LONSBERY: I went to the riot last night

posted by Bob Lonsberry -

I spent three and a half hours last night, walking the streets and neighborhoods of northeast Rochester, just watching.

It was the last night of the Puerto Rican Festival, safe behind a fence at Frontier Field, and the annual mayhem on the streets was about to begin.

Or so I thought.

It's one of the most predictable and embarrassing dates on the Rochester calendar. The Puerto Rican Festival closes, and a long, hot night of throwing rocks at cops begins.

At least that's what most of us think.

But then, most of us have never seen it. Oh, it's on the news and in the paper, and each year we compare stats about arrests and number of officers deployed, but across our region, only a small percentage have actually gone and witnessed what happens.

Including me. 

And I decided to change that. 

So last night at 6 I parked at the Tops plaza at Clinton and Upper Falls and just started walking north. I walked a square up Clinton to Avenue D and down Hudson to Clifford and back to Clinton, and I zigzagged the small streets that cross that area, paying particular attention to Clinton, Hudson and Remington, as I thought those might be the areas most likely to have troubles.

Sometimes I sat on the curb, or ingratiated myself onto a porch. I counted the police and analyzed their tactics and struck up conversations with people on the street. But mostly I just watched. What people were doing, the dynamic between them, the spirit of the place.

And I came away with something sweet. 

I was reminded of my intense love for the people, places and cultures of the city of Rochester, and of my admiration and respect for the Rochester Police Department. I didn't see any rioting, and when rocks were thrown at officers I was a few blocks away and had to jog over. By the time I got there, everything was calm and a large number of officers with hats and bats stood quietly maintaining order.

I think that was the second level of their response.

The first was a number of five-car phalanxes of Rochester police cruisers moving as a unit under the command of a sergeant. You saw them all over, a quick-moving line of five or six squad cars, quietly around a corner waiting to be needed, or moving lights and sirens into place.

It was actually a brilliant police tactic.

At one point, on Clinton Avenue between Clifford and Avenue A, a crowd of a few hundred gathered on the sidewalks. Various souped-up motorcycles were parading and preening, and boys on bicycles were riding impressive wheelies. Then a man started burning rubber on a motorcycle, locking the front wheel and making clouds of smoke with his back wheel. This brought people off the sidewalks and into the street and in just a couple of minutes the dynamic of the situation changed, potentially in a negative way, especially from the standpoint of crowd safety. 

Without hesitation, one of these five-car squads rolled right into the middle of it all, right up the street, and two officers immediately got out of each car. Burly men in sunglasses, one with a pepper-ball gun, and they just stood there, looking at the crowd.

No order was given, no confrontation took place, but a message was sent -- and obeyed. 

Everybody got back on the sidewalk, a little boredom settled in, and things calmed down.

And after about 20 minutes the officers got back in their cars and drove off.

All of the major intersections were controlled by the police, limiting but not stopping traffic, and the state police helicopter hovered overhead.

Groups of five or six cars continued to snake around the area for hours.

It was a wonderfully effective, non-confrontational, measured way to police. I admired the plan and its execution. I was proud of the department and its officers.

But the night wasn't really about the police, and it wasn't really about interaction with the police.

It was about a good time. It was about thousands and thousands of people with an intense and joyous pride in their Puerto Rican heritage -- and many others who were caught up in it.

The best way to describe what happens is to call it a parade. But as opposed to a parade that has a specific course up a specific street, this parade ranges over any number of streets in any number of ways. And it is a parade that is as much about those watching as it is those passing.

The most obvious aspect of it are the hundreds of vehicles, many festooned with the Puerto Rican flag, which ride up and down the streets, honking their horns. Often there are people leaning out the windows, or sitting in the window sills, or on top of the vehicles, waving flags and shouting.

Overwhelmingly, these people are beautiful.

They are not rowdies. They are not toughs or thugs. Many of them are children, many of them are women, many of the vehicles are driven by mothers and grandmothers. You see in their faces not mischief and malice, but joy and mirth. 

I was an old white guy walking down the sidewalk, and I was waved to and shouted at by countless cars, all sending me the same happy greeting anyone else got.

Watching these cars pass by, in yard after yard, are families.

Many have little kids in large numbers, some are adults on the grass or the porches. One large group I visited with on Hudson Avenue was presided over by a matriarch -- Mrs McFadden -- who was the grandmother of almost all the people there. 

People sit and watch the passing cars, waving Puerto Rican flags back at them, or just enjoying the spectacle.

Except for the level of enthusiasm and maybe the volume, it is the same principle as any parade anywhere. 

I watched this for more than three hours, and came away feeling like I had seen -- or participated in -- something sweet and good. Yes, the vehicular laws get ignored. Yes, some people might have been drinking themselves toward trouble. Yes, it was a good thing the police were omnipresent and prepared.

And, yes, it is dangerous. A Remington Street rollover last night -- undeniably tied to the revelry -- will probably cost a young woman her life. The vehicular and traffic laws flouted last night exist for a reason, and a night where anything goes -- as more than one person described the event -- is problematic in a society of laws.

But, yes, this was about kids and families and a sense of heritage and culture that some other parts of our society can't duplicate. I resist the romanticizing of minority culture that progressivism imposes, but I came away wishing the rest of us waved the American flag with the same vigor I saw the Puerto Rican flag waved. And I came away beginning to understand what this night is all about to those tied to Rochester's northeast. 

They do not see it as rebellion, they do not see it as revelry. They do not see it as lawless or uncouth. 

They see it as home. Their home. Their Rochester. As much a part of this town's heritage as the old feast of St. Anthony or the St. Patrick's Day parade. 

Yes, it is different from the experience and traditions of many. But that doesn't make it bad. Perhaps I am naive, and got caught up in the spirit of it, but I thought it was beautiful. And I felt of its joy. I saw happy, well-kept and clean children being taught to love who they were and where they were from. I saw families of three and four generations celebrating together.

I saw goodness.

Yes, there were lawbreakers. And yes, there were 200 police officers keeping the thing in check, and not all the negative impulses were quashed.

But in the main this was a good thing.

Which is only news to old white guys like me, who watched it on TV, but never went.

I understand why this happens now. I understand the joy many take from it, and I understand better the important role of the police in maintaining order in an essentially disordered atmosphere. 

I came away loving this town and its protectors all the more.



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