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Movement For Black Lives In Upstate New York: Confronting Police, White Supremacists, And Craven Politicians

Joya Stuckman returned home late at night after visiting her friend. It was Labor Day weekend but there was little to celebrate. She felt exhausted after spending the entire day loading a moving truck in order to escape what had become an untenable living situation. Her landlord and his sister had spent the better part of two years harassing Stuckman, who is a Black mother of three boys.  

She walked up to her house, which is nestled in the working class First Street neighborhood of Rome, New York, and glanced over at her U-Haul truck. The tires were slashed and the truck was completely covered in racist and neo-Nazi graffiti: thinly veiled death threats, racist slurs, an SS symbol, and swastikas. The numbers “1488,” which is a popular neo-Nazi code, were sprayed on the sides of the truck. Stuckman was terrified. 

As events unfolded, Stuckman found her footing in the tumultuous small town politics of Rome, and the growing Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. She joined with a small group of tenacious activists to navigate a minefield created by a corrupt police department, white supremacists, and a moribund political establishment—all three groups united in preventing any meaningful reforms. 

Her mind raced as she tried to figure out who would have done this to her. Was it her landlord Keith Tlod? Or was it his sister Noelle Heinig, who lived in the apartment downstairs?

Stuckman said that she was always called racial slurs by Heinig. “As time went on the comments got worse, and she would complain about anything and everything.”

The continued harassment was not limited to words. Stuckman is also convinced her landlord stole her son’s cat after its sudden disappearance a few days after Keith Tlod threatened to steal it. 

But for all of the transgressions of the landlord and his sister, it was Stuckman who was repeatedly reported to the police. She told Shadowproof that the police arrived at her house “18 times in 16 months,” all over fabricated complaints from Heinig.

Stuckman recalled a jarring late night encounter with the police who “basically bamboozled their way” into her house, pushing her out of the way. The officers responded to a false report that Stuckman’s children were locked in the basement. 

She brought the police officers upstairs to her children’s bedrooms. Startled, they awoke to three cops standing over them. Confused and frustrated, the officers eventually asked Stuckman why she thought Heinig called in so many false reports. The only obvious answer to her was that Heinig was racist. 

Stuckman filed multiple complaints to the Rome Police Department and informed city officials about the repeated harassment. Nothing ever came of it so she decided to move out. 

The night Stuckman discovered the vandalized moving truck, officers finally showed up after two hours of repeated calls to the police. They did not appear to share her sense of urgency or concern.

One officer told her that the swastika was simply “a sign of peace” and surmised the act was a case of “teenage mischief.”

The police declined to start a hate crime investigation, opting instead to look into the matter as mere graffiti. Stuckman felt hopeless but was determined to do something.

She spoke out about the incident on a Facebook livestream. It went viral locally and the news rapidly spread. By the end of the following day, an impromptu rally was organized on her block.

Her neighbor Connie Kangas heard about what happened from her son. “I immediately contacted Joya and she briefly told me what happened,” said Kangas. “Without knowing too much more I created my sign and ran down there.” Outside of Stuckman’s house, Kangas met over 40 neighbors and activists, including local BLM activist Jasmine Millner. 

At only 24 years of age, Millner, who worked as a model and actress, became well known in the BLM movement locally. She helped establish activist groups and delivered fiery speeches at rallies. Millner was also a social media influencer and delivered impassioned, unsparing statements condemning white supremacy and the actions of local police. 

When the police appeared on scene, Millner noticed RPD Officer Fred Pacicca sitting in his parked patrol car. Millner had recently learned about a series of racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-BLM posts Pacicca made on his Facebook page. Seeing an opportunity, she seized the megaphone. Millner read out loud many of his posts, and demanded Pacicca be investigated and fired. 

White Supremacy In Rome, New York

As the activists left the neighborhood, and Joya Stuckman, Connie Kangas, and their neighbors went back inside their homes, a man named John Smalden, who was circling the block earlier, parked his pick-up truck and started livestreaming on Facebook. He talked to Donald DeCarolis, one of Stuckman’s neighbors who acted aggressively during the protest.

