Despite Warning of Riots and Mayhem, Niagara Falls Demonstration on Friday was Peaceful

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The Back Story on How the Demonstration Almost Did Not Come off

 

By: Frank Parlato

There were warnings on social media that it would be unruly and violent.

But the protest Friday evening in Niagara Falls turned out to be a peaceful event.

A group of more than 200 people walked from Hyde Park down Pine Avenue to Main Street – then turned and walked to police headquarters – a walk of about 2.5 miles from start to finish –  to protest police brutality.

The protest, like hundreds of others around the nation, was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man killed on May 25th after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

The officer has been charged with second degree murder.

Before Friday’s march began, Mikaila Carr, 20, organizer of the event, with megaphone held to her lips, prayed to God that He would walk along with the group so that this protest, unlike so many others across the face of this nation, would be peaceful.

 

Demonstrators gathering at Hyde Park prior to the march starting.

 

All around the country since Floyd’s death and, in recent days, around the world, there have been protests – many of them turning confrontational. Many replete with violence and looting. Fires burning down buildings. Police and people fighting.

People have been killed.

Even close to home in Buffalo, protests turned ugly. A policeman was run over, his pelvis shattered. A woman dragged out of her car by protesters and beaten. Two policemen were charged with felony assault for pushing an elderly man who fell backwards and struck his head on the pavement.

At the Friday protest, helping to ensure Mikaila’s prayers were answered, alongside the hundreds of protesters, were Mayor Robert Restaino, Police Superintendent Tom Licata, members of the police department he commands – in uniform – and Acting Niagara County Sheriff Mike Filicetti, members of the community group, the Niagara Falls Peacemakers, and three of five councilmen in this city: Andrew Touma, Ken Tompkins, and Bill Kennedy.

They were to walk with the group, alongside the protesters.

They all initially met at Hyde Park, in the center of the city, and, on arrival, all were offered helium balloons held by strings.

The balloons, meant to represent anger and frustration for the many social injustices that so many have to experience, were to be released after the group got to the police station at the end of their march.

After Carr’s prayer, the group began its walk down some 30 blocks of famed Pine Avenue, ‘Little Italy,’ and, as they walked the demonstrators stretched out over six blocks.

Along the way, it was impossible not to notice that many of Pine Avenue businesses were boarded up. They had been boarded in the last few days in anticipation of this event – and out of the recognition that hundreds of like events across the country saw businesses vandalized.

 

 

There was panic in the last few days that caused a massive boarding of buildings — because of this event.

All along the way, as they marched peacefully down Pine Ave, past boarded buildings, chants of “black lives matter,” “what’s his name, George Floyd,” “no justice, no peace,” “hands up, don’t shoot,” and “enough is enough” could be heard from several blocks away.

Arriving at the police station, demonstrators made their second concession to a Higher Power, as they took to their knees and for eight minutes and 46 seconds knelt in silence in recognition of the death of Floyd, of how he died, and why he died; the time they knelt coinciding with the time that police officer knelt on his neck and killed him.

Mayor Robert M. Restaino and demonstrators kneeling.

They rose, as a group, from the knee to the upright posture. Mikaila led the group in an action that would lead them all to look upward, toward the sky.

She let go of her helium balloon and was followed by the others; all releasing their hold on the string. As balloons went upward, brightening the sky, it was meant to symbolize letting go of their grievances, with the hope now that there could be action, substantive and real, to address the systemic injustices of our society.

As hundreds looked up at the sky, the Reporter estimated that there were more than 200 people standing around the steps of the place that many of them would normally fear – the police station – watching balloons float in the sky.

There seemed to be no palpable animosity, no fear reaction, let alone any angry exchanges by either demonstrators or the police.

Unlike events elsewhere, in Niagara Falls, they made, or tried to make their point: Things are not right. There are injustices which can be addressed and must be addressed. But it need not be violent. It need not be done with hatred.

This show of peace amid demonstration for justice might long linger in the minds and hearts of the people who attended that day – demonstrators and city officials and police alike.

The crowd, perhaps many of them finding a new appreciation for each other, said their goodbyes and dispersed peacefully.

The Back Story

The Back Story 

That was the story of the event itself.  The backstory to the event is a story in itself.

This peaceful event did not come without controversy. Warnings came out on social media before the event, wherein it was predicted that this protest might turn violent.

In consequence, tens of thousands of dollars were spent by businesspeople who expected vandalism.

Councilmen Tompkins told the Reporter that one restaurant spent more than $2,000 boarding up windows.

Courtney Marazzo, owner of Latina Importing Company, said she boarded up her windows because of what she read about the protest.

Niagara Falls Councilman Chris Voccio issued a statement the day after the event. He said, “Last night’s peaceful protest was a great example of the First Amendment’s right of peaceable assembly. The organizers and law enforcement worked together and it went as planned.

“But others didn’t want that to happen. They called for it to be cancelled and warned of violence. The result: Businesses throughout our city are boarded up. Residents were terrified of impending riots….. The actions of a couple of individuals essentially shuttered our city….”

