TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) – Over two hundred counter protesters came out to voice opposition to about two dozen Back the Blue supporters in Ithaca on Saturday. Another Back the Blue rally was held in Ithaca last month.
Over the previous week, the city was the site of escalating tensions between pro- and anti-Trump groups. Some involved physical clashes and arrests.
First, there was a pro-Trump rally at the Tompkins County Republican Party offices that turned into altercations. A few days later, in response, Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) brought a group of county GOP and state officials to Ithaca for a press conference. That lead to several anti-Trump protesters being arrested.
It all set the stage for a potential clash on Saturday.
Opposing groups faced each other on the Ithaca Commons, shouting chants. Counter protesters stood behind a long banner that read “No Hate. No KKK. No Fascist USA.”
On the Back the Blue side people held up American, Back the Blue, and Trump 2020 flags. Leading some of the chants was someone who identified himself as part of the Proud Boys. The group has been classified as “extremist” by the FBI.
Occasionally, individuals came face-to-face. Law enforcement sometimes moved in to separate people.
On Friday, local officials released a statement discouraging attendance at the rallies. They were worried about a potentially violent situation.
That same day, Reed’s congressional office released a report that his home in Corning had been threatened. “The cowards used a dead animal and a brick with a family member’s name on it to try to intimidate us,” the statement read. Corning police said they are working with state officials to investigate.
A few hours before Saturday’s demonstrations, Kate Salmon stood a few steps from a row of police officers on the Ithaca Commons.
Salmon said groups like Back the Blue spread a message of intolerance with their support for all law enforcement. She’s with Showing Up For Racial Justice or SURJ.
“Tompkins County Showing Up For Racial Justice is going to show up to try to say that in this town, Ithaca, we are not going to stand for that taking root and spread that kind of hate,” Salmon said. “So that’s what we’re doing here today.”
SURJ was one of the counter protest organizations. Law enforcement asked the groups to demonstrate in separate locations. They did not.
Rocco Lucente is the organizer of the Back the Blue rally’s in Ithaca.
“We find it disappointing that both the county and the city find it necessary to bend to a mob of violent people who want to silence free speech,” Lucente said.
Lucente lives in neighboring Tioga County. He’s been accused by some Ithaca racial justice activists of coming into Tompkins County to try to provoke conflict. He accused local law enforcement of being controlled by Democratic leaders in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
“Well, we find it very unfortunate that city and county leadership have expressed their lack of support for the First Amendment for people to peaceably gather,” Lucente said. “Our gathering was always set here to be a peaceful assembly in support of our law enforcement.”
Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne said asking the groups to move was not an attempt to limit First Amendment rights.
“That’s not the case at all. We do support everybody’s right to assemble and we want to encourage that,” Osborne said. “But there comes a point when we have to take into account the interests of all the public and if we could convince people to do their rallies in different locations I think that’s best for everybody.”
As for whether law enforcement officers feel supported by Back the Blue. Osborne wasn’t convinced.
“I’m not so sure they’re here to support us or not,” he said.
Osborne acknowledged that people were not adhering to safe spacing on Saturday. He said officers were far outnumbered and any attempts to enforce COVID-19 restrictions would escalate rather than de-escalate an already tense situation.
Officers only intervened when people got too close to each other.
About two hours after Lucente arrived he left. It was another hour before most of Back the Blue supporters folded up their banners and flags.
Through it all people strolled the Ithaca Commons shopping, sometimes walking through the shouting protesters and stopping to watch.