DeCarolis demanded the police arrest the demonstrators. Witnesses claim he also made threats that he would use his “Second Amendment rights” against them.

Smalden then walked over to Officer Pacicca’s car, where the two complained to each other about the protest.

Video showed Pacicca initiating the conversation and identifying Jasmine Millner, her father who is a retired New York state trooper, and other BLM activists. He then shared information with Smalden about where and when another protest was scheduled for the following day. 

Many local BLM activists already knew about Smalden. The previous week he made his presence known at a “Blue Lives Matter” rally held in the nearby rural town of Schuyler.

Claudia Tenney, the recently elected Republican congresswoman for the 22nd District, was the main speaker that day. She ran on a “law-and-order” platform and was a close ally of former President Donald Trump.

That rally descended into violence after Smalden and others surrounded a smaller group of BLM counter-demonstrators. Following the rally, BLM activists in Utica received anonymous death threats and the addresses of some were made public by unknown sources following the event.

Smalden’s Facebook page includes several pictures of him decked in military fatigues and III% militia patches posing with other armed III% militia members, as well as frequent white supremacist posts.

The III% militia movement is considered extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other experts on the subject. Many militia members were involved with the January 6, 2021 siege at the US Capitol. 

Lifelong Rome resident Sarita Ruiz was one of the activists who was mentioned by Smalden when he again went live on Facebook, along with her food truck business.

Smalden “became very irate and angry and agitated and said he is not going to let this protest happen. It was basically a call to arms and he was calling people to action,” Ruiz stated. She saw people post openly and brazenly plans to shoot and kill the BLM activists. “He tried to organize against us. That’s when it got scary. They were out for blood.” 

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Joya Stuckman and her friend and fellow activist Anya Colón filed a complaint with the RPD that night about Pacicca’s conduct. Colón recalls the Rome police officer on duty telling them that there was “no racism” on the police force.

“He kept bringing up the BLM protests in Rochester and asked about something that was thrown at the police,” she said, frustrated by the exchange. Colón thought the police would be at Rome’s Triangle Park the following day, where the rally was scheduled to be held, especially in light of the threats. When the protest started however, the police were nowhere to be seen. 

The activists were relieved Smalden and his supporters did not appear. Still, many activists remained concerned with how the police enable white supremacists in the area.

“Pacicca and Smalden were an instigator and agitator,” commented Ruiz. “All Pacicca did was add fuel to the fire. Pacicca’s words did a lot of damage.”

This was not the first time the RPD displayed fundamentally different approaches to addressing BLM and racial justice activists on the one hand, and white supremacists, “Back the Blue” enthusiasts, and Trump’s base of support on the other. On July 8, 2020, local Trump supporters staged a “Back the Blue” and Donald Trump reelection rally in front of the Rome police station. Similar events were a weekly occurrence that roamed from town to town in Central New York, much to the ire of BLM activists. 

Many uniformed police officers along with Chief Beach, were at the rally, not so much as observers, but in the view of Ruiz and others, as participants. “That whole day sickened me,” said Ruiz. “Listening to the speeches that were being given and watching the cops chuckle. You knew exactly where they stood and they stood with Trump.”

Again, Trump supporters confronted BLM counter-demonstrators across the street. Again there were threats of physical violence. And yet again, the RPD stood idly by. So goes the struggle of organizing in rural, conservative communities.

Activists remain concerned about people like John Smalden. The far right has been growing in the region for a number of years. An array of neo nazi and fascist gangs and political groups have an organized presence, including the KKK, as well as the Proud Boys who have held protests that erupted into violence in Ithaca and Albany. In 2018, local residents organized a protest in response to the distribution of KKK recruitment flyers in Rome. 

A number of militias, not just III%ers, are active in the state. The Guardian reported that a high concentration of militia members live just north of Rome in the state’s North Country. Residents from the area were also arrested following the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and more recently following the January 6 siege on Capitol Hill.

The actions of Stuckman and other activists, in what was later dubbed the “Justice for Joya” campaign, appeared to pay off. The RPD decided to change course, and started to investigate the incident as a hate crime. They ended up arresting Donald DiCarolis, the same neighbor who became aggressive during the protest, as the primary suspect. 

