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Governor condemns racist graffiti in Saranac Lake

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his daily coronavirus update Friday at Iona College in New Rochelle. (Photo provided by the governor’s office)

SARANAC LAKE — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement Wednesday evening, July 8, condemning racist graffiti discovered here on June 26.

Slurs, expletives and the racist phrase, “Go back to Africa” were spray-painted on a railroad trestle bridge over the Saranac River between Pine and Woodruff streets. A village resident discovered the graffiti June 26 and reported it to police, who opened an investigation but have not yet charged anyone. With police permission, the man who found the graffiti painted over it.

“I was disgusted to learn of racist slurs spray-painted in Saranac Lake recently,” Cuomo said in a press release Wednesday. “This despicable act goes against our values and we will do whatever it takes to help ensure that people feel safe and welcome in their own communities.

“I am directing the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to provide the Village of Saranac Lake Police Department with assistance in its investigation and to hold the perpetrators responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again, we have absolutely zero tolerance for bigotry and hate in our state, and we will continue to call it out whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.”

Saranac Lake police Sgt. Leigh Wenske said at the time that officers canvassed local businesses that sell spray paint. If discovered, he said, the perpetrator or perpetrators may be charged with making graffiti, a misdemeanor. Wenske said that if it is determined the graffiti was targeted toward an individual, the perpetrator(s) could also be charged with a hate crime. “Hate crime” in New York refers to a slew of different charges with different penalties.

Diversity leader moving

The graffiti received new focus Tuesday when Nicky Hylton-Patterson, director of the state-funded Adirondack Diversity Initiative, told the Enterprise she is packing her belongings and moving out of this village, although she will continue with her job. The first reason she gave for moving is that she hasn’t felt safe living here, as a Black person, since the graffiti was found. She said she would run by that bridge five mornings a week.

“I know that that was meant for me,” she said.

She said ADI had reported the graffiti to the governor’s office. She said she is moving to an “undisclosed location” elsewhere in the Adirondacks.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos tweeted Wednesday evening about Hylton-Patterson moving out of Saranac Lake.

“This is terrible and unacceptable,” Seggos wrote, linking to the Enterprise story on the matter. “My condolences go out to Ms. Hylton-Patterson. @NYSDEC is a proud partner with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative — we provide $250k per year from the EPF [Environmental Protection Fund] for their work — which is more important than ever.”

The second reason Hylton-Patterson gave for moving is that the village mayor and the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce did not immediately issue statements condemning the graffiti. Both issued statements Wednesday condemning the graffiti and apologizing to Hylton-Patterson for not doing so earlier.

The chamber of commerce board and executive director, in a letter to the Enterprise not yet published, wrote that at least three members of its board and its executive director will participate with ADI in the future.

“We are sad to learn that we will be losing Nicky Hylton-Patterson as a valuable resident of Saranac Lake,” they wrote. “We have much to learn about the myriad of ways that racism affects our society, and in particular how it affects our village, its residents, visitors and businesses.”

Mayor Clyde Rabideau issued a follow-up statement Wednesday.

“So, what is the best way to overcome prejudice and ignorance?” he wrote. “I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe listening to those who have been marginalized by racism is a start and then learning from their experiences and then using that knowledge to act in a fashion that is without bias.”

Local reaction

The news of Hylton-Patterson’s move prompted a massive, divisive reaction locally, as well as statewide.

On Facebook, hundreds of comments flowed under the Enterprise’s post to the story: many sympathetic to Hylton-Patterson, many not.

Some were outright hostile to her.

“Good bye, so long… one less race baiter!!” Travis Isham wrote.

Many others cited such comments as examples of the racism Hylton-Patterson is scared of.

Quite a few objected to the notion that Saranac Lake is a racist place, dangerous to people of color.

“She’s just trying to stir up the pot,” wrote Bruce Sleeger. “One idiot writing something racist scares her that much? I could understand it if she received threats or if someone got in her face. SL is as a safe as town as there is anywhere.”

Others disagreed, giving personal testimony about racism they had experienced.

“(A)s a half asian growing up in Saranac Lake, I can assure you that I cannot wait to leave,” Kimberly Collins wrote. “I have received racist remarks throughout my life and especially during highschool.”

“As a person of color myself who did graduate from Paul Smith’s College and did live in Saranac Lake. Racism is a issue!!” Felipe Brandel wrote.

“Having had a black best friend in high school and in college, racism very much IS alive in this town and it’s sad,” Ashton Bushey wrote. “Just because you haven’t seen it or dealt with it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in our town. I’ve seen it happen multiple times, first hand. The amount of people that would call her the ‘n’ word in ONE day, was sickening and the reason she moved out of this town.”

Context

All this comes just as the village hung new banners from downtown light poles Monday that say, “Racism is a public health crisis.”

Saranac Lake’s residents, who are roughly 95% white, have recently shown a massive amount of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. About 500 people came out to a rally against racism and police brutality on June 2 in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police police. That momentum has continued — along with its backlash — as subsequent disruptions poke holes in the belief of racial harmony here.

On the same day as the racist graffiti was found, Saranac Lake High School graduated heard their valedictorian Frannie Newman give a speech about the anti-Asian racism she endured all through her school career. With a few exceptions, the local reaction to that was to embrace and support Newman.

Newman is not the first Saranac Lake student to go public about racist bullying. In fall 2011, local couple Amy and Hiram Oliveras — Hiram is Puerto Rican — sued the Saranac Lake Central School District in federal court over what they said was repeated racial bullying and harassment of their daughter. This included one incident — which the district admitted took place — in which Saranac Lake Middle School students used her deodorant to write a racist slur on the sidewalk outside the school, which school officials did not wash off for eight days.

A judge dismissed the suit in 2014, saying the harassment didn’t rise to the level of “severe and pervasive racial hostility.” School officials said this “vindicates the school district and demonstrates that (it) acted reasonably and in good faith.” The couple’s lawyer said the suit was part of a broader process of “tackling racial animus” in the community.

“While students of minority background continue to face hostility, the family is optimistic that more positive change will come from the process of self-evaluation and healing that the community is undertaking,” lawyer Josiah Pertz of Remsen wrote in an email.

Two months later the couple dropped their appeal.