Plattsburgh State students head up the steps of City Hall in hopes the Common Council will allow them to hold an annual rally in the streets.
PLATTSBURGH — Organizers of a yearly rally held to protest sexual violence against women don’t understand why they cannot take to the streets this year.
Take Back the Night has been allowed in the streets for three years now, they say, so why should this year be different?
But Plattsburgh City officials say that is not the case. They approved the rally but restricted it to the sidewalks, saying they never intended to allow the women to march in the streets.
“There are pictures and videos of us marching in the street,” said Dr. Simona Sharoni, a professor at Plattsburgh State and Chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department. “We have been marching in the streets the past three years.”
In fact, videos and photographs show Plattsburgh City Police offering coordinated assistance in past years during the rally.
Still, city officials say that was never the intent when they approved the event.
“Whether they walked in the road in the past,” said Mayor Donald Kasprzak, “we voted on the sidewalk.”
Take Back the Night began in Belgium in 1976 to protest the violence women experienced. The first known Take Back the Night march in the United States was organized in San Francisco, California in November of 1978.
Today it is an international march and rally held to protest rape and other forms of sexual violence against women.
The local group is seeking permission to hold an event from 9:15 to 10 p.m., April 21. They would march from Brinkerhoff Street to Margaret Street and then back up Broad Street. The group has walked in the street each year since 2008.
But during the April 4 Common Council meeting, Kasprzak said the Take Back the Night group was insisting they be allowed to walk in the road at night, something he said has never been allowed.
“Safety is our priority,” he said.
The mayor explained that if the measure was approved to allow them to hold the event, restricted to the sidewalk, he would contact law enforcement to inform them it had been approved, but that there is a “difference of opinion.”
Councilor Timothy Carpenter said if they were allowed to walk in the street, then all groups would have to be afforded the same opportunity. He also said that if the rally was approved for the sidewalks and marchers walked in the streets anyway he would not approve such an event in the future.
Councilor James Calnon pointed out that a group walking the street would technically be a parade and must apply for the appropriate permit.
Sharoni and others insisted they were allowed to walk in the streets in the past.
They said after the approval was given they coordinated with university and city police to prepare for the rally. During the rally, city police provided assistance while they marched in the street. She said she did not understand how all of this could have occurred if the groups were only given permission to walk on the sidewalks in past years.
“I want to express my unhappiness at the inclination not to continue to approve the Take Back the Night march in the street,” she told the Common Council at the April 4 meeting. “We have been marching respectfully. Why has this changed?”
She said she expects at least 300 individuals to attend the event.
Jamila Hinton, a Plattsburgh State student and president of the Center for Women’s Concerns, turned to the minutes of a Common Council meeting in April of 2010. During that meeting, she said, it clearly shows the request was to march in the streets and the event was then approved by city officials.
“We have a video of us on the streets with police cars in front of us and behind us,” said Natalie Spiess, a Plattsburgh State student and secretary of the Center for Women’s Concerns. “Why would that be if the Common Council didn’t approve us to march in the streets?”
Elizabeth Cohen, a city resident and Plattsburgh State professor said it was a “fair request” to have a peaceful protest in the street against sexual violence.
But city officials stood firm regarding the April 21 event.
“I have been mayor for almost six years,” Kasprzak said. “Not one vote for this event has ever been passed to allow anyone to walk at night in the streets.”
Perhaps it had been done without the council’s permission, he suggested.
“We have done our research and will not debate this,” he said.
Calnon said the point of the event is for women to take back their freedom to walk at night free from violence, but that freedom has been to walk at night on the sidewalk.
“Taking back the night is being able to walk safely,” said Councilor Christopher Jackson. “You don’t normally walk safely in the street.”
The Common Council, absent George Rabideau, voted unanimously to approve the event, on the sidewalk.
As a result, there will be no downtown march this year.
“Agreeing to march under the new conditions set by the council would have betrayed our sisters around the world,” Sharoni said. “Sadly, Plattsburgh will be one of the few places around the world without a Take Back the Night march in the streets this year.”