In the global conversation over Black Lives Matter, another distinct voice has emerged.
The voice has been muffled, either by political views or a perceived lack of tact, but it nonetheless identifies another group of people many of whom feel attacked for actions they did not make.
Bethlehem has hosted a couple of demonstrations over the fiery topic of race matters. The rallies were peaceful, though they deviated from the original plan of remaining stationary. The protest gathered in Delmar at the Four Corners on Monday, June 8, was intended to remain anchored at the intersection according to a pamphlet circulated prior to the event. Many of the 1,500 people who attended later formed an impromptu procession down Delaware Avenue. The wave of people stopped motorists as they were. All the while, the town’s police department scrambled to safely divert traffic away from people on the street.
Current events have poked the embers. Most notable of these events was that of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers who had arrested and restrained him with a controversial choke hold from which he ultimately died. It’s just one example of several incidents involving Black men and women inexplicably dying through police action. It was a difficult day for the police officers at the June 8 rally, said Bethlehem Police Commander Adam Hornick.
“It was not a comfortable environment for any of us,” said Hornick. As demonstrators marched down Delaware Avenue, several shouted towards officers. A few words were supportive. Many others were not. “We are trying to balance it and still get the job done.”
Keith Wiggand is a local resident who has kept his “ear to the ground” for years. He’s long been associated with the town’s Republican Party. He recently sat as acting chairperson of the Bethlehem Republican Committee. He said he still talks to people in town, including members of the police department. “Enough is enough,” he said. “It’s time to support our officers.”
Back the Blue rallies have emerged across the country in recent weeks. The demonstrations are intent to show support for law enforcement agencies currently under scrutiny. In addition to demands for police reform, there is a groundswell of support for defunding enforcement agencies. The defunding calls for several changes that includes demilitarizing weaponry and redistributing budgets to support community programs centered on welfare and mental awareness. The timing of such suggestions continue to target law enforcement agencies that are already feeling attacked.
Timing is a perceived issue on both ends. A Back the Blue rally scheduled for Goshen, in Orange County, was canceled last week. An opposing demonstration was scheduled for the same day. According to the Times Herald-Record, a fervor between rally participants on both sides developed on social media. The Black Lives Matter organizer told the paper that the police rally was a “great idea” but it had the “wrong timing.” The organizer said he would rather see resources focused on “results.”
Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven attended the demonstrations. On his Instagram account, he captured the image of one of his town officers taking a knee at the June 8 rally. In an interview with The Spotlight, he said he could understand the need for changes in some areas. Mental health reform, in particular, where he said the system has “failed.” However, it’s not something that falls under the town’s capacity. He cited the police department’s recent hiring practices as putting the town at an advantage.
“We made really good hiring decisions with our officers,” said VanLuven. While diversity training falls short on people who choose not to listen, VanLuven said, you face the issue during the job interview. “You don’t put someone in training to not be a racist. You just don’t hire a racist.”
Wiggand is organizing a Back the Blue rally at Delmar’s Four Corners on Saturday, July 4, at noon. He said he is not planning the event as a political rally, but after speaking with people in town, he grew concerned over police morale. “I’ll be out there, all by myself if need be,” he said.