An Albany civil rights leader says the peaceful protest of Saturday afternoon and the violence of Saturday night come from fears among African Americans that a loved one could be killed by law enforcement.
In April, the Center for Law and Justice in Albany published a report on structural racism and public safety in the city. Among other things, the report calls upon four city leaders to acknowledge the existence of structural racism in the police department.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, Common Council President Corey Ellis and Albany County District Attorney David Soares were each given a set of specific recommendations in a 15-page document released by the Center.
Executive Director Dr. Alice Green says the report served as a follow-up to and result of the organizations' 2019 Albany Community Policing Survey, which she says was all but ignored by government officials. In interviews before the weekend's protests, Green and Hawkins commented on the report.
"What we're trying to do at the center is call attention to that issue of systemic racism. And some people are saying why talk about that when we've got this virus, but they're very connected. And so we're trying to make sure that our government officials understand that, and that even though the virus is a terrible problem that we're dealing with, things can happen and will happen after this, that will again put people of color, poor people at a disadvantage if we continue to ignore the role of systemic racism in terms of how we treat people."
Green said survey findings showed communities of color mistrust the Albany Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. She noted that for nearly a year, the Center had tried to advise government officials that minority despondency over the police shooting of Ellazar Williams in 2018 and other incidents has reached explosive proportions. Hawkins said he is on good terms with Green and the Center.
"Chief of police in this city during, in the midst of a global pandemic, in which officers and community members are very uncertain, fearful, are concerned. They need leadership, and they need leadership that is not distracted. I think people understand that it really was something that that was that shows my commitment to working with the center in that I had responded to those questionnaires amidst all of that happening in the mid that's very chaotic time, but it shows that I am willing to work on where I'm willing to listen to other points of view and other perspective."
Hawkins added he belived the Center's intentions were good. Green says that Hawkins, along with Mayor Sheehan and Common Council President Ellis all agreed in April to participate in a fall symposium. To set the stage for the symposium, the Center has been conducting sequential question-and-answer exchanges with the four officials.
Hawkins defended Albany's community policing strategy:
"There's a push to have a recommitment to community policing symposium, which I've indicated that I am totally willing to consider to support, but I think it's important for the community to understand that there's never been a departure from community policing during my time here at all. In fact, there's been there's been more of a commitment to community policing since I've been here, you know community policing has has been expanded and many ways since I've been here."
Green is looking forward to the fall symposium, pointing out that DA Soares has yet to respond to the Center’s invitation. Soares did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WAMC.
"Hopefully we'll be able to do a lot more when we come together as a community. So I'm impressed thet they've agreed to participate in the symposim and I sure hope that all four of them will participate."
After the weekend violence, the Center issued a statement, which says in part "It is unacceptable for some government officials to express astonishment at the vandalism and violence that occurred Saturday night, when the most-experienced community advocacy organization in Albany, the 35-year-old Center for Law and Justice, has been advising city officials since last year of the unease that systemic racism is causing among Albany minorities."
Here is the full statement:
CFLJ Press Statement May 31, 2020
In August 2019, the Center for Law and Justice released “Pathway to Reformative Change: Public Safety, Law Enforcement, and the Albany Community.” The report presented shocking survey findings regarding the level of mistrust communities of color expressed for the Albany Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office. That report was embraced by community members and all but ignored by government officials. For nearly a year, the Center has been advising government officials that minority despondency over the APD shooting of Ellazar Williams and other police abuses has reached explosive proportions. Both the peaceful protest of Saturday afternoon and the violence of Saturday evening were borne of Albany blacks’ wretched fears that their son, father, or brother will meet the fate of George Floyd at the hands of the Albany Police Department.
In their press conference Sunday morning, Mayor Sheehan and Chief Hawkins called the vandalism and violence that occurred in Albany Saturday night “unacceptable.”
Here are some other things that are UNACCEPTABLE:
· It is UNACCEPTABLE for some government officials to express astonishment at the vandalism and violence that occurred Saturday night, when the most-experienced community advocacy organization in Albany, the 35-year-old Center for Law and Justice, has been advising city officials since last year of the unease that systemic racism is causing among Albany minorities;
· It is UNACCEPTABLE for some government officials to attempt to avoid responsibility for addressing systemic racism in Albany by dismissing as “unscientific” the Center’s August 2019 survey warning that the overwhelming majority of blacks in Albany report strong feelings of mistrust of the APD;
· It is UNACCEPTABLE for government officials to further attempt to avoid responsibility for addressing systemic racism in Albany, by attributing the events of this weekend to outside agitators;
· MOST UNACCEPTABLE OF ALL are the more than a dozen well-documented incidents of abuse of minorities at the hands of the Albany Police Department over the past 35 years, including the deaths of Jesse Davis (1984) and Dontay Ivy (2015); the paralysis by shooting of Ellazar Williams in 2018; and the police assaults on Jermaine Henderson (1997), Armando Sanchez (2019), Mario Gorostiza (2019), Lee Childs (2019), and Brianna Biddings (2019); and · Lastly, in light of the 35-year history of abuse of citizens at the hands of the APD, it is UNACCEPTABLE for the Chief of Police to dismiss the legitimate protests of those whom he refers to as “impatient” people who want “this systemic racism thing to be turned around overnight.”
The events of this weekend demonstrate the profound effect systemic racism has had, and continues to have, on Albany minorities. Let’s all collaborate, community and government together, on what is feasible to address systemic racism and minimize the “unacceptables.” The Center has been working since March of this year to organize a “Recommitment to Community Policing” Symposium to be held in the fall, to address systemic racism in Albany’s public safety system. The Center is pleased that the Mayor, the Police Chief, and the Common Council President agreed in April to participate in the fall symposium; the District Attorney has yet to respond to the Center’s invitation. To set the stage for the symposium, the Center has been conducting sequential question-and-answer exchanges with these latter four Albany officials. All exchanges are posted on the Center’s website, www.cflj.org.