 

Statement from Councilman Chris Voccio on Saturday, June 6th, 2020.

 

The warnings – reckless or not – originated publicly when two members of the city’s Human Rights Commission announced they thought the protest would turn violent.

On the Tuesday before the protest, Niagara Falls Human Rights Commissioners Saladin Allah and Denise Mejia issued a statement on the commission’s Facebook page warning residents to stay away from the protest. The statement was accompanied by the City’s official seal.

They wrote that based on “gathered intelligence by regional and local law enforcement” that outsiders are planning to use the event to “incite violence and cause vandalism” in the Falls.

 

The original warning using the City Seal.

 

The advisory warned people to “stay home for their safety” and not attend the rally.

The message was removed about twenty minutes after it was posted.

Amber Hill, the chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission, told the Reporter that she removed the post because it was not an authorized statement of the commission nor had anyone at City Hall approved it.

After the warning was removed from the Commission site, Allah and Mejia re-posted a modified warning on their private Facebook pages.

 

Commissioner Allah’s post on his own personal Facebook page.

 

This sparked stories in the Niagara Gazette and the Reporter.

Allah told the Reporter that he was concerned that people affiliated with the protest were not alerting the community to the possibility of threats of violence.

Mejia, the commission’s vice chair, told the Reporter that she was concerned about outside “agitators” getting involved and that the city might not be prepared to handle it.

“There’s some agitators that might be coming here to mess things up for your peaceful protests,” she said. “… Do the same thing the governor told you to do, which is ‘stay at home.’”

Denise Mejia wanted people to be aware that agitators might come to the protest and try to make it turn violent.

Both Allah and Mejia said they were authorized, through text messages sent by Hill, to post the original statement to the commission’s Facebook page and that Hill changed her position after it was placed online.

Hill told the Reporter that she did not give permission to post the statement as written and provided text messages between herself and Denise to evidence that, in her opinion, such permission was never given.

Regardless of who was right, the controversy caused many to take notice.

During the days leading up to the protest, and after the initial post was removed and a modified post published on his social media site, Allah, suggesting that the threat was very real, and referring to a Niagara Falls Reporter article, wrote “NO ONE in this [Reporter] article says that the Intelligence we shared with all of you concerning the Protest threats was A LIE or FAKE. They said we ‘were not authorized’ to share it with you….”

Allah told the Reporter, “The national climate of civil unrest is something that could also be reflected in our city. And that this city is not insulated from that national civil unrest. In the eyes of local and outside agitators, this is an ideal environment for that type of civil unrest because of the lack of the resources in terms of our institutions. Like a public safety building where there’s not enough holding cells. If you wanted to arrest people who were creating a civil unrest, we don’t have enough cells for people under those type of circumstances. The same thing with our local medical facility. We don’t really have the resources. So it creates an ideal situation for people who are looking to create civil unrest.”

As the topic swirled in the media and on social media, it became amplified by the voices of others. Perhaps the most dire warnings came from community activist and author Ken Cosentino.

 

Ken Cosentino warned people to stay away from the protest.

He also added details that were not previously published.

He wrote on social media, “… information surfaced from city officials that extremist groups have rented 25 local hotel rooms and air-bnb’s for Friday’s protest in the Falls. This information was confirmed by several anonymous members of local law enforcement. This information was known by many individuals in various capacities who elected to keep it private and allow the protest to go on, knowing full well that instigators would be attending with the sole purpose of inciting a violent riot.

“Some of these individuals distanced themselves from the event and decided they won’t be attending or have their names connected to it, but did not alert the public. Two members of the Human Rights Commission viewed this as a human rights violation; Having knowledge that there’s a confirmed threat and allowing innocent people to attend, not knowing they may be in serious danger, is most certainly a human rights violation. These two members of the HRC released a public statement informing people of the threat, and they were quickly met with organized suppression by the same people who knew about the threat!

“Several people who were involved with the protest for Friday knew of the threat and privately disconnected from the event but did not cancel it or make the public aware, favoring their egos over the safety of our community and residents. Instead they washed their hands of all responsibility and stated they were no longer affiliated with the event.

“City Hall was also aware and yet did nothing…. There is a very real threat and if you don’t believe me, ask the mayor or the chief of police…. The protest for Friday stinks to high Hell and has given ample time for instigators from Buffalo to make arrangements for sabotage. Do not go to this protest. Do not let your loved ones attend this protest….  an event which … is a target for domestic terrorism. This is not fantasy…  The people have a right to know when their lives are in danger.”

The Niagara Falls Peacemakers, which are not part of law enforcement or act as any type of auxiliary police, also stated that the intelligence regarding threats to Niagara Falls were true without citing specific evidence.

 

A statement made by the Peacemakers referring to Allah’s and Meija’s warning of violence.

 

The Reporter followed up by asking Mayor Restaino if there was evidence of any threats.