Stuckman found out during the grand jury investigation that two other neighbors were the victims of white supremacist threats, both allegedly from DiCarolis. However, although attorneys started to gear up for a potential trial, Stuckman felt entirely shut out of the process. She often wondered if any justice would ever be found through the court system. 

The Strange Career of Officer Pacicca

Following Officer Pacicca’s actions, matters became even more strained between the RPD and local activists. “There has been no transparency at all when it comes to the Pacicca case,” Joya Stuckman claimed, adding that “this man should not be walking the streets.” She has become more wary, and ever more vigilant about the safety of her family.

At first her main concern was over a racist neighbor, but the actions of Pacicca pushed her to take extra safety precautions. “I’ve been trying to keep my address private because I don’t trust officers like him.”

Jasmine Millner took to social media and launched a series of statements and short videos criticizing the RPD in what she called a pattern of racism. 

Just as Anya Colón and Stuckman filed a complaint with the RPD, Millner followed suit. “When I filed my complaint, one of the first things I was told was, ‘what did you expect?'” Millner recalled.

Millner and other activists were vexed and felt that Pacicca faced “no consequences” for his actions. 

She expressed frustration at the entire complaints process. She felt that the “only reason” she was able to successfully file the complaint was because she was the daughter of a former New York state trooper. She was convinced that if she was “some other Black resident” who came in from off the street that she would be turned away. 

Connie Kangas shared Millner’s concern over Pacicca and the same broken complaints process. “That weekend I started writing a whole bunch of letters. I knew the police were not going to do anything,” stated Kangas. So she contacted Rome mayor Jacqueline Izzo, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the state’s Hate Crimes Taskforce. She is still waiting for a response.

Kangas also opened up about her past interactions with Pacicca, followed by futile attempts to file complaints with the RPD over his conduct. For three years, Kangas rented an apartment from Pacicca’s ex-wife, who lived in the same building.

A year after moving in, Pacicca and his ex started seeing each other again, and his presence became common. She heard frequent fights from her neighbor’s apartment, and constant shouting and swearing from Pacicca. Kangas could see that his ex-wife “lived in a state of fear.” He soon turned his temper on Kangas. 

“One day I was working from home and heard pounding on my door,” recalled Kangas. She was shocked to see a police car outside and ran downstairs, fearing something had happened to one of her children. When she opened the door, she saw Pacicca standing there. He yelled at her to take in the garbage cans from the front of the house. Kangas politely told him she was busy at work and would take care of it later. She recalls an irate Pacicca who threatened: “You do this now or I’ll throw you out. I know people.”

She then saw Pacicca go to the back of the house where he proceeded to slash every tire and cut the brakes to her bike and her children’s bikes. She immediately called the police and attempted to file a complaint but they discouraged her from doing so. Just as he would later do so to Millner, Pacicca retaliated against Kangas. 

“Multiple times, he sent cops to do a well check on me,” recalled Kangas. He eventually followed through on his threat to evict her.

According to Kangas, on moving day, he pulled up with his police car and stole her AC from inside her moving truck. She told him not to, and again called the police who informed her they could not do anything about it.

While she moved to her new residence, Pacicca followed in his patrol car and walked over to her new landlord, warning her that Kangas “was a problem.” Kangas said the landlord didn’t believe him and had her own issues in the past with unwarranted searches from the RPD. “She laughed at the whole situation.”

When asked where Pacicca’s apparent resentment of her came from, Kangas replied, “I didn’t cow down. I didn’t cower. I wasn’t afraid of him and I stood up to him. He hated me from that point on.” Multiple emails and letters she sent to the chief of police, mayor, and council members never received a response. 

To date, the public has never been made aware if Pacicca was reprimanded. No officers ever followed up with any of the activists who filed complaints. FOIA requests were filed in December 2020 in an attempt to dig into the matter but the City of Rome has yet to release any information. The Rome Police Department declined to comment for this article after multiple requests for an interview were sent by Shadowproof. 

