Black Lives Matter in the North Country

January 21, 2016

Laura Fair-Schulz and Axel Fair-Schulz, professors at the SUNY Potsdam, describe the development of the struggle on campus and in the community.

THE SMALL town of Potsdam in upstate New York, nestled between the St. Lawrence River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains, isn't commonly associated with social unrest and political awakening. But the town's insularity has been challenged in the last two years as a result of activism on campuses shared by Potsdam and nearby Canton.

In 2014, students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam, working with faculty member John Youngblood, a well-known African American and LGBTQ professor, organized the county's first Gay Pride Parade.

At the same time, the Black Student Alliance (BSA) was organizing on campus--so when the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that summer ignited protests around the country, students quickly got involved in Black Lives Matter activism.

Like everywhere, there was a growing awareness of how high levels of socioeconomic inequality and police violence have especially affected communities of color. In addition, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton both experienced an increase in African American, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ visibility--SUNY Potsdam's latest first-year class is the most ethnically and culturally diverse to date.

Students march for Black lives in Potsdam, New York
Students march for Black lives in Potsdam, New York (POWER)

In December 2014, African American students and their supporters staged several protests on campus and in town as part of the national wave of protest when the cops who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner weren't charged with murder. Activism then reignited in the spring because of two death threats directed against Professor Youngblood and his family.

Because of the history of racist incidents suffered by students in Potsdam itself, the widespread assumption on campus was that the threats, which included a drawing of a noose, must have come from the local community, which is generally considered politically conservative. Correct or not, this perception prompted students to call on the college administration to speak out in the broader community to condemn the threats.

In the fall of 2015, a group of primarily African American students on campus formed POWER (Potsdam's Oppressed Working Every Resource) and held several rallies and actions, including a disruption of a basketball game, where spectators and players from both teams spontaneously took part in solidarity.

THE LARGEST protest happened last December 4 after a third note was found, threatening not only Youngblood and his family again, but all of SUNY Potsdam's LGBT and African American communities. Charges had been filed against SUNY Potsdam student Amjad "Mark" Hussain before that third note surfaced, casting doubt on who was responsible.

In response, about 200 students and community members marched through downtown from the campus, briefly blocking Potsdam's busiest intersection.

Predictably, this student-led action exposed some bigotry and prejudice. Several letters to the editors in local newspapers complained that the protest was unnecessarily disruptive and noisy. Yet any objective observer couldn't help but note the discipline and focus of protesters, who were careful not to obstruct traffic until the blockade.

During the protest, one journalist was overheard asking customers at a business next to the blocked-off intersection, "Don't you think that the protesters are too aggressive and disruptive?" According to someone who was there, the locals responded with expressions of support for the protesters.

The dismissive response toward Black Lives Matter protesters--and the accusation that student activists are just "spoiled"--has been experienced in other parts of the country, but here, it says something about how xenophobia is stoked by vulnerability. This region has been economically depressed for generations, which is why right-wing myths--like the supposed free ride that college students from outside the area must be receiving, though this is directly contradicted by the experiences of poor and indebted students--can gain a hearing.

Thus, local residents are pitted against the "city" people who flow into the community to attend the four colleges. The fact that the person accused in the racist threats at SUNY Potsdam has a "foreign-sounding" last name has also been seized on to further discredit "outsiders."

But despite this, there have been a remarkable number of locals who have come out in support of the students.

THE MOMENTUM of events led POWER to issue a list of demands on the SUNY Potsdam administration.

Foremost on the list was the removal of university officials who members believe have been central in maintaining and even worsening institutional racism, including Dean of Student Affairs William "Chip" Morris and Director of Student Conduct and Community Standards Annette Robbins. Students and alumni complain that these officials have presided over disciplinary processes at the school that have few checks and balances, with little advocacy for students and one person acting as "judge, jury and executioner" in official proceedings.

POWER is also calling for their successors to be hired with broader student, faculty and staff input, along with a 10 percent increase in the number of Black staff members across campus by the 2017-18 academic year.

The group has also demanded that SUNY Potsdam present, by May 2016, a five-year plan to increase retention rates for marginalized students, diversify the curriculum and make the campus more inclusive and safe for everyone. Linked with this, POWER specifies that funding must be directed toward hiring more mental-health professionals and expanding mental-health services, as well as outreach and related programs, especially for marginalized students and students of color.

Among other calls, the activists declared: "[W]e demand security for the jobs of the faculty, staff, or administrators that support our list of demands. Such threats will result in an escalation of our response."

These demands are notable for how they make connections to other campus issues--and show a desire to better the campus environment for all--directly contradicting the activists' critics who dismiss them as troublemakers.

POWER's activities have had some positive repercussions. The newly appointed SUNY Potsdam President Kristen Esterberg, herself a member of the LGBT community, has engaged in discussions with the group about diversity on campus. The visibility of LGBT and students of color has been increased, and diverse groups on and off campus have been emboldened by the overall activism.

Meanwhile, activism in the community, including around the environment, has increased the potential of solidarity with the students' struggle.

The students have taken steps to keep the administration from co-opting their efforts. Institutional responses necessarily focus on control--thus, the administration dealt with the hate crime by forming new committees.

But students have been quick to take the lead themselves, rather than be led, and they haven't been easily placated. Despite a "Stop the Hate" campaign initiated by the administration, the dynamic of the situation has clearly been spurred from below.

However well-meaning, the "Stop the Hate" initiative focuses on racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry and discrimination as problems of individual choice and morality. But the truth is that if everyone at the school or in St. Lawrence County could be cured of all individual prejudice, the systemic racism endemic in the legal and prison system--one of the biggest industries in St. Lawrence County--in media representations, and in the lack of public funding for vulnerable communities would still rage on.

This is not to excuse individual acts of bigotry, of course, but any attempt to deal with institutional racism needs to address the problems at their roots.

THIS IS particularly important to remember here in the North Country, where economic insecurity has created the conditions for resentments to build in the competitive environment of capitalism that alienates those at the bottom from each other, to keep them from banding together to promote their mutual interests.

In the nearby town of Massena, there have been several devastating plant closures, including Alcoa Steel. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently stepped in to "save jobs," but as a temporary measure, with no long-term solutions. Faced with a crisis, the town recently voted to privatize the local hospital. Such desperate measures will make Massena's situation even more dire down the line, as its residents pay the price demanded by privatized health care.

The stereotyped divide between the "good" liberal academic community on campus and the "backward" Republican-leaning local residents'--perceived by many as the dynamic behind the racism and homophobia in the North Country--is a dead-end superficial reading that won't help resolve either racism or the economic duress underlying the tensions. There won't be any solution based on keeping people divided.

The enduring challenge for groups like POWER and progressive activists goes beyond rhetoric about tolerance and stopping the hate, though those campaigns can be a first step. "No justice no peace" means justice and peace for all.

The struggle ahead needs to make the connections between challenging racism, homophobia, poverty, joblessness, underemployment and economic inequality. Ultimately, African American students, the LGBTQ community and poor rural residents have far more in common than what separates them.

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