Fernando Cintron, 24, political science major and SUNY New Paltz senior from Newburgh, was peacefully protesting against hydraulic fracturing, and for fair elections at the September 19th visit from Governor Andrew Cuomo, when he had an unforgettable encounter with a University Police Department (UPD) officer.
UPD officer, L. Wurtz, approached Cintron, president of Democracy Matters, member of the Constitutional Rules committees, and board of director’s member for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) around noon. Wurtz told Cintron and other protestors that they had to move 50 feet away from the Student Union building where the event was taking place, to what he referred to as the “free speech zone” in order to continue picketing.
Feeling like his first amendment rights were being violated, Cintron approached Officer Wurtz with the other protestors to find out if there was a closer free speech zone. As he did this, Wurtz projected his voice, degrading the demonstrators. One student spoke up and said “Officer, you know, we are being respectful—” but Wurtz, growing increasingly agitated with Cintron and the rest of the group, responded with “I’ll show you respect, when I arrest you.”
The confrontation between Officer Wurtz and the demonstrators was caught on tape. In the video, you hear Officer Wurtz tell the group of protestors “it’s in the student handbook,” when asked for an explanation on the free speech zone. Familiar with the handbook and its policies, Cintron and his fellow protestors corrected Wurtz, proving his statement to be false.
In the same video, you also hear Officer Wurtz repeatedly tell the demonstrators to “move back,” right before threatening them with pepper spray.
“Well there’s about to be some pepper spray sprayed here in a second if you don’t move,” said Wurtz, “I’m not making this stuff up. You can go in there for all I care and jump the Governor. But move.”
Following the event, Cintron sought out UPD Chief, David Dugatkin. Cintron informed Dugatkin of his experience with Officer Wurtz, and exchanged a dialogue concerning the newly implemented protest zones, policies in the student handbook, and the enlarged police force at the event. Cintron also explained to Dugatkin that students are becoming increasingly concerned about their first amendment rights.
“According to the Constitution and according to the [SUNY New Paltz] rules we are allowed to picket and protest wherever we want, as long as we’re not disrupting the traffic of students, as long as we’re not disrupting classes. According to the constitution this was a peaceful protest, and we were being pushed back and threatened with pepper spray. We weren’t being hostile, we weren’t chanting, we hadn’t even started [protesting] yet, we had our signs on us, but we hadn’t even started” said Cintron.
Cintron has since contacted the college President, Donald Christian, but he and the other protestors have not received any form of apology or recognition for what happened. The statements made by Christian are not enough for Cintron. “He made us seem like the aggressors,” Cintron said, “even though there’s a video showing us peacefully and calmly asking the officer questions.”