LAKE PLACID — The words of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” echoed off the walls of Corinthian Hall in Rochester on July 5, 1852. On Sunday they echoed amid the Adirondack High Peaks at the farm and grave of another famous abolitionist.
Around 100 people had gathered in the pouring rain at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site to hear excerpts from the speech, delivered by Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.
Douglass’ answer to the speech’s titular question was a strong one.
“’(It is) a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,’” Saldana said, reading Douglass’ words. “’To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.’”
This speech, originally given to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, is one of Douglass’ most famous. He talks of how, like streams turn into channels, nations’ pasts dig courses for the future, for better or for worse.
The speech depicts an America stuck in a channel not living up to the lofty goals of its founders. Douglass, an abolitionist, said the U.S. — which had yet to enter a Civil War over the right for Black people to not be enslaved — was the most guilty of all countries.
“’Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival,’” Saldana said, quoting Douglass.
Over this weekend in Rochester, a statue of Douglass was ripped from its base and discarded in the Genesee River gorge, around 50 feet away. Police in that city are investigating who committed the vandalism.
A promise to fulfill
Around the field, American flags were flown at half-staff; signs bearing the names of Black men, women and children killed in the U.S. rose from the ground like gravestones; and a double rainbow hung in the sky, a remnant of a flash thunderstorm that had rolled over the gathering minutes before.
Saldana spent 38 years in New York prisons and was released around three years ago, in his late 60s. He read the names of Black men and women who have died in New York due to beatings by officers or medical neglect, finishing each run of names with the phrase, “Incarcerated lives matter.”
He said when he was “younger and reckless,” he got in fights that landed him in solitary confinement. That, he said, is when he first “met” Frederick Douglass.
John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church, delivered a message and a prayer as the rain ceased. He quoted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew.
“When (Jesus) opens his mouth, what comes out is a scandal,” Sampson said, then reading the scripture. “’Blessed are those who grieve. ... Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. ... Blessed are the peacemakers.’”
Sampson said those overlooked by society are part of God’s plan. Sampson said this sentiment is just as scandalous today and that the people gathered at John Brown Farm were tasked with fulfilling the American dream of equality for all.
Before the speeches, attendees milled around the “Memorial Field for Black Lives” installation, created by Karen Davidson, reading the names of black people killed by police and vigilante mobs, what she calls “irrefutable violations.”
She said the project began with the shooting death of Ahmad Aubrey in Georgia. She said she began researching the facts behind his death and chronicling them, synthesizing them down into six words: “Unarmed jogging man hunted, shot, dead.”
This was going to be printed on a sandwich board she was going to wear at a protest.
But before she got the chance to protest, the coronavirus struck and the deaths of Breonna Taylor — of whom Davidson wrote, “Plainclothed police, wrong address, no-knock warrant, sleeping EMT, shot dead” — and George Floyd — “Handcuffed man face down on ground, police, knee, pinned neck, ‘I can’t breathe’” — received national attention and resulted in weeks of ongoing protests. The list of names she felt needed attention grew.
Davidson said she felt like she was going to cry watching people read the signs on Sunday. She said the process of researching and writing the biographies was depressing.
“The stories are tragic. They are unjust. The injustice is stark. And you can’t forget it,” she said. “It doesn’t take very many words to encapsulate a moment that is accelerated though adrenaline, fear and terror.”
She said her emotions are not shared by everyone, though. She said on the Fourth of July, a truck flying a campaign flag for President Donald Trump drove around the John Brown monument, circling the memorial field’s signs and revving its engine.
In her speech, she took aim at several policing practices she opposes, including no-knock warrants, a lack of deescalation tactics and stop-and-frisk. She said when these practices are proven to be ineffective at stopping crime or reducing harm to the public, they only serve to perpetuate fear.
“Policing by feelings, not facts, targets a perceived enemy, rarely a real one,” Davidson said. “What empowers a man to act with profound callousness? What could possibly bring integrity back to law enforcement? If our system of criminal justice doesn’t send the message to police officers that there are consequences for unnecessary escalation in the line of duty, then it is our responsibility to deliver that message loud and clear. A police badge is not intended to be a license to kill.”