Activists feel that the RPD is plagued with a culture where police brutality is both encouraged and celebrated. Just one month after the protest in Stuckman’s neighborhood, they would be proved right. 

Yadana May, Robert Perry Wright, and Randall Beavers lead a Black Lives Matter march around Fort Stanwix in Rome, New York on June 6, 2020. (Credit: Brendan Maslauskas Dunn)

Catalysts for Forming A Grassroots Network

On October 2, local residents held an anti police brutality rally at the police station in response to an incident that occured the day before where RPD officers brutalized a group of teenagers of color who were playing football. Mayor Jacqueline Izzo, sent out a press release in response to the incident, stating “I’m very comfortable with the actions of the police. Our police did a good job dispersing the crowd.”  

Irony was not lost on those at the protest when the police yet again brutalized the demonstrators. Three were arrested and charged, including teenager Juan Gonzalez who was given a black eye. 

These cases of police violence pushed Jasmine Millner and Sarita Ruiz to reach out to other activists with a plan to have a more deeply connected and strategic approach to organizing in Rome. Out of this loose network of activists formed the Copper City Collective. The new organization is just one of countless such groups that the Black Lives Matter movement gave birth to across the country. 

While much attention has been given to BLM as the movement exists in larger cities – New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta – as it ebbed and flowed since its inception in 2013, the true litmus of a mass movement may be measured in small cities, towns, and rural areas where there is often less of an organized progressive and leftwing presence. 

Since the eruption of BLM into a national, then international, rebellion against police violence and racism, the entirety of Upstate New York was also swept up in the fervor. The level of sustained mass protests in rust belt cities and the mere presence of protests in small farm towns across Upstate NY over the summer of 2020 has not been seen in the region since the 1960s-1970s.  

While some of the locally based organizations are called BLM, most, like Copper City Collective, have different names but still claim their position in the broader movement against police violence.

The movement in Upstate NY is decentralized, multiracial, and multigenerational. The politics that animate BLM range from a progressive and reformist wing to a Black revolutionary, socialist, anarchist, and abolitionist one.

It is a very pluralistic movement that rests largely on collective action and grassroots community organizing. Many of the groups are connected in a loose, ever changing network. 

Mass protests were held in virtually every city in the state. Troy, NY, with a population of just over 50,000, held a protest of 11,000 people. Rochester had daily protests, marked by arrests, highway shut downs, and the occupation of streets surrounding city hall in response to the police killing of Daniel Prude on March 23, 2020.

Protests in Albany were cleared by the police with pepper spray and tear gas. Martin Gugino, a 75 year old peace activist and anarchist, was shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo. Officers walked by him, refusing to offer aid, as blood gushed from his head onto the sidewalk. He was hospitalized for a month and treated for sustained injuries from a fractured skull. 

Indigenous activists in Syracuse pressured the city to take down a statue of Christopher Columbus and won. Demonstrators formed a 1,000 person strong protest in the nearby City of Utica where shouts to find justice for Walter Washington and Jessie Lee Rose, two local victims of police violence, echoed calls to find justice for George Floyd. 

Nearby rural and suburban communities, most of which have a white population of around 98%, held a series of protests: New Hartford, Clinton, Westmoreland, Oneida, Camden, Little Falls, and Hamilton were just a few.

In Rome, over 300 protestors gathered in June and marched around Fort Stanwix, the wood stockade fortress in the middle of the city where several battles were fought during the 1700s.

The number may seem small, but protests are rare in the Copper City. 

‘A Small Town With Big Hate’

The membership of the Copper City Collective is solidly working class, and predominantly women of color. This stands in stark contrast to the makeup of the city government which is exclusively white and leans to the right politically. Like elsewhere across the nation, members of the collective were drawn into the movement, spurred on by their convictions and desire to push for change. Many, however, have their own experiences with racism and police brutality. The year 2020 was a tipping point for them.

Sarita Ruiz’s pride for Rome runs deep. Her grandfather was a union laborer and helped rebuild Fort Stanwix in the 1970s, City Hall, and other iconic structures in the city. But growing up in Rome as a person of color was difficult, she said. “Sometimes you’re under a magnifying glass because you stick out. Rome is a small town with big hate.” Her family’s direct encounter with police brutality goes back generations. Her grandfather was brutalized by a Rome police officer and falsely arrested in the 1960s.