He said there was no solid evidence that agitators planned to attend the rally but said, either way, the city would be prepared.

During the days leading up to the event, organizer Mikaila Carr, told the Reporter she felt intimidated enough to publicly distance herself from the event she created.

Carr worried she might be arrested. One of her co-organizers, a woman on probation, did not dare come, she said, fearing she would be arrested if anything turned violent.

Event organizer Mikaila Carr.

After saying she was distancing herself from the event, Carr posted a second statement on social media, saying she would attend after all.

She wrote, “I would like to address all of the confusion and misinformation about Friday’s event. A few of us in the group started to be threatened with legal action a few days ago, it became increasingly clear that there was certain people who weren’t for the peaceful protest.

“… I sought legal advice to protect myself and I was told not to continue with the event without the backing of the proper entities so that I could not be arrested for inciting a riot or any violence.

“… given that advice I posted my disclaimer disassociating myself [from the protest] but ONLY until I had the proper permission from the proper people.

“I have now spoken with the police chief directly as well as the peacemakers and all other entities involved. Our event has the full support of the city, the police chief, the mayor and the peacemakers as well.”

As we know, Carr attended the event, and led it to its peaceful conclusion – with the help of the mayor, the police chief and many others – support she did not have prior to the warnings.

 

 

Whether or not information about provocateurs looking to make this demonstration turn violent was true or false is not proven by the mere fact that the rally was peaceful.

Their warnings caused the mayor and police to be on heightened alert. Their warnings brought a lot of publicity to the event. It may have scared off potential troublemakers.

Certainly, the response of Mayor Restaino should have served notice to any would-be troublemakers.

Mayor Robert Restaino was determined to ensure the rally was peaceful.

 

Mayor Restaino told the Reporter in a widely read story, “Based upon our conversations with the organizer [Mikaila Carr], some other community individuals, and our local law enforcement, we are expecting that this will be the peaceful presentation that the organizer has indicated.”

He continued, stating, “it’s also prudent for the municipality of Niagara Falls to prepare, because I can’t predict every person’s emotions. I know what these organizers are hoping for. And I know what the city of Niagara Falls is expecting, but to the extent that something were to go in another direction, we have preparations in place to address those things should they occur.”

Mayor Restaino shared a Niagara Falls Police Department statement on Thursday, June 4th – the day before the event – regarding warnings circulating on social media regarding potential violence.

The statement from NFPD read, “there are numerous rumors circulating on Social Media that are alarming. At this time none of which have been confirmed. The Niagara Falls Police Department, along with our local, state and federal partners are working to verify or debunk these rumors. Should any confirmed information come to light that the public needs to know about we will use our Twitter, Facebook and media outlets to relay the facts to the citizens we serve.”

Statement from Mayor Restaino on Thursday, June 4th the day before the demonstration.

So what do we know in the end?

Some individuals voiced concerns and, because of those concerns, there was a lot of publicity and a number of people  – both government officials and private citizens – got involved to help ensure the rally was peaceful.

Still, what if it was a false alarm – a reckless, unnecessary warning that caused a lot of people to spend money on boarding buildings – that left an unsightly appearance in one of the most important business districts in Niagara Falls?

We don’t know.

It is possible that Denise Meija and Saladin Allah were like Paul Revere warning the city; possibly scaring away potential troublemakers.

It is also possible that there were no troublemakers, that there was never going to be any trouble, and that everybody got into a panic for nothing.

Meija and Allah are standing by their statement: they believe there were agitators eyeing Niagara Falls, looking for the chance to intervene and cause mayhem.

We will likely never know.

Councilmen Voccio said he supports freedom of speech, and, in the end, only objected to the use of the city seal.

He told the Reporter, “I don’t think the right approach was to use their position on the Human Rights Commission to make the warning. I don’t know if the Human Rights Commission members should be the troubadours of public safety. I think that’s why we have a police force. And multiple layers of law enforcement at the county, state and federal level. It may be a better approach [going forward] to call the chief of police, the mayor or council members…. At that point, the police could have done their due diligence. I’m sure they meant well, but [going forward] we, as a city council, have to figure out how to make official statements when using the seal of the city of Niagara Falls.”

Voccio said he plans to introduce a resolution, perhaps at the next council meeting, to clarify how official statements from any board or commission in the city should be made.

Councilman Chris Voccio

The Reporter spoke with Saladin Allah, after the event, about the basis of his concern that prompted his warning.

Asked what information he had about agitators, Allah said, “We’re not at liberty to name the actual sources, but we had credible intelligence from local and regional law enforcement.”

Asked if he had to do it all over again, is there anything he would do differently, he said, “I know that I did the right thing. Because we were sharing credible information that, for whatever reason, was not also shared with the public. To inform them of the possibility of local and outside agitators coming in to disrupt a peaceful protest demonstration.”

In the end, there was a peaceful demonstration. Perhaps it will lead to something substantive, something more than the optics of protest, and bring about change that will foster peace and unity on a permanent basis.

 

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