After Protest In Cooperstown,

Oneonta Mayor Wants Review

Last year, she met Pope Francis; last Sunday, Paula DiPerna was among 850 people at the “Rally for Justice for George Floyd” in front of the county courthouse in Cooperstown. (Jim Kevlin/

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to

After “Justice for George Floyd” rallies in Oneonta, then Cooperstown, the focus is turning from talk to action.

Organizers MacGuire Benton and Maria Noto confront a flag-waver they feared was an agitator.

Local chapter Vice President Michelle Osterhoudt advised Mayor Gary Herzig of the NAACP’s four-point “We Are Done Dying” program, including a ban on chokeholds, opening
police disciplinary records, and citizen review boards.

Paula DiPerna, the Cooperstown climate activist, said she has asked Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch and village trustees to adopt President Obama’s eight-point program to reduce violence against blacks.

“It’s a threshold,” said DiPerna after attending the Sunday, June 7, rally on the front lawn of the Otsego County Courthouse. “We need to dedicate ourselves in our personal lives and our professional lives to actually achieving some change.”

Attendees at the Sunday, June 7 “Rally for Justice” included the Pondolfinos, formerly of Oneonta: dad Tom, mom Amy and son Thomas.

Earlier this week, Herzig and Common Council member David Rissberger had already had a first conversation with OPD Chief Douglas Brenner about ensuring Oneonta policing
policies are everything they might be.

“This is a time for all of us to do a little introspection,” Herzig said, “and make sure our operating procedures and our policies are designed to do everything they can to guard against any inequality in how we treat the public.”

That first conversation occurred after the Cooperstown rally, where the OPD and other police agencies came in for criticism from six speakers:

• Oneonta’s Bryce Wood told how “my mother” – a school teacher – “heard that knock – bang, bang – at 2 a.m. one morning in 2000, and opened the door to a gun. For 30 minutes, they” – she and her husband, a state juvenile corrections officer – “were questioned at gunpoint. They thought we were drug dealers.”

Showing their official IDs allayed officers’ suspicions, but what if they had no IDs? The parents woke their 7-year-old son, told him what happened, and emphasized the danger he was in for just being black.

• Shannon McHugh, chairman, Oneonta Community Relations & Human Rights Commission, urged attendees to be “a second pair of eyes,” to stop and observe when police officers have pulled someone over. She recounted being in a car that was pulled over, and 10 officers showed up to search the car, only to find nothing.

Her 10-year-old daughter “wants to know why people who look like her mother are killing people like her dad,” said McHugh, who wants to make sure her daughter, for her own protection, is “the wokest girl in the world.”

• Lee Fisher, president, NAACP, Oneonta chapter, declared, “When George Floyd was on the ground and he asked to breath – air is free – he asked for the freedom to breath. I believe that God said, ‘George, your last breath is going to be for America’.”

What happened to Floyd was more than a single incident – it reflects the inability to earn a living wage, to get affordable housing or a good education, Fisher said. “People have to realize what’s going on is systemic,” he said. “It’s the system.”

• The Rev. LaDana Clark, founder of ChurchNtheHood who has preached at the Coopers-town Presbyterian Church, recounted an episode that began when she said hi to officers on exiting the Oneonta Walmart. After a sequence of events, “for the first time in my life, an officer put cuffs on me in Laurens, N.Y. I’m 58 years old. I was disgusted.”

Diandra Sangetti-Daniel, a personal care aide in Oneonta, and C.S. Brown, a local activist, also spoke, detailing complaints with Oneonta police and pointing out that all Civil Rights causes should be similarly allied against oppression.

Wes Lippitt, Fly Creek, thanks his “guardian angel” for saving his life when he was shot in 2010.

And Wesley Lippitt, Fly Creek, who was chased from Cooper Park and shot by a classmate on Good Friday 2010 thanked his “guardian angel” for allowing him to survive.

The Cooperstown event drew 850 people, up from 500 in Oneonta’s Muller Plaza Sunday, May 31, and 700 at the Delaware County Courthouse, Delhi, on Saturday, June 6. Another rally is planned 1-3 p.m. this Saturday, June 13, at Community Field in Unadilla.

One of the Cooperstown organizers, Maria Noto, CCS ’17, set the tone: “Police brutality is rooted in white supremacy. This needs to change.”

While Rev. LaDana was speaking, a young man, Austin Partridge of Milford, stationed himself next to the courthouse steps and unfurled an American flag.

The organizers approached him and asked him to move away, then – when press began to take photos – they formed a cordon around him to block the Stars & Stripes from the cameras. He was eventually convinced to go away.

“Listening to Rev. LaDana,” Partridge explained later, “it really resonated with me. I had the flag in my back pack. I wasn’t sure I was going to do anything. I felt what she was saying represented American values, that we are all created by God.”

Bryan Van Deusen, Oneonta, brought his pals Kiddo and Harlee to Sunday’s rally.

Once he unfurled the flag, “a lot of people were very upset about that. I understand where they were coming from, although I disagree with them. They wanted me to leave.
I was chanting no slogans, I was merely holding the American flag.”

Before he left, he sought out Rev. LaDana: “I told her it was an amazing speech.”

After reflecting on what happened for a few days, Benton said the organizers didn’t know what they were facing when Partridge unfurled the flag, whether he was there with “good intentions” or not.

“We didn’t tell him to get out,” he said. “We asked him to step away from the section where people were speaking. I just thought it was in poor taste.”

An estimated 850 people attended the “Justice for George Floyd” rally Sunday, June 7, at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown.

Benton, who is also a village trustee, objected to “the narrative that the co-organizers or Democratic politicians or people who support Black Lives Matter are somehow anti-American. I love America, (although) it doesn’t always live up to its promise.”

On where to go from here, Mayor Tillapaugh pointed out the Village Board has already passed a resolution declaring Cooperstown a “welcoming community” for all people.

Given the size of the police force right now – two officers, and one of them black, Terrell Silvera – the chances for problems raised at the rally are less than they might be, she said.

Still, the trustees are planning to hire a new police chief over the next several months, and that would be a good time to revisit the issue, she said.

At the county board level, Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, said the reps have been occupied with the financial devastation from the COVID-19 threat, and have
not yet focused on the unrest that followed.

Attendees interviewed after the latest rally thought it a worthwhile undertaking.

DiPerna, a Democratic congressional candidate in the 1990s, called it “a very moving and significant outpouring of support by the community of the idea we have to eliminate system racism and ‘white silence is violence.’”

Amy Pondolfino, the Oneonta activist who attended with husband Tom and son Thomas, said, “I am peripherally aware there is racism in our area, but it doesn’t hurt me directly.” Even so, she was moved by the “very powerful stories.”

Cooperstown’s Mary Ann Whelan, the retired Bassett physician, expressed a similar reaction, but concluded, “It’s not always the system’s fault. First and foremost, individuals need to be held responsible.”

As for Benton, he said “protesting is super important and is part of the movement, but it isn’t accomplishing everything we need to accomplish – supporting the black economy, standing up against racism, not waiting for someone else to take action.”

As a first step, he’s joined the local chapter of the NAACP.

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