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Arrests Of Activists Cause Debate At Schenectady Council Meeting

Mikayla Foster speaks to the Schenectady City Council
Open Stage Media/Image capture by WAMC
Open Stage Media/City of Schenectady
Mikayla Foster speaks to the Schenectady City Council

As WAMC first reported last week, New York Attorney General Tish James confirmed her office was “looking into” the arrests of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in upstate cities. On Monday, members of the public and the New York Civil Liberties Union took their concerns to the Schenectady City Council.

At a public event in Albany on September 23rd, WAMC asked Attorney General Tish James if her office was the aware of recent arrests of demonstrators in Saratoga Springs and Schenectady on minor charges weeks after protests. The Democrat only offered a brief response.

“I cannot tell you the jurisdictions, but our office is, or Civil Rights bureau is looking at a number of investigations upstate," said James.

That response drew the attention of the New York Civil Liberties Union, whose Capital Region Chapter Director Melanie Trimble appeared before the Schenectady City Council. Trimble referenced James’ comments while speaking about a failed resolution that condemned the opinion by Schenectady school board member and local activist Jamaica Miles to defund the police.

“We are pleased to hear that the New York Attorney General’s office is considering investigating upstate communities’ recent crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protesters. We implore you not only to reject the thinking embodied in this resolution concerning Ms. Miles, but also to look for ways to repair the damage the council has done in providing evidence that confirms the public’s perception of the city’s racist underpinnings,” said Trimble.

Two activists were recently arrested and charged in connection with an August 26th incident at a police outreach event in Schenectady with local children. There, activists confronted police and shouted foul language. The pair was contacted and asked to turn themselves in more than two weeks later, and did so on September 23rd.

One of those facing charges related to the August incident, Mikayla Foster, an activist who was also arrested earlier this year for writing on the city police station in sidewalk chalk, appeared before the city council Monday in handcuffs to draw attention to the charges of child endangerment and disorderly conduct, to which Foster has pleaded not guilty.

“I’m just going to tell you now that you will not silence me. These charges that I’m facing right now for cursing in public? I have specific interactions with the Schenectady Police Department where they’re cursing in my face, but they’re not in jail. But the Black trans person standing in front of you is,” said Foster.

While several spoke in support of the activist community Monday night, two Republican endorsed city council candidates pushed back against the tactics used by racial justice advocates.

Candidate Vivian Parsons, who said her 7-year-old son was brought to tears during the August 26th event, played a video of the incident into the podium microphone inside council chambers.

“What about my child’s right to feel safe and comfortable that day at an event that was hosted by the police department for children? I’m not here to talk about my disagreements with the Black Lives Matter movement, that is not on the topic today. Because we are not going to conflate someone’s right to protest with a child’s right to enjoy two hours of no-nonsense,” said Parsons.

Candidate Kevin Hammer, who has been campaigning with Parsons, also condemned the language used by activists.

Another city council candidate, Carl Williams, appeared exasperated after the tense public comment period. He attended a Democratic campaign event on the city council steps earlier in the evening that was disrupted by supporters of council candidate Doreen Ditoro, who was not invited to the event.

Williams, a Black man, emphasized the pressure he faces to appear “perfect” in public as a council candidate.

“My opinion doesn’t even really matter, I have to get elected. And that means I have to sacrifice the essence of who I am, as a Black man, to make sure that I appeal to as many voters as humanly possible. Throughout my studies, throughout my experiences I’ve understood the importance of looking at myself less, to look at the importance of the objective in front of us. Still as you hear individuals preach that the system hasn’t worked, you’re only focused on a portion of what they’re saying,” said Williams.

Addressing the night’s discussion at the end of the meeting, Democratic Mayor Gary McCarthy offered a brief response.

“I think there’s still more things that unite us than divide us, and it’s how do you continue that dialogue that brings us together and makes this city stronger of the long term,” said McCarthy.

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.