A red, black and green flag with the words Black Lives Matter dangles from a metal iron poll at the quoin of South Station. A gust of wind whips through Arch Street, sending the flag into undulations, twisting it around the poll. On the ground tents erected by protesters who have spent the last five days camped here shudder and shake appearing to be about to take flight. Merissa Hickenbottom, an activist whose injury at the hands of a Albany Lt. Devin Anderson sparked this encampment, chats with two women who ask not to be identified. “Could you use fresh vegetables?” one of the women inquires. “Well, I’m sort of sick of that bag of chips, all that processed stuff,” she responds.
Fresh vegetables would undoubtedly be nice, but they aren’t going to change things too drastically. Hickenbottom celebrated her 25th birthday here. The weather has gone from Spring-like to downright hostile and there are no real signs this protest is going to end.
Activists want Anderson fired, they want Mayor Kathy Sheehan to come talk to them, they want a database of APD records that can be easily accessed. But right now the only communication between the protesters and the mayor’s office is happening through experienced local activist Amy Jones. There’s no sign the mayor wants to address the larger group. And without some acknowledgement there’s no reason for the protesters to leave.
Spend a few hours at the Arch Street encampment and it becomes clear that, as rough as it is sleeping on a stone street in freezing temperatures, this encampment has a chance to last for quite a while. Every few minutes visitors stop by with more supplies: wood for the fire pits, bottled water, baked goods, snacks, pizza, generators, tents upon tents, rows of foldable chairs, blankets, sleeping bags and more are routinely brought in.
This encampment can last because community members, businesses and local organizations are willing it to. Prominent local restaurants have donated food, bakeries have given donuts and treats, groups like Food Not Bombs are bringing water and other basic supplies.
Sheehan initially compared the protestors to the Capitol Insurrectionists, later apologizing after getting angry complaints. While the local police union tries to paint the protesters as terrorists, Albany residents treat them like family.
Some who bring goods say they stand in solidarity. Some elaborate further, saying that the city’s use of tear gas against protesters last May, and the Common Council’s failure to pass legislation to ban the use of tear gas at a meeting on Monday, inspired them to get directly involved.
The encampment’s proximity to a shelter means donated supplies also help those who regularly live on the streets. They stop by periodically to warm themselves by the fire, get a drink, or to stop and chat.
As the sun goes down on Wednesday evening the wind picks up again and a sleet-like substance falls from the sky. Camp dwellers have mostly taken to tents but some work determinedly to organize newly arrived supplies–PPE, first aid and other supplies in one tent, wood for the fire under the tarp, water and food stockpiled under another.
Around 8 p.m. the cold and wind takes on a bone-creeping chill, the kind that gets you because you’ve had a taste of Spring and then had it taken away, the kind your body can’t quite adjust to. And then a new delivery arrives in the form of two silver gas heaters–the kind you might find on the patio of a boutique bar. Protesters get to work assembling them. They rise up like flame spewing towers, like trophies of warmth.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, supporters rally friends to donate to protesters’ Venmo and Cash App accounts for more equipment, fuel, food, disinfectant wipes, blankets, hygiene products.
Supplies aren’t the only things the community provides the encampment; it’s basic security, too. Samson Contompasis, along with others, stands watch for pickup trucks and suspicious visitors, some of whom shout racial slurs. On Wednesday morning city workers arrive with fencing to erect around the station, cordoning protesters off from the sidewalk they’ve covered in chalk messages. Along with the workers are a sizable number of police. There’s concern that escalation could ensue if the officers make their way into the camp. Quick thinking and a friendly connection between the protesters’ security team and one of the officers leads to an agreement: the police will stand by as the workers install the fencing.
On Wednesday evening social media posts to raise funds for the encampment spring forth; friends tag friends, who tag friends. This reporter receives a request that reads, “Ask them what kind of supplies they need?” So I ask Adam Walker, one of the more prominent organizers.
“We can always use tents and sleeping bags,” he says, and pauses, “This is going to sound weird, but we could really use a trail cam so we can document people who come at night to cause trouble and so we can show everyone that we aren’t damaging property.”
It’s a perilous situation for protesters, knowing police are looking for reasons to oust them, knowing racists are out there looking to attack or provoke and with the weather turning against them. And yet the community support remains. It’s likely the protesters will, too.