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Schenectady Activists Apply Dr. King's Words To Today's Movement

A capture of Wednesday's virtual discussion
A capture of Wednesday's virtual discussion

In a month that has seen protests downtown, activists and members of the faith community in Schenectady held a virtual discussionWednesday to reflect on an iconic letter by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Letter From Birmingham Jail, written in response to white Alabama clergymen who criticized and expressed worry over Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign of non-violent protest against racism, remains a defining document of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

King responded to the clergy who questioned direct action and protest over negotiation. He wrote:

“You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King’s words were reflected upon by members of the group All Of Us, which has staged protests in the Capital Region after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May, and in Schenectady after a controversial video of an arrest where a city officer appeared to place his knee on a man’s neck.

Given COVID-19’s documented disproportionate impact on people of color, All Of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles addressed the direct action being seen in communities across the country.

“It was a perfect storm. We’ve got COVID, we have the televised slaughter of black men, women, and non-binary individuals. We had space to feel and express that frustration, especially here in the Capital District. And we recognize that it wasn’t a call just for the people in other states and other places. We recognized that it was pain we knew personally because of what had happened here.”

On July 13th, All Of Us organized a protest outside Schenectady City Hall, during which dozens of people sat outside the closed city building. Some called in to disrupt the ongoing virtual city council meeting. All Of Us is pushing the city and county to adopt its list of 13 Demands, relating to police-community relations.

Though there were tense moments after sundown, no arrests were made that night.

But Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford issued a statement via Tweet around midnight. He said:

“I have shown this community my willingness to discuss reforms @schdypolice, have made efforts to engage conversations, and remained patient during a month of peaceful protests. That all ends tonight no more disorder in the city.”

Despite that terse statement, community discussions between city and police officials and members of the public have continued.

All Of Us is continuing to push for the adoption of its demands despite a series of police policy changes announced two days after the arrest of Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud by Officer Brian Pommer on July 6th. The list of reforms announced by Mayor Gary McCarthy, Police Chief Clifford, and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Eidens included the banning of knee-to-head holds and a restriction on warrantless arrests.

During the city council meeting as protesters demonstrated on the lawn at City Hall, Councilor Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas issued a statement asking residents to be “respectful of each other.”

She wrote:

“These are turbulent times that we live in, there is unrest in our country and our city. WE need change for sure, but we need mutual respect as well. Our citizens need to understand that the police are here to help and protect our city. Sometimes there is a breakdown and things need to be addressed and changes made.”

Paralells were drawn Wednesday night between the ongoing debate in Schenectady over policing and King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, in particular, about the “white moderate,” who King described as “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action:; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

In the discussion, Miles acknowledged that the protest in front of city hall, where 200 signed a form acknowledging the possibility of arrest, may appear “extreme” to people who at the same time recognize the need for change.

“But it also depends on your personal level. Like, what is it that you can do? Are you someone that has financial means and you can offer financial assistance to an organization? Is it someone that you [laughs] you make cookies for a living and you could make those cookies for an event, or you make t-shirts, or you have a business that you would open the doors so that people could come in and have respite during times of stress and trauma…”

Governor Andrew Cuomo is requiring communities across New York to have conversations on community and police – at the risk of losing state funding.

Moderator Pastor Dustin Wright of Schenectady’s Messiah Lutheran Church posed a question to Miles.

“As we are deconstructing this, what do y’all see as what we’re trying to reconstruct?”

“Yeah…I have pause about reconstructing because it’s about reimagining.”


“There’s not been a construct that has been for all of us.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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