-by Barrett Seaman –
Long before protesters gathered in the shopping center parking lot at the intersection of South Broadway and Route 119, law enforcement was ready. Local, county and state police were already deployed at both entrances to the Mario C. Cuomo Bridge—the westbound ramp off 119 and the eastbound access and egress on Broadway. Two helicopters circled overhead. Officials had warned the organizers, who marched under the banners of 100sistas and Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley, that they would not permit pedestrians onto the new bridge in their quest to march across the 3.1-mile span and into Nyack, where they planned to hold a rally.
The theme of the march notwithstanding, the crowd that gathered between the CVS pharmacy and the Shell station was about three-quarters white and predominantly female. They came from up and down the Hudson Valley on both sides of the river. The mood was initially festive, despite the unseasonable cold, as a makeshift band of about a dozen musicians played random protest songs in random keys. Signs, some of which were offered out of the trunks of cars in the lot, reflected an array of progressive issues beyond race: poverty, guns, Trans and Queer rights.
Asked if she expected the group, which grew to around 100, to make it onto the bridge, march leader Vanessa Green of Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley smiled wryly. “We’ll see,” she said to a small clutch of reporters, but to the larger crowd she was more assertive: “We want to cross that bridge that we paid for.” As to why crossing the bridge was important, she said, “We’re shutting down commerce.” The police effort to stop them, she said, amounted to ”an attack on us.”
Police officers framed their response differently. As the group appeared to be gathering itself for the trek up 119 to the ramp, State Police Captain George Mohl, accompanied by Tarrytown Police Chief John Barbalet and a couple of physically imposing state troopers, moved into the crowd, seeking out Ms. Green. When they found her, Mohl calmly explained to her that their prohibition against the march was a safety issue; in addition to the dangers of auto and truck traffic, the group was facing a journey that would cover more than five miles from the starting point to the Memorial Park in Nyack where they planned a rally, with high winds along the bridge itself. Instead, Mohl offered to clear a lane and provide an escort for a motor caravan across the bridge. Tarrytown’s Chief Barbelet assured Green: ”We’re here to help.”
After huddling with a handful of other organizers, Green did not respond directly with Captain Mohl but told the marchers that the refusal to permit them onto the bridge amounted to ”an attack on us.”
“Let’s take the bridge,” she called out through her megaphone. “That’s why we’re here.” With that, the group headed eastward up rte. 119.
Awaiting them at the entrance way was a pair of Thruway Authority snowplows straddling four lanes, with a phalanx of state troopers standing stone-faced behind. They were in regular uniform, with signature Smokey-the-Bear hats pulled down across their foreheads, but no riot gear was in evidence.
As they veered right across rte. 119, the crowd chanted, “We come in peace.” The troopers spread out to cover the roadway while a platoon-sized contingent of fellow troopers marched in two columns up behind them. Tensions rose slightly as one or two of the protesters in the front line jostled into the troopers, who held their ground.
Green and fellow organizers slipped aside to confer. Chants from the crowd signaled a shift in strategy: “We want the governor,” Green called out. Then it was, “Next week, we’ll be at the Beacon Bridge too,” and “If we don’t cross today, we’ll be back next week.”
She then sought out Captain Mohl, without success. Another senior officer advised her to lead the group back to the CVS parking lot, where someone would meet with them to discuss the motor caravan alternative. The marchers turned west and headed back down the hill. While the leadership waited for the police, protesters, who had been out in the cold for more than two hours, began to drift towards their cars. The rally was over. There were no arrests and no violence, but westbound traffic on I-287 was backed up all the way to Elmsford.