by Love and Rage Team
Addison Miller Park in Utica’s west side was shrouded in silence on October 10, a sunny autumn day, as a crowd gathered near the park’s playground. This was the same location where 19 year old Jessie Lee Rose was tragically killed by the Utica police in 2013. The silence was finally broken as it was pierced by Jessie’s mother Kristine Lee Rose.
“They murdered my son! The police murdered my son Jessie!” For several minutes, Kristine yelled out loud about the injustices that happened to Jessie, to her family, and to all indigenous people at the hands of police and state violence. On that tragic July day in 2013, Officer Ellis was reported to have run into the park shooting at Jessie multiple times. This was the very first time that she and her husband Michael stepped foot in the park since moving away from Utica six years ago.
Activists and Jessie’s friends who had gathered that day looked on in respectful silence, many finding it difficult to hold back tears. Various Black Lives Matter, Haudenosaunee, and radical flags fluttered in the wind as police cars slowly drove by the park. A traditional Mohawk lacrosse stick was seen weighting down a pile of protest signs.
The rally was organized by the Utica Abolitionists, a multiracial group of activists organizing to push for alternatives to mass incarceration and policing. The group, which was formed over the summer, was born out of the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation. Over the last few months the Abolitionists launched a Justice for Jessie campaign and Justice for Walter campaign to find justice for Jessie Lee Rose and Walter Washington who was a 38 year old Black man gunned down by the Utica police in 2005. In a press release the Abolitionists reiterated the “Demands of the People” for the rally, which were core demands in recent protests in the city.
After Kristine spoke, people picked up the signs that read “Justice for Jessie,” “Native Lives Matter,” “Black Lives Matter,” as well as signs with anti-Columbus messages. While Kristine, Michael and a smaller group of activists discussed plans for the day, a Black man with broad shoulders approached the group from the edge of the park. It was Terry Washington, the brother of Walter Washington, and a vocal advocate to find justice for Walter. This moment was the first time the two families had ever met each other. Their eyes welled up with tears as they exchanged condolences. Their pain and suffering ran deep; a pain only they knew.
Attention soon turned to the far side of the playground to Utica Abolitionist Hana Selimovic who welcomed everyone to the rally and delivered the first speech. Four years ago Selimovic was harassed by the UPD because of her activism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Years later, undeterred by this intimidation for her political activism, she is still involved.
“Today, we march for Jessie and we keep Walter in mind to remind us of the hard truth that the police institutions that claim they’re here to serve and protect us are instead killing our community, especially our Black and indigenous members with no consequence and at a terrifying rate,” Selimovic said. She later demanded that former UPD officer Ellis and Sgt. Geddes be “charged and convicted” for the deaths of both Jessie and Walter. Geddes is currently suspended without pay and under investigation for attacking a Black woman and child with pepper spray. He has also faced at least four lawsuits over the years for various incidents of police brutality, racial profiling, and civil rights violations according to documents recently provided to Love and Rage Media.
Hana Selimovic was followed by another Abolitionist, Elizabeth Horton, who read a statement of solidarity from the Syracuse based Resilient Indigenous Action Collective. The powerful statement made the connection between the killing of Jessie to a longer history of state and settler colonial violence against indigenous people.
“Jessie’s death did not occur in a vacuum—it was not an isolated incident. Rather his death must be understood within the context of white settlement of these lands and the ongoing violence of the settler police state. Multiple studies have found that Native Americans are the most likely racial group to be killed by law enforcement,” the statement read.
Horton continued reading. An eruption of cheers and clapping responded to her closing remarks.
“The Resilient Indigenous Action Collective (RIAC) has and continues to take a position that settler-colonial systems, to include the infrastructure of policing, prisons, and capitalism, must be abolished. RIAC demands an immediate, thorough, and independent investigation into the death of Jessie Lee Rose. RIAC stands in solidarity with the family and friends of Jessie Lee Rose in remembering and mourning him, and in their resolute and unwavering demand for justice. Indigenous lives have value, as did Jessie’s. We are not invisible. We will not forget.”
One of several of Jessie’s friends who came out to the rally that day was Paul Adams. He grabbed the megaphone and read a short speech written on two small folded up pieces of paper. His voice was a little shaky as he struggled to hide some of his emotions. Adams’s speech made it abundantly clear how large and painful the gaping hole left in the lives of all of Jessie’s friends is.
Kristine was the last to speak. Her husband Michael, donning a Native Lives Matter shirt, stood beside her. In the short pauses of her speech, you could hear the fabric of the bright purple Haudenosaunee flag flapping in the wind.
When Kristine speaks, her dominating presence and thundering voice capture the crowd. She lambasted the corruption in the city and put sole blame on Mayor Palmieri and Chief of Police Mark Williams for the death of her son. “My son did not deserve what was done to him! He was a very good person. He had a great future ahead of him. We need justice for my son, justice for Walter Washington, justice for all!” The crowd cheered. Many raised clenched fists in the air.
