2020 has been a remarkable year, but 2021 promises to be a consequential year for Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis, too. Ellis spoke with WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas about racism, policing, the pandemic and politics.
A complicated set of intertwining issues including systemic racism, social unrest, the pandemic and gun violence have been driving the headlines in New York's Capital City. In April, the Center for Law and Justice came out with its structural racism and public safety report. Ellis was one of four officials (along with Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Police Chief Eric Hawkins and DA David Soares) invited to participate in the survey.
"I think the report that was done by Dr. Green is what the Center of Law and Justice's mission is. And I always respect especially organization like that, are really raising those questions, and really trying to hold every elected officials' leadership accountable. So I really respect the report. I respect those who participated in it. And, you know, I've been sent questions as a president of the City Council. And I met with Dr. Green about the report and as a legislator, what, what we could do to help ease some of those tensions that were that people spelled out in her report."
By the end of May, tensions boiled over when fallout from the death of George Floyd touched Albany.
"Being born and raised in the city, I broke my heart to see the violence that occurred. Violence is, uh, I don't ever condone violence. I do understand people's frustrations. I do understand how people used it, I'm not talking about the violent part, but used the protest, to show their frustration of years and hundreds of years of systematic racism. And, you know, I support it, those who peacefully marched, who peacefully let their voices be heard. But I've never supported violence, because what happens in any city, when there's violence in his destruction of property, it doesn't just affect what we see on television, it affects the people who live in those cities, it makes people feel unsafe."
As spring turned to summer, incidents of gun violence became more frequent.
"The council has already received applicants for our violence task force, we're just not calling the gun violence, we're calling it the violence task force, that's going to bring in experts to look at not just the violence after the fact, because once the violence occurs, the damage has already been done. So we want to look at the systemic causes of the violence in our neighborhoods. Also, we want to look at, when we look at the number of gun violence issues in the city, we would like to know especially when the police department confiscates, arrests somebody who is not the legal owner of that gun, where did that, have that data, of where that gun originated from and what actions were taken. If the person legally owned it, they lost it and reported it lost or stolen, OK, we can understand that. That's how it ended up in the hands of the wrong person. But we need, but if it didn't, then we would like to know what our law enforcement will do about it. Because I believe that's a way you begin to really send a message in how you're going to deter anyone who's thinking about selling a gun to anyone who lives in the city of Albany. If you're selling illegally, we're going to find out and we're going to know, and we're going to go after you if you do that. "
Ellis says systemic poverty is an important factor leading to gun violence.
"People think poverty is people are poor, they just don't have a job. And in our most challenged neighborhoods, it's not because they're not working. They are working. Some were working full time, full time jobs. And they're what we called the working poor, working 40 hours a week, and still eligible for benefits, either Medicaid or Medicare or social service benefits, even though they're working full time. That's a problem. In this great nation that we live in. How in the world do we have people who are working full time, but are still eligible for public assistance?"
Ellis says he supports Mayor Sheehan's call to remove the statue of slave owner and Albany luminary Philip Schuyler that has stood outside of City Hall since 1925.
He has studied the reports on the COVID response the city's communities of color and the audit on racial bias in the Albany Police Department. A member of the Albany Policing Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, he says the city is "in a sensitive place."
"When we look at, when we talk about racial bias, right, you have to look at how does this systemic system, how did how did that come about, in order to have policies and procedures put in place to make sure it doesn't continue. But it's just not about the individual person. When you talk about implicit bias training, that's more about the individual person. But when you start to look at systematic racism, that is looking at the system and how the system has perpetrated that which leads to now you have to do implicit bias training. So I would hope that any report, it really looks at how that systemic racism and it has took a hold of of that system and how do we really, what do we need to do to eliminate that?"
Ellis has run for mayor twice, and has been mentioned as a potential candidate come 2021. He says he plans to "let the chips fall where they may and worry about 2021 once we get there."
"Of course I'd want to be Mayor of Albany. But when, if that happens, if that's next year, if that's four years from now, whatever. So be it. But I'm not looking today at looking at that as a something right now. Because of all the things we're dealing with."