Story by Matt Butler, Thomas Giery Pudney and Anna Lamb

ITHACA, N.Y. — Emotions have begun to run high at local protests over the last few weeks, as the month of October has seen the first arrests of protesters at the ongoing weekly racial justice rallies and two events held to support President Donald Trump have been met with harsh backlash from counter-protesters.

Tensions reached a new high last Friday when two people were injured and several altercations broke out during a Trump rally on North Meadow Street in Ithaca. The event, which attracted about 15 people supporting Trump, provoked a much larger counter-protest, consisting of well over 100 people opposing the president. The two sides clashed physically, with at least one Trump supporter throwing a punch as counter-protesters backed the group against a building, and two Trump supporters were injured in a subsequent altercation. That followed a protest the weekend before that included two arrests of people accused of spray-painting messages on and around Ithaca Police Department.

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Once again, the protests drew the attention of the city’s power structure, though also reached beyond. City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, who issued statements after IPD’s flag was burned and the first arrests of protestors, said he did not plan to issue a statement on Friday’s fracas but said he thinks the approach used by protestors on Friday is counterproductive.

“I understand the desire to win your political argument, I have that desire myself, but the way to win your argument is not by shouting across route 13,” Myrick told The Voice Monday afternoon. “I’ll also say, though it doesn’t seem like it should need to be said, you shouldn’t burn someone’s hat, even if it’s hideous, and you shouldn’t grab someone’s sign even if it’s stupid.”

Myrick added that confrontations like those at Friday’s rally are likely exactly what conservative organizers are after.

“From a tactical perspective, the Tompkins County Republicans haven’t put up a candidate for the assembly, county court, city judge, and they haven’t fielded a candidate for mayor in the last two cycles,” said Myrick. “They are an institution that is so ineffectual, that they are being steamrolled by someone who does not even live in Tompkins County. So, If you are worried about them winning, they are not. What they are trying to do is create a confrontation that they can use to create sympathy and get views on social media. If you want to beat them, starve them.”

Republican Representative Tom Reed (NY-23) weighed in on the situation, condemning the conduct at the protest and calling on local entities to do the same.

“We are appalled by reports of physical violence, verbal abuse, and property destruction by extremists in Ithaca simply because they disagreed with peaceful conservative rallygoers,” said Reed. “We must all, regardless of political affiliation, stand together in unison to condemn this extremism and violence in the strongest of terms. As my colleague John Lewis taught the nation, our country is strongest when we rise up and stand against hatred in all forms. We call upon the Mayor, Cornell University, and all other local leaders to join us in cleaning up the graffiti and standing together in support of constitutional rights.”

Myrick responded to the Congressman in kind on Monday afternoon.

The reactions of the police have been under a microscope at the recent protests, even more so after last week’s arrests. Right-wing activists and organizers have thrown accusations that the police have been told to “stand down” by City of Ithaca leadership, likely blaming Myrick. However, IPD Chief Dennis Nayor said that the directive he has been given by Myrick is that violence is not to be tolerated and that the police should intervene if they see such conduct going on. Police did respond to the situation on North Meadow Street briefly on Friday, but left soon after arriving, even though the protest was still going in full force—fueling Trump supporters’ thoughts that police were being told to abandon the area.

Nayor said this was not an example of “standing down,” but actually a strategic decision made by officers on the scene, highlighting the difficult position police find themselves in at the protests, where the vast majority of attendees don’t want to see a police presence and are often hostile towards officers who do respond. Officers’ belief that leaving will help calm tensions is at odds with what they feel is their civic duty to be on hand during contentious situations, Nayor said.

“It seemed that their mere presence was creating more aggression and disorderly behavior, so they removed themselves from that area to stop what they saw occurring, to regroup and try to get extra resources in,” he said. “Our leaving wasn’t about any lack of caring or anything like that, but it was about trying to lower the temperature of what seems like it was increasing because police were on scene and we were now the center of negative attention, and to get resources and to develop a strategy to maintain safety.”

Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne confirmed that three of his deputies responded to the scene as well, at the behest of Ithaca police, but once it became clear that they were not going to be able to engage, he told his officers to leave the scene and return to their patrols. Both Osborne and Nayor said staffing issues influenced their decisions to pull police out of these situations as well.

Nayor added that investigations into the altercations on Friday are ongoing, but that no charges have been filed. Osborne seemed wary of the unrest, saying that while he respects the discretion of the Ithaca police and the city’s government, he has not given his officers the same rules of engagement. He encouraged the two sides to cancel their plans for Saturday, when another rally is expected on the Commons.

“I do have jurisdiction in the City of Ithaca,” Osborne said. “I can’t sit by and let such behavior continue. I believe people have the right to peacefully demonstrate and speak their minds and I support it, regardless of their views or what they are supporting. (…) My agency and I will be in the City of Ithaca this Saturday. With the multitude of threats I’m seeing from all sides, I am hoping people consider canceling their plans to rally or protest this weekend in the interest of public safety. All we’re doing is hurting ourselves and our own community. If people decide to show up, I expect them to be peaceful.”