Legislator renews push for human rights commission
A confrontation near Indian Brook Falls in August has prompted appeals from elected officials for serious talk in Philipstown about bigotry and renewed a push to create a human rights commission in Putnam County.
The incident occurred on Aug. 21 when a bus stopped on Indian Brook Road to drop off six teenage girls and four adults for a hike at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary.
Two residents challenged them and the situation escalated until a call to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department brought one or more deputies to defuse the situation. The girls and staff, from a foster-care program, were all African American, and at least one resident allegedly used a racial epithet.
A brief Sheriff’s Department report said “a parking problem” sparked the altercation, and that the bus had departed by the time the Sheriff’s Department arrived. It also stated that in placing the call, a woman had claimed that “the tour bus is back and she is ‘being harassed.’ ” The report did not identify the residents.
Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea, who has expressed alarm at the incident, said on Tuesday (Oct. 13) that he likewise does not know who the residents were.
Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the Putnam County Legislature, told fellow lawmakers on Oct. 6 that the incident was “pretty awful” and demonstrated the need for a county human rights commission to “address things like this,” she said. The Legislature in August rejected her proposal to establish a commission, but Montgomery said she’d “like to continue the discussion.”
The girls were on a trip organized by The Felix Organization, a nonprofit that provides “inspiring opportunities,” including hiking and other outdoor activities, for foster-care children, and in Putnam Valley operates an overnight camp that has been shuttered this summer because of the pandemic.
Shortly after the argument, the eight-car, town-owned parking area on Indian Brook Road near the Audubon site was blocked with traffic cones and, later, more permanent barriers.
For years, homeowners near Indian Brook Falls, a picturesque waterfall on state parkland, and the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, west of the falls, have complained that visitors overrun the area, engage in unruly behavior, drive erratically and park haphazardly on the winding dirt road that at times narrows to a single lane. The neighbors aired their grievances again at an Oct. 1 Town Board meeting.
Greg MacGarva, a representative of the delegation, told the Town Board that disagreements with visitors included one “culminating in a near-violent physical assault on a resident this summer by some people on a bus tour.” He did not elaborate.
In letters to Shea and Montgomery several weeks ago, and in a phone interview with The Current on Tuesday (Oct. 13), Amanda Ricken Simonetta, the executive director of The Felix Organization, said that while she was not on the trip, she received a detailed account from the adults who were.
Simonetta, who lives in Beacon, said she is familiar with Indian Brook Road and “I know that parking there is a pain.” She said “there was never an intent to park” the bus, only to halt long enough for the girls and chaperones to disembark.
The neighbors “were the ones creating the traffic problem,” she said. “They started yelling and chastising and saying, ‘Go back where you came from’ and used the N-word.”
She described the incident as “heart-wrenching” because the girls “are survivors of abuse and neglect” and “have faced abandonment in their life and overcome quite a bit of trauma. To re-traumatize them like that is just really unconscionable.”
To help the adolescents process the incident, The Felix Organization urged them to write about it. One wrote that the girls had been called the N-word and xenophobic epithets, adding that a staff member had been called a “Black bitch.” The girl wrote that she had eagerly anticipated the visit to the marsh but that, after reaching the trailhead, “we were told to leave, that ‘we’ did not belong there,” and that she felt “embarrassed and confused” by what happened “In the end, I just want to say: black lives matter.”
Simonetta praised the Sheriff’s Department. Upon reaching the scene, a deputy asked “What’s the problem here?” and soon decided the hike could proceed, she said. “That was a very positive side of this story, that the police were called” and found the girls “aren’t doing anything wrong. That was very good because, who knows, it could’ve gone in another direction, if there had been a different response from the police. So I was very grateful to the Sheriff’s Office.”
On a subsequent trip, the girls visited Boscobel, “where they had a great time,” Simonetta added. “Boscobel was wonderful.”
In an Oct. 13 letter to The Current, Shea wrote that “use of racial slurs is never acceptable and everyone knows this.” He said he has asked Simonetta to bring the group back to Philipstown so he and others can “attempt to make amends by doing something that shows our best selves,” perhaps a hike or visit to a local farm. He also proposed a discussion “of what they felt and how we can do better here in Philipstown.”
He had spoken, more obliquely, at the Town Board meeting on Oct. 1. In an unusual speech as the meeting convened, Shea said that Philipstown residents are fortunate to live in such a setting and need to recognize they have responsibilities, including being “a good ambassador for this town” and trying “to lead by example and be better people.” He acknowledged that “recently we’ve been inundated and there’s a lot of tension about a lot of things. But we need to extend ourselves, we really do.”
He confirmed on Tuesday that dismay over the Indian Brook incident had prompted his remarks.
Visiting the Marsh
Scott Silver, director of the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, said on Wednesday (Oct. 14) that while the Visitors’ Center at the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary is closed, the grounds and trails, including the boardwalk that extends into the marsh, are open daily to visitors. The boardwalk had been closed for a time this summer because of the COVID-19 threat.
He said that to his knowledge there have been not been other confrontations such as the one that occurred on Aug. 21, “although our neighbors have previously asked people to move vehicles blocking their driveways.” With the increase in visitors to Constitution Marsh and Indian Brook Falls, “the parking situation has become increasingly more difficult,” he said.
To alleviate traffic congestion, Audubon has arranged with Boscobel for visitors, for a fee, to use the parking lots there from Friday to Monday and walk to the Audubon preserve, about three-quarters of a mile. Aubudon recommends that large groups notify it in advance of a visit.