiences and the world in which we live,” Monroe said. These updates include diversifying literature in classrooms, creating discussions about diversity, and providing a greater perspective on historical events.
Monroe said that part of the newly approved budget will also go towards these changes. She said, “As part of the annual budget, the district has and will continue to consult with experts to help with building-level action plans that could help us meet our equity goals.” The district has made efforts to improve diversity in hiring, train staff on microaggressions, and improve cultural competency district wide.
The district and Monroe have also recognized the toll this has taken on students. “Students are living through a difficult time and we are well aware of that. Children are not immune to the stresses of the pandemic or civil unrest,” Monroe said. “Our mission to educate and prepare all students to reach their potential, discover their purpose, and be engaged community members would be impossible without a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. We are also aware that we need to listen more, learn more and do more to honor that commitment.”
Janelle Bechdol is a local activist focused on diversity and inclusion. She has suggested several ways that a majority white town like Bethlehem can start to change. For parents, Bechdol suggests having a discussion about race with your children. In the workplace, she suggests examining hiring, salary, and promotional procedures for racist red flags.
Bechdol said the first step is to examine oneself and the ways one has benefited from racism. “As a human being, it will be very hard for you to go through that process rigorously and come out unchanged,” Bechdol said. She also suggests people educate themselves on the issues of systemic racism around them. Bechdol said, “If you are white, you have been able to benefit from it. And if you are black, you have not.”
“Everybody has a race problem,” Bechdol stated. In Bethlehem, today we face the question of how we deal with this problem and where we go from here.
VanLuven stated, “My big fear is that we’re going to be in the same place a year from now.” Hoping that a meaningful dialog can begin, he said, “It is easy to call for change, we all see the need for change, and we need to start drilling into the things that we can actually do.”
VanLuven said that currently, Bethlehem is in the early stages of educational reform. “These are deep and complex issues that we have to think about locally,” VanLuven said.
This idea is one that VanLuven, Hornick, and Cruz have all expressed. VanLuven has set up meetings with activists to find real solutions to systemic problems. Hornick stated that police want to be a part of dialogue surrounding reform because every community is different. The set of demands that Cruz’s team compiled are all centered around community development and dissolution of systemic racism in Bethlehem.