In recounting her family’s past, Ruiz opened up about a long repressed memory. She said her father, who was in the Air Force and worked as a correctional officer, was “very strict” and abusive. When she was 14, she was caught rollerblading away from the house at night, an act that angered her father. He beat her so she fled to the police station. She ran inside and “begged the police for help.” Her father followed her inside and continued to hit her. 

“I run outside and all of the sudden all these cops come out and they all started beating me up, restraining me. I end up getting arrested, put in handcuffs, and they put me in this room,” stated Ruiz. “‘That was my early interaction with the police.”

Ruiz added that when she witnessed the police brutalizing then arresting activists in front of the police station, “it was on those same exact steps—and that was years ago. This is still happening. It’s like reliving this” 

The most painful memory is that of her brother. In the mid-2000s, Ruiz’s brother Alexis went to hang out with friends at a Dunkin Donuts. According to her, the police “were looking for a young man who met a completely different description” over an alleged crime. The police questioned him and he gave them his nickname, Antonio, instead of his real name. He was arrested for giving a false name to the police. 

“They cavity searched him. That freaked him out and he never trusted the police after that. He was very young, and because of his autism and his epilepsy, he didn’t understand what was going on. It was a traumatic experience for him,” said Ruiz.

Her brother was only 17 at the time. Although he won a lawsuit against the RPD, Ruiz said her brother “was never the same after that.” He passed away in 2015. Ruiz believes that the trauma from his encounter with the police led to his untimely death. 

Every other member of the group has their own trauma. Elyssa Bolt talked about what she calls the “suspicious, strange circumstances” that surrounded the death of her Latina and Indigenous girlfriend seven years ago in Arizona.

“I believe her ethnic background played a role in the police and coroner not really taking her death seriously and essentially deciding that her life didn’t matter,” she said. “So when the Black Lives Matter movement began to take form… I’ve always wanted to take a part in this,” she stated in an interview with the Hudson Mohawk Magazine.

Connie Kangas, who has had a lifelong interest in Indigenous rights and sovereignty, discussed a visit from the FBI in 2001. She alerted the American Indian Movement about flyers that were distributed locally where a group anonymously threatened to bomb the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Casino. The FBI seemed more concerned that she was trying to warn people about it than the threat itself. 

Ruiz said that what the police did to her brother touched a nerve. “It just made it more meaningful to continue to fight.” She also said, ”I was born into activism. My mother was very involved with politics her entire life. My mother had me going to protests from a very young age.”

Joya Stuckman was similarly introduced to activism at a young age, noting that she and her sisters joined the NAACP when she was in elementary school. Black elders in the community, particularly Tuskegee Airman Herbert Thorpe, had a major impact on her. “We knew about the struggles and there was a fight,” she said. Their collective experience molded them and prepared them for the long fight ahead.

Copper City Collective member Elyssa Bolt holds a Black Lives Matter flag outside Fort Stanwix in Rome, New York on October 2, 2020. She was later assaulted then arrested by Rome police officers after the protestors marched to the police station.  (Credit: Brendan Maslauskas Dunn)

You Can’t Reform This

Along with the local chapter of the NAACP, the group has been the organization most vocal against institutional racism, police violence, and other injustices in Rome.

One issue in particular that the group has been organizing in response to is the push from the state government for police departments to adopt and implement reform plans. In response to the BLM wave of protests and civil unrest, on August 17 Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the implementation of the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.

The act requires that police departments collaborate with the wider community to create robust reforms. And while there appeared to be a genuine attempt to include legitimate reforms elsewhere in the state, Rome proved to be a different situation.

For over two years, the NAACP in Rome reached out to the chief of police in hopes they could meet to discuss issues of racial justice. Not once did the chief agree to sit down with them.

It came as no surprise to Sarita Ruiz when the NAACP and other activists never got the invitation to be a part of the reform committee. They felt shut out and so created their own focus group to propose a more far reaching set of reforms. 

