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Racism Accusations Rise During NY Bail Reform Debate

The fight over New York’s recently enacted bail reform heated up at the Capitol Tuesday, with dueling events by police and activists that at times centered on charges of racism surrounding a Facebook page that calls for the law to be repealed.

Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups went first. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan was joined by hundreds of police in blue uniforms, lined up in rows on the pink sandstone steps of the State Capitol’s grand staircase.

“You are less safe today than you were six months ago,” Flanagan said.

Most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes ended on January 1. Sheriff Jeff Murphy of Washington County recited incidents from around the state where repeat offenders were set free after arrest until their next court date, including two serial bank robbers and a man accused of second degree manslaughter.

“We feared that it would bring danger to communities and that’s exactly what has happened,” Murphy said.

On the other side of the Capitol, supporters of the changes held their own rally, where they accused the Republicans and the law enforcement groups of cherry picking negative cases, while ignoring what they say is the larger number of people charged with nonviolent crimes who have been able to hold on to their jobs and responsibilities for their families while awaiting their court date.

Democratic Senator Jessica Ramos says wealthy people have always avoided being detained in jail because they had the means to make bail.

“The bail system was not keeping anyone safe,” Ramos said. “It was just keeping the poor away from the rich.”

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz says supporters also believe in the rule of law. The Democrat says she was a crime victim and wanted to see the perpetrator justly punished. Cruz, and others, see the issue of race behind the bail reform opponents’ stance.

“They don’t give a damn about our community,” Cruz said. “What they want is to continue to put black and brown folk and poor white folk (in jail).”

“What they want is to pit us again each other,” Cruz continued.

Sheriff Murphy and others in law enforcement began a Facebook page called Repeal Bail Reform that now has over 165,000 members. The page has become controversial because some of those who posted comments were found to be associated with white supremacy groups. The story was first reported in City and State magazine.

Marie Ndiaye with the Legal Aid Society spoke at the pro bail reform rally and is among those upset about that connection.

“Any rollback of this law is capitulation to white supremacy,” said Ndaiye.

Murphy and others say they intend to continue the page. Assembly Republican Minority Leader Will Barclay, who also attended the law enforcement rally, said afterwards that those who want bail reform amended or repealed are solidly against racism, but he says the group can’t be responsible for everyone who posts on a public forum.

“Obviously we are not condoning any comments on that Facebook page that aren’t within the bounds of decency and right,” Barclay said. “We are focused like a laser on bail reform. We’re not going to let the advocates distract from the real issues here.”

Barclay says the sheriff is trying to police the comments.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American woman to lead the Senate, says she wishes her Republican colleagues would go further in speaking out against any forms of white supremacy or racism.   

“I was a bit disappointed that there was no denouncement of hate-filled rhetoric,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But the Senate leader stopped short of saying that they should stop their association with the page, saying only that she hopes they do what they think is right.

Stewart-Cousins say the Senate will not be repealing bail reform, but she’s open to separating “fact from fiction,” and looking at some reasonable changes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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