The call to start the march was made. “Say his name!” “Jessie Lee Rose!” “Say his name!” “Jessie Lee Rose!”
The energetic group was escorted through the city streets by two cars, each one with a flag on a pole sticking out the window. An indigenous Maya Zapatista flag was in one car, and an upside down US flag with the names of indigenous people killed by the US government written across the red and white stripes on the other.
The marchers snaked their way through Cornhill, shouting, “Say his name! Walter Washington,” and “Why are we here? Jessie Lee Rose!” They made a stop at the former residence of Walter Washington – the same location where he was shot and killed by UPD Sgt. Samuel Geddes. Residents came out of their houses, including some of Walter’s relatives, and shouted out their support for the protest. One Abolitionist gave an impromptu speech about the police killing of Walter. “The UPD killing of Walter Washington was unjustified. It was a murder and a cover up. And when the officer who killed him, Sam Geddes was promoted to sergeant, the message the city sent to the people of Utica is if you’re a cop and you shoot and kill an innocent Black man, you will get rewarded!” Activists then took a knee or sat down and participated in a moment of silence for five minutes.
As the march continued East on James Street, the heart of the working class and predominantly Black neighborhood of Cornhill, residents honked horns from their cars, and shouted cheers of support from their balconies and porches. Many pumped their fists to express their solidarity.
One resident who expressed support was Isaac Cruz who shared his own story of pain and suffering. He motioned his hand toward his car that was riddled with bullet holes. He pointed at the broken side mirror. “This was where the bullet hit that almost killed me. Look at this.” His exasperation punctuated every word that rolled out of his mouth. He pulled down the neck of his shirt, revealing a tattoo covering his chest and a raw scar where the bullet entered his heart. “I was shot for no reason a month ago. The police haven’t done anything. They’re not even investigating this. This needs to change.”
He spoke of a shared frustration felt in the community: that the UPD takes very few investigations seriously, especially those that involve violence inflicted on poor and working class Black, Latino and other residents of color. So many people have their own stories of unsolved shootings and murders in the city, leading many to question why the police even exist in the first place if they’re not competently following through with their basic job duties.
One of the activists exchanged contact information with him, promising to keep in touch.
The march picked up energy in the last stretch on Mohawk Street. The sun shined brilliantly through the autumn leaves as the crowd arrived at their destination: the Christopher Columbus monument. This is where the Utica Abolitionists and Jessie’s friends and family planned to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The Columbus statue has earned the reputation of being the most hated, the most reviled monument in the city. For years, activists have called for the monument to be taken down. Over the summer a petition circulated, demanding the monument be removed. To date it has grown to nearly 2,000 signatures. Recently, local residents started an email campaign to lobby the Common Council in a more official capacity, demanding the removal of the monument. They are hoping others can join them in their effort. And in recent weeks, the monument has been the target of graffiti on two separate occasions.
As the group chanted slogans condemning Columbus and planted their flags around the monument, one activist scrambled up the base of the monument and draped Columbus in a homemade KKK costume. In a final touch he placed two arrows on the statue, protruding from Columbus’s neck and chest.
The group below waved their signs at the motorists driving by and chanted, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA.”
Kristine picked up the megaphone again and told everyone about the brutal history of Columbus, the conquistadores, slavery and genocide of indigenous peoples. The imagery of the conquistador and perpetrator of genocide and slavery draped in a KKK cloak was off putting to some in the community. While initially most motorists driving by honked in support, one motorist captured a short video and put it on social media. A bit of confusion on social media ensued about who the demonstrators where and what the intent behind the guerilla theater was. WKTV added to the misinformation by falsely reporting that activists “vandalized” the statue. The news station has since taken their original post off their website.
Some of the Abolitionists who threw the cloak on Columbus later spoke of how the KKK targeted their grandparents with acts of violence, harassment and cross burnings. “It’s important for people to know that there are other people in our community who have the same emotional response to seeing Columbus without the KKK robe. Jessie felt that way. His whole family does. Columbus was just as bad as the KKK and this statue needs to be taken down,” stated one Abolitionist.
Another relative of Walter Washington appeared at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration and spoke to the activists. “Yesterday was difficult. It was Walter’s birthday,” she said. She thanked everyone for being out there for her uncle and for Jessie Lee Rose.
The afternoon long rally and march, filled with the deep love and righteous anger of the protesters, the defiant speeches and chants, the tears shed on this stolen and occupied Haudenosaunee land, and the cries for Justice for Jessie and Walter all came to a calming end. Jessie’s parents, his friends, and all the activists who never knew him but wish they had, participated in a collective reading of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World. The closing works of prayer were recited in a collective hum:
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it is not our intention to leave anything out. If something has been forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send their greetings and their thanks in their own way.
Now our minds our one.
“We love you Jessie Lee Rose,” was shouted into the crowd by a few people. It was seven years in the making, but the Justice for Jessie campaign has taken firm route in a city brimming with activism and finally at the precipice of true change.