Ruiz, who is part of the NAACP’s focus group, stated that the group was formed so that local residents “could have a voice.” She found that the RPD pushed back against just about every mild reform that was suggested, including an expansion of mental health resources, and implementing the use of body cams.

“It’s unacceptable that the RPD does not have body cameras but everybody around us does,” said Ruiz. She complained that the RPD has spent the better part of a year coming up with excuses to delay the process to implement body cams. 

Recently, the RPD announced that they finally purchased four body cams to test out. However, the Rome NAACP called out the city government for transferring excessive funds for ammunition, instead of equipping the entire police force with body cams.

After half a year of meeting behind closed doors, the RPD and their appointed reform committee finally made their plans public. Ruiz and others were outraged. She believes that the reform plan was essentially “written by the police department.”

“There should have been more community inclusion from the beginning,” stated Ruiz. While the governor encouraged prolonged input from the wider public, little attempt was made for a mass democratic, inclusive, or even transparent process, according to activists. “There were only two short opportunities to comment via zoom, said Ruiz. “The RPD, I don’t believe, really took this seriously enough. They had a golden opportunity to connect with the community and they missed it.”

Complicating matters is the refusal of the RPD to comply with state law following the June 12, 2020 repeal of section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law. That section of the law enabled police officers, fire fighters, and prison guards to shield disciplinary records from public view.

This change was a major win for activists who organized for years trying to have 50-a repealed. Momentum from activists grew after the 2014 NYPD killing of Eric Garner.

Cuomo responded to the sustained pressure. It was viewed as a major grassroots win. 

While nearby cities such as Utica publicly released disciplinary records of officers over the summer, the RPD has yet to release records and refuses to explain to the public why they are violating state law. 

Activists from both the NAACP and Copper City Collective spoke out against RPD’s refusal to release these records, as well as issues surrounding the reform plan. While the city council listened to the criticism, nothing was changed and the plan was unanimously approved. It is still unclear what the process for approval and implementation of these plans are from the governor’s office. 

In Rome and elsewhere, activists feel discouraged that most reform plans are a far cry from what many people demand—defunding, demilitarizing, and in some cases, the abolition of police altogether.

The Copper City Collective is currently working on their own plan, based in part on a list of reforms listed on the website 8toabolition. They plan to release their vision soon.

‘She Would Want Us to Fight’

Recently, the collective faced a number of setbacks. A major blow to morale came in late March when activists received the heartbreaking news that group cofounder Jasmine Millner unexpectedly passed away.

For weeks, activists were in a state of bewilderment and grief. “She was out there and voiced her opinion with no shame,” said Sarita Ruiz of Millner. “She made it feel like there was a team behind you, even if it was just Jasmine.” Other activists echoed Ruiz’s sentiment, and shared the conviction that Jasmine Millner helped build the foundation of BLM activism locally, and was a key movement leader.

Still grieving over this tragedy, on April 13 Joya Stuckman learned that the case against Donald DeCarolis was dismissed for lack of evidence a whole month earlier. The district attorney never bothered to inform her. Everyone in the group shared a sense of anger and frustration. 

As time slowly marches on in Rome, the Copper City Collective pushes to pick up the pace of political change. 

The group organized the first May Day rally in Rome in over a century. Plans are currently underway for a Juneteenth celebration, as well as a public tribute to Jasmine Millner. Several Black tenants at the sprawling Park Drive apartment complex reached out to the group for assistance over harassment and death threats they received from racist white neighbors. The friends and family of loved ones killed by local police maintain contact with the organization, hoping for some semblance of justice.

Although an insurmountable wall of injustice remains in this rustbelt city, the will to tackle it head on is unshakeable in the Copper City Collective. “I want us to keep fighting,” said Sarita Ruiz. Her desire and grit are shared by her fellow activists. She stated there are times when she feels like walking away from everything, “but Jasmine wouldn’t want us to do that. She would want us to fight.” 

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is a social movement journalist and organizer from Utica, NY affiliated with Copper City Collective. His work has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, The Indypendent, the Hudson Mohawk Magazine and elsewhere.