Poking the Bear in Geneva: Why did an elected official want to shoot folks because of an educational forum?

The organizers of the Racial Justice Teach-In Series, which is co-sponsored by the HWS Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Africana Studies Program, produced the following statement in response to Geneva City Councilor At-Large Frank Gaglianese’s comments that he wished he’d been able to shoot and kill all of the attendees at their July 18th teach-in, “Education for Transformation: What We All Need to Know about Police Accountability.” Video of these comments was released by Geneva Believer on Friday July 31st. This statement was originally published by FingerLakes1.com.

Poking the Bear in Geneva:

Why did an elected official want to shoot folks because of an educational forum?

From the organizers of the Racial Justice Teach-In Series, co-sponsored by Africana Studies and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at HWS

Dehumanization is a process that ends in violence.

As many in our community recently learned, City Councilor Frank Gaglianese expressed a desire to kill the participants of a recent racial justice teach-in. In light of this disturbing revelation, we the organizers of the event believe it is our responsibility to offer a public statement in response. We hope that it serves to broaden and deepen our shared understanding of this moment and the need for us to work toward being a humanizing community and a truly multiracial democracy. We believe we can only do so if we can look courageously and honestly at the circumstances before us.

It is important to consider that the organizers and participants in this event included a substantial cross section of people of color, particularly Black participants, from across Geneva and the region. In addition, the event aimed to address the realities and concerns of racially and economically marginalized communities. Historically, racial justice initiatives led by people of color, have been met with violence—sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, and sometimes both. It is with this in mind, then, that we wish to unpack the following comments made by Councilor Frank Gaglianese at a recent “Back the Blue” event:

 “This is what the silent majority is all about. This is the country, not the minority, little squawkers that think that their voice is being heard. It’s not. This is what it is all about. You keep poking the bear and more people like this will keep coming out.”

 

“They don’t have the balls. Like the Police Accountability Board. I don’t even need to hear anything, my vote’s no.”

 

“The College did their whole thing for police accountability. If I could have got a gun and shot the squares on my computer screen and killed everybody… [it was] disgusting.”

These statements are reprehensible and unbecoming of anyone holding public office. However, what potentially gets obscured in the justified outrage that many in the city have already expressed is the racist ideology which underlies Gaglianese’s words. Whether he knowingly participates in white supremacist thinking or not, is not our focus here. Often when we think of white supremacy, we envision Klan robes or swastikas. However, if we look closely, white supremacy is far more personal and casual. Gaglianese’s actions reveal deep racial undercurrents that we must understand. We see in them a process of dehumanization, and central to that process are individual acts of fantasizing and encouraging violence. While we and our loved ones were personally disturbed by this, our statement hopes to take a step back and shed light on the bigger picture of how white supremacist ideology is at work in this moment and specifically how it operates in Geneva.

Silencing and threatening marginalized communities is part of the process of dehumanization.

Upon approaching the epicenter of the “Back the Blue” rally, Gaglianese stated: “This is what the silent majority is all about.” At once, this statement is both misleading and ahistorical. Not only did the attendees of the rally come from throughout the wider Finger Lakes region and thus are unlikely the ‘majority’ of Genevans, but the gathering was made up of mostly white men—a group which has held political voice for centuries and is not ‘silent’ in their power. White supremacist ideology necessarily relies on this kind of historical amnesia to justify the marginalization of others. These ideologies reject the contributions people of color have made in building the US into the economic, political, and military world power that it presently is. Gaglianese’s own statement reinforced this when he continued: “This is the country, not the minority.” He is thus excluding others from belonging properly and is falling in line with an ideology which claims that only those regarded as white are proper citizens of the country. This explains why we must actively proclaim that “Black lives matter.” It is why we must proclaim it here in Geneva.

Exclusion is part of the process of dehumanization.

This exclusion of people of color from those who ‘matter’ undermines the very humanity of minority communities, as Gaglianese exposes with his reference to “squawking.” Who or what ‘squawks’? This verb is generally used to make reference to birds and denotes an unpleasant or discordant sound. To equate people with animals is to disavow their humanity. Historically, every recognized genocide in the world involved the perpetrators undermining the humanness of their victims. People of Jewish ancestry were called “rats” by Nazis in Germany, and Tutsis were called “cockroaches” by Hutus in Rwanda. Once you have established a hierarchy of belonging, you are able to justify unequal treatment to the point of dehumanization. This dehumanization explains the disproportionate violence minority communities face when encountering law enforcement in America. It explains this violence in Geneva.

Even if Gaglianese meant “squawking” as way of demonstrating his displeasure at the ‘sounds’ minorities make, we can still see white supremacist ideology. What is ‘unpleasant’ or ‘discordant’ about the ‘sounds’ minorities are making? Firstly, and perhaps obviously, their making any sound is discordant with supremacist beliefs that minorities, and their allies, do not belong and therefore should not have any political voice. In other words, these communities are not worth listening to. The voice of the minority communities is thus unpleasant for white supremacists as it destroys the image they have of themselves and the institutions that uphold the status quo. This is an anti-democratic refusal to take into account the voices of everyone. This reveals how minority voices are ignored in this country. It reveals how they are ignored in Geneva.

Employing misogyny, homo/transphobia, and racism is part of the process of dehumanization.

When Gaglianese said “they don’t have the balls. Like the Police Accountability Board. I don’t even need to hear anything, my vote’s no,” he was exposing how white supremacist ideology uses sexism and misogyny to suppress the democratic process. He was saying that people’s voices should only be considered valid if they have the fortitude to withstand the kind of intimidation he resorted to with his murderous daydreaming. In this way, white supremacist thought is revealed for its dismissal of the democratic process and its willingness to do whatever is necessary to marginalize minority communities from the political process. As the councilor pointed out, irrespective of what evidence was placed before him, “my vote’s no.” This reveals how the democratic process is subverted in the US. It reveals how it is subverted in Geneva.

Gaglianese’s final recorded statement—where he reveals that the act of Genevans meeting to educate themselves about the operations of the city government was so offensive that he was overcome by a homicidal rage— is critical, not only because it expresses a desire to murder his constituents, but because an attack on education is an attack on democracy. Education has always been seen as a path toward emancipation, economic security, and equality—and it is therefore no surprise that educational initiatives by Black and brown communities are often met by racialized violence. There are too many examples to list here, but to see the pattern one only has to look at the introduction of the Jim Crow laws in order to end the public education initiatives of Reconstruction or the resurgence of the KKK in the 1950s in response to Brown v. Board of Education. This is why education is a contested space of liberation and suppression. This is why it is a contested space in Geneva.

Some may respond that Gaglianese did not act on these desires, that they were only words. But his words were a warning: Do not try to make changes or challenge the established (white, male) authority—don’t, in his words, “poke the bear.” This is the nature of white supremacy—it is an instrumental ideology where the ends (maintaining an unjust status quo) justify the means. Here in Geneva, we have the chance to start saying “no more.”

Dehumanization is a process that ends in violence.

Contemporary efforts to advance police accountability have been met with violent opposition reflecting a culture of white supremacy. It is a racist instinct that we must come to terms with if we are to realize the very ethos of America: a democratic process committed to the realization of equality for all. We are Geneva, and we are strong because we recognize our shared humanity and mutual indebtedness to each other. Too many of us think this way to, let the few dictate who and what we truly are. Let us “poke the bear,” and let us continue to educate ourselves. If we do not, we lose both ourselves and the future we want to create.

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