ALBANY — Hundreds of supporters of police and first-responders gathered outside the state Capitol Saturday morning in an event that remained peaceful despite tensions when Black Lives Matter activists waded into the crowd.
The Back the Blue rally ended without violence or arrests, unlike what happened Thursday night in Saratoga Springs, where there were competing pro-police and BLM demonstrations. There, three people were arrested and police used pepper balls to disperse BLM protesters blocking Broadway.
On a sunny Saturday, the pro-police rally — attended by about 500 people — was held in the park at the Capitol’s grand east staircase. It began with speakers invoking conservative Christian values and then moved to brief pro-law enforcement speeches by several Republicans who are in, or seeking, elected office.
About an hour into the rally, roughly a dozen people with BLM sympathies arrived. Initially they remained on the fringe of the crowd. After about 20 minutes, several of them headed to the front of the crowd by approaching from the side of the park, walking quickly.
One of them intentionally dragged on the ground a “Back the Blue” flag. That flag is a U.S. flag shaded blue that many supporters of the pro-police movement have adopted. Dozens waved in Saturday’s crowd, along with American flags.
The act of dragging the flag appeared to inflame many in the crowd, who immediately surrounded and shouted at the outnumbered BLM supporters. “You’re not welcome here!” someone shouted. “Go home,” someone else shouted, and there was shoving and threats.
After a few minutes, about a half-dozen state troopers appeared and separated the counter-protesters from the people encircling them, moving them to the edge of the park. There continued to be anger expressed on both sides. Most of the BLM supporters remained, though, and when the rally ended, a number of quiet and civil conversations were taking place between people representing opposing political views.
Speaker Richard Mack, head of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and a former county sheriff in Arizona, was speaking when the protesters arrived. He said everyone in the crowd should support their right to protest. The protesters made their move as the next speaker started, and Mack came over to try to calm the situation.
“BLM should have just been left alone,” he said after the rally ended. “It didn’t warrant a response like that, where you’re crowding people … I was just concerned there would be violence, and it would ruin a great rally.”
Lukee Forbes of One People United, the community activist who dragged the blue flag, said he did so intentionally because he considers it a “made up flag” which should not be treated with the same reverence as a United States flag.
“We support the police who obey the rules,” he said, going on to cite a number of incidents of alleged rule-breaking by police. “These people are supporting a made up flag.”
Forbes, who is Black while the vast majority of the crowd was white, said troopers should have moved more quickly to intervene when the BLM supporters were surrounded. “The officers waited so long to intervene,” he said. “Anything could have happened to us.”
“They yelled at me the whole time. They pushed me,” he said later.
Forbes added that pro-police rallies like the Back the Blue events in Albany and Saratoga Springs only occur when the Black Lives Matter movement is prominent — as it has been in cities across the country since the May 25 death of George Floyd, who died while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers. BLM supporters have called for strong police accountability and the “demilitarization” of police forces.
“We’re not asking for anything that doesn’t make sense,” Forbes said.
During his speech, Mack said police officers are appalled by what happened to Floyd, who died after a police officer placed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer has since been charged with murder, with the case awaiting court action.
“Every one of us in law enforcement was appalled by it,” Mack told the crowd. “But you know what? Every wheel in the justice system is turning to get a just outcome.”
Mack said people on all sides need to appreciate how difficult working in law enforcement can be.
“Everyone, you need to know how difficult this job is,” said Mack, who spent 20 years in Arizona law enforcement. “Nobody in blue gets up in the morning and says, ‘I hope I get to kill someone today.'”
Mack drew cheers when he asserted that people shouldn’t be forced to wear masks. A significant minority of those at the rally did not wear masks, or kept them pulled down. New York emergency regulations require people to wear masks in public or stand at least 6 feet apart to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Those who spoke before the BLM intervention extolled the police and first responders.
“The vitriol and anti-police sentiment here in New York is not a reflection of how millions and millions of Americans feel about law enforcement,” said Liz Joy of Glenville, the Republican-Conservative candidate for Congress in the 20th District.
“When you call 911 for help, the dispatcher doesn’t ask you what your political affiliation is or who you voted for, they ask, ‘What is your emergency?'” said state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon.
Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said it is only because of the service of police and first responders that the rest of society can live in peace and safety.