To the We Are Seneca Lake Community,
On Wednesday, November 18, County legislator Philip C. Barnes posted a comment on Facebook below a photograph of We Are Seneca Lake protesters that was part of our announcement of last Sunday’s Finger Lakes March for Climate Action in Watkins Glen. The comment read, “Remember Deer season starts Saturday.”
To the steering committee, this warning was troubling. Whatever its intent, we felt that Mr. Barnes’ message could function as an veiled incitement to others to consider violence against us and was inappropriate coming from an elected official. To joke on social media about climate protestors meeting with stray bullets in downtown Watkins Glen—just days after events in Paris—was, to us, reckless and offensive.
We write now to share with you what steps we have taken and to report the response we’ve received.
First, we asked Mr. Barnes, on Facebook, to explain his remarks. He did not. Instead, he posted additional comments whose meaning was unclear. (One referenced “capacity numbers.”) With that, we blocked Mr. Barnes from commenting further on our Facebook posts and hid his comments from other Facebook users. We also registered a complaint about his comment with Facebook, contacted the Watkins Glen police, and registered a complaint with Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn, as well as with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. An individual who felt personally threatened contacted the FBI.
On Friday, November 20, the steering committee wrote a letter asking the Schuyler County Legislature to censure Mr. Barnes for his comment. We further asked that Mr. Barnes both apologize and issue a public statement that makes clear that he condemns violence, as well as the making of violent threats, against peaceful protesters.
This letter is posted on our website: http://www.wearesenecalake.com/censure-barnes/
On Tuesday, November 24, Daryl Anderson, Sandra Steingraber, and Mariah Plumlee attended a scheduled meeting of the legislature and, during the public comment period, reiterated the request of our letter and asked for an explanation of Legislator Barnes’ comments.
Mr. Barnes told us that he has multiple Facebook accounts and that he had thought, when he posted his original and subsequent remarks as replies to our Facebook announcement, that he was communicating with his brother.
Mr. Barnes also said that his comment to us about “capacity numbers” was “about the capacity of Gitmo” and the possibility that “maybe we could put the refugees there until we could properly vet them before we let them out around the country.”
Mr. Barnes closed his statement with a verbal warning to us: “Now if you folks want to continue, I will set up appointments for you to be deposed, and if anybody has any mental anguish over this… then I want their doctors to post deposition too. And we’ll go from there.”
Legislator Halpin opined, “As far as I’m concerned, you put things on social media, things are going to happen. And if you use social media, you better realize that. Things are going to happen. But people reading social media are also going to have to accept that things can happen, so I don’t see how the legislature has a responsibility to you all…. Frankly, I think the whole world is too afraid of too many things today.”
In short, our concerns that words can have unintended effects of incitement, regardless of intent, were discounted.
Both Mr. Barnes and County Administrator Tim O’Hearn urged us to report back to the We Are Seneca Lake community the explanation we received from Mr. Barnes (namely, his claim that his comments to us were misdirected) and to relay that we had received “reassurance” from the legislature.
While reassurance is not what we feel, we did agree to pass along a report of this public conversation to the We Are Seneca Lake community. Thus, we attach here links to the audio file of the 30-minute public comment period, along with a verbatim written transcript.
We leave it up to readers to judge the measure of Mr. Barnes’ comments and decide for themselves whether public safety is his priority.
The We Are Seneca Lake Steering Committee