Protestors have taken to the streets in the Midwest after a Minneapolis black man named George Floyd was killed by police in an incident where an officer was filmed kneeling on Floyd's neck for several minutes as he lay on the ground, several times repeating "I can't breathe." In Albany, a march is planned for Saturday.
Floyd suffocated when he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer on May 26th. Floyd's family say want the four policemen involved to be charged with murder.
The Floyd video sparked protests in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Memphis. The city of Albany has to date avoided major confrontations between citizens and police. Police Chief Eric Hawkins says he has taken steps aimed at maintaining that status quo through transparency, communication and officer training.
"I sent out a message to all staff and the police in the Albany Police department and I encouraged them to view that video and to familiarize themselves with the issues involved out in Minneapolis, just so they are aware that incident happened, and my message to them was that police-citizen interaction, positive or negative around the country, could have an impact on how we interact with our community here in Albany. Because there are gonna be community members from Albany who are gonna see that video and see the incident and the circumstances out in Minneapolis and they're gonna feel a certain way. And it's important that we're aware that there may be an emotional reaction, not just nationwide but in our city."
"We believe that systemic racism is a major issue and that we cannot afford to ignore it. Even if you think that nothing's happening in your police department, we have a lot of evidence that people of color are treated differently in the law enforcement system and particularly in policing systems."
Center For Law And Justice Executive Director Alice Green says she was outraged by the Floyd video, which reminded her of the 2014 incident in New York City involving Eric Garner, and a 2019 run-in on First Street in Albany that led to an officer's firing.
"Police officers, you know, wear body cams. There are people in the public who are taking video, basically videotaping, of these kinds of incidents, and the fact that police officers don't seem to care suggest that that's part of the system. That the system does not value the lives of black people as it does others. So, they believe that will not be held accountable for treating people differently. And we've had this situation in Albany where police on First Street had the body cams, they continued to do what was illegal when they're being filmed. And that just says and sends the message that 'it's part of the system.'"
Hawkins is keen on "dialogue with the community" and recognizing incidents in the headlines can provoke emotional reactions.
"My sense, everything that I've learned here in my year and a half here in Albany, all my experiences here have shown me that we have overwhelming support from the members of the Albany community. Our officers may, and even our non-sworn personnel, they may, over the next days and weeks, they may hear some negative things anout law enforcement in general. And some very mean-spirited things at times. Some uninformed things at times. And it's important that we don't allow that to negatively impact our relationship with the members of the Albany community. I'm fairly confident that despite what's happening around the country that we have a storng enough relationship here in the city of Albany between the police and our residents and visitors that we can discuss and have constructive conversations and positive conversations resolving this whole issue."
Green says the Center is continuing outreach, educating people as to what their rights are, how they might be targeted and letting them "know the truth, that they are vulnerable."
"Some of our young people, for instance, if they're confronted by a police officer sometimes tend to run because they're fearful. But we try to get them not to do that. We try to get them to know what resources are in the community that could help them if they are abused by law enforcemnent officers, and the Center of course, is one of those resources that's available in the community. But it's har,d you know, it's hard to deal with this."
Summer often brings an uptick in crime, which concerns Hawkins as he monitors the pressure municipal police forces find themselves under during the pandemic. .
"Different adjustments have to be made because COVID changed a lot of things. We went almost two months where we had much less communication with our community than we would normally have. That communication gap could become problematic, and we're trying to assess right now what the impact of those two months that we were pretty much all hold up and quarantined almost in a sense. But I, you know, Dave, I'm extremely optimistic as we move foreward because this is an extremely engaged community. Almost every day I'm talking with an elected official or with a community member or with somebody from some other institution within the city. They're concerned about where we're going, they want to offer help, they want to make sure that we either build partnerships or strengthen the ones that we already have."
Activists are urging community members to gather at Townsend Park in Albany at 1 p.m. for a 2.23-mile Dedication Distance Run/Walk in support of justice for the community.
Organizers say they will be connecting recent national stories of racial injustice, including Floyd's, to stories in the Capital District including those of Ellazar Williams, who was shot in the back by an Albany Police officer nearly two years ago during a pursuit and Edson Thevenin, who was shot and killed in 2016 by a Troy police officer during a traffic stop.
A map of the walk/run is available here: https://cit.ac/RunWalkMap