LONSBERRY: Fear Of Protests, Not Covid, Cancelled ROC Fests

Rochester’s Park Avenue Festival wasn’t cancelled over fear of covid, it was cancelled over fear of protests.

               That’s the opinion of various people knowledgeable about the situation. It’s also likely true for other festivals and events traditionally held in the city of Rochester – to include the Corn Hill Festival, the Flower City half marathon and the International Jazz Festival.

               While state rules on public gatherings have been either impossible or not forthcoming, and cooperation from city officials has been non-existent, there have been two insurmountable obstacles: No way to overcome feared Black Lives Matter protests, and the understaffed Rochester Police Department.

               First, the protests.

               Organizers of various events have been told that in the case of a BLM protest targeting their activity, the activity must be immediately shut down and all participants must disperse. Organizers are asked for a plan of how that will be done, and are told that they will be responsible for making it happen.

               As opposed to being protected by authorities from disruptive protests, organizers are being told to submit to the protests, and to make their events secondary to them.

               Evacuating large numbers of people – from a festival or a foot race – is almost impossible, and so meeting the city’s demand that events accommodate BLM protests is also almost impossible.

               It was feared by several in the community that BLM organizers would target events that had largely white audiences – like the Park Avenue and jazz festivals. It was believed that protests targeting these events would bring protesters extra attention and increase their seeming power. It was also feared that contention or conflict could arise, as those in attendance either joined or resisted the protests.

               So Park Ave and Corn Hill cancelled as an apparent result. The jazz festival, a large revenue-generating event, moved to a more remote and secure location – the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

               The second issue for events in the city of Rochester is that the police department is so understaffed that it can’t realistically provide routine crowd and traffic control, much less security.

               Right now, the RPD is struggling to cover routine patrol shifts, and it does that often through mandatory overtime. If there is a serious shooting – and there is almost every day – the need for extra officers often creates situations where a lack of coverage results, and priority calls stack up, delayed and unanswered.

               That’s an almost-daily reality.

               In Rochester, most large event organizers are required to pay the police overtime costs to cover them, and almost all of the officers involved are on overtime. With a large event, like the Park Avenue Festival, that’s a lot of officers and a lot of money. Usually, organizers can come up with the money, but his year, the city can’t come up with the officers.

               Notice we’ve not said anything about covid.

               These two seemingly insurmountable obstacles to Rochester events have nothing to do with the virus, and they won’t go away when the virus goes away.

               And so, it’s realistic to wonder when or if big Rochester events will ever return.

               Certainly, they are beloved and good. They are profitable and enjoyable and part of the character and culture of the region.

               But they are subject to difficulties beyond their control.

               They can be shut down and destroyed at any time by a protest, and they don’t have access to enough city-required security to be safely put on.

               And all of that is occurring in the context of a city administration that is barely speaking to organizers.

               So, yes, the state’s rules for festivals and public events are either a mystery or a roadblock, and quite possibly couldn’t have been satisfied by event organizers. But recent events never got that far. They hit hometown roadblocks that won’t go away anytime soon.

               The protesters are too unpredictable and the police are too weak.

               And that makes large events in the city of Rochester almost impossible.