A community dialogue with members of the Schenectady Police Department fell apart Wednesday night after a tense exchange between organizers and local activists.
Schenectady’s Grace and Mercy church on Wednesday hosted the third in a series of community conversations with law enforcement. Parishioners and local clergy were invited to the event in a city that has seen protests and calls for police reform after the death of George Floyd in May, which intensified this month after a video of a controversial arrest appeared to show a Schenectady city police officer placing his knee on a man’s neck and head.
Preparing for the event in the parking lot of the church on State Street, Pastor Arnetta Dix explained what she was expecting to come out of the forum with two city police officers.
“Some settling, to bring some understanding of what they’re doing, how they plan to continue on, how they plan to build relationships within communities. There has been some things that have been asked of us. At one time Schenectady had neighborhood associations. And there is not too many of those that are active, that are left, and maybe that’s something the community needs to do to help police officers,” said Dix.
But there was confusion about what the meeting was. Hours before, Jamaica Miles of the group All of Us posted a video and created an event on Facebook characterizing the forum as a meeting of a task force the city is forming to foster community dialogue on policing. Miles attributed her confusion to reporting in the Daily Gazette newspaper.
As the event was getting underway, activists with All of Us assembled in the parking lot and on the sidewalk.
Two officers, swapping their uniforms for polo shirts, took turns at a microphone answering questions, but as the meeting went on the audience grew impatient and emotional. Three uniformed patrol officers also attended.
Fran Butler, wife of Pastor Ronald Butler, attempted to calm the crowd in an exchange with Miles…
“Someone asked the question about what is the police doing for the community. We need them in the community to help…”
“No, no that’s not what the question was. We weren’t asking what they were doing to help. I mean, there’s a question about what they’re going to do to do better, because right now their presence in communities is harmful.”
After only 30 minutes, Pastor Butler ended the meeting.
“I’m saying that we have now concluded this session…”
The pastor was disappointed with the outcome.
“Black folk keep talking about ‘listen to us, listen to us’ and when we get the opportunity to be heard, we don’t take advantage of it in a positive way. This was not positive. What came out of this? What can you honestly say you walked away feeling good about?” asked Butler.
Janice Rouse, a member of the Schenectady NAACP, also expressed frustration.
“They didn’t realize what they were going to deal with today, because you can’t stand up here and say people are angry and then you don’t know how to deal with that anger. OK? You don’t know how to work that anger so the people can still be heard. And that’s what happened tonight. So unfortunately this was a debacle, this was a mess,” said Rouse.
The officers remained, as an agitated crowd shared personal stories of interactions with police. Others demanded answers.
The protesters assembled on the sidewalk in front of the church.
All of Us continues to press a list of 13 demands to city and county officials, but maintains they are not being taken seriously by the city’s top brass, including Democratic Mayor Gary McCarthy and Police Chief Eric Clifford.
One of the officers who originally spoke during the forum Wednesday, Schenectady Police Lieutenant Ryan Macheron addressed All of Us with a megaphone in front of the church. .
“I can’t say why somebody above me is responding or not responding. I can say that I’ve seen them, I’ve reviewed them pretty thoroughly. I continue to be a component of this…”
“That doesn’t feel like an answer…”
“No, I know. I agree. It’s not…”
“So if you agree with the 13 demands, why haven’t you signed them yourself?”
Miles, however, said the input from members of the community is “not a two-way conversation.”
“That they stayed and that they’re willing to listen, I appreciate that. But the truth is, Chief Clifford and the mayor both have had countless opportunities to hear from people, it’s been records, it’s been live, and they still are denying the access and opportunity to create the change that we’re demanding,” said Miles.
McCarthy and Clifford announced a slate of police reforms in July after the viral arrest of Yugeshwar Gainderpersaud by Officer Brian Pommer, which some have called a start. The results of an investigation into the arrest have not yet been made public. Pommer was transferred to desk duty.
Though officials have touted smaller community dialogues, a large-scale public meeting has not yet been held.