Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and others hosted “A Listening Town Hall: People of Color Sharing their Experiences in Dutchess County” Tuesday night. About a dozen residents shared their stories about police encounters, racism and lack of opportunities.
Jeh Johnson is a former Dutchess County resident who served in the Obama Administration as general counsel of the Department of Defense and then secretary of Homeland Security. The graduate of Roy C. Ketcham High School in Wappingers Falls, who married the girl next door from Edge Hill Road, says memories of his childhood in Dutchess County from more than 50 years ago are fresh in his mind, such as when he lived on Cottam Hill Road in Poughkeepsie.
“We were the first family, the first Black family, to move into the area of Cottam Hill,” Johnson says. “But I still remember, one day, one of my friends, his sister, we were playing in the driveway and his sister came out and he said to my friend, ‘don’t you remember, dad said we shouldn’t play with Negroes.’”
Then, in sixth grade, a kid called him the “n” word.
“There were painful memories about being in the minority, distinctly in the minority in the 1960s growing up in Dutchess County,” Johnson says.
Johnson now lives in Montclair, New Jersey. He still visits his parents in Dutchess and speaks at the high school. Micah Jumpp, a rising college senior, also attended the Wappingers schools, and says George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis brought earlier traumas in her life to the forefront.
“First, let me say I am very thankful for growing up in the Wappingers Central School District and also this community. In school, I went from being spat at, called Aunt Jemima and the “n” word, to becoming an overachiever, and that’s when I became different from the other Black students,” Jumpp says. “Kids started using the “n” word around me, and they were never reprimanded. At the time, I didn’t feel empowered to speak up.”
County resident Curtis Claire wanted to share his experience with police.
“I have a 16-year-old who is 6’3”, 6’4”, 270 pounds, and he wants to learn how to drive, but I’m afraid for him right now because I’ve been stopped by several police officers in the Town of Poughkeepsie and the City of Poughkeepsie, but I find the worst part is being stopped in the town,” Claire says. “They’re very verbally abusive towards me and, a lot of the times, even one incident where my wife was given a ticket, and the cop, the way he talked to her, the way he treated her, she called me crying on [Route] 9. I had to go comfort her to bring her back home.”
He urged both sides to sit down and talk and better understand one another.
“I just think that with the police department here, you need a better diversity, they need to better understand us as Black people,” Johnson says. “I mean, not all black people are bad, not all white people are bad but, when you are stopping a car or you’re pulling someone over, I know it’s a scary thing at night, but what that officer has to know is that individual in the car is scared, too.”
Dutchess County Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Response Ken Roman, formerly with the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department for 32 years, responded, saying he was disheartened to hear some of Claire’s story.
“I have been doing this kind of work, diversity training for law enforcement, for over 22 years,” says Roman. “I can tell you things are better. They are far from perfect. They need a lot of work.”
Town of Poughkeepsie resident Amelia Cabrera urged elected officials to take action.
“It gets me upset to just still be in a listening stage,” Cabrera says. “How are we still in a listening stage?”
A few residents who spoke afterwards echoed her sentiment. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney commented at the beginning of the session.
“You know, I think this is a time when white people with power should listen more and speak a little less,” Maloney says. “So, I’m going to speak less and listen tonight.”
Maloney says he was also listening as a father.
“My daughters are African-American and native. They present the way any African-American would in a car,” Maloney says. “They aren’t the daughters of a congressman when they drive out my driveway. They’re people of color in a vehicle. And I worry about that.”
Melissa Johnson wanted to know why Maloney didn’t reach out to her when her two daughters — Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins — were charged after an incident in Poughkeepsie in March 2019, when city police officers responded to a street fight involving several students. A video of the encounter appears to show an officer throwing one of the girls to the ground.
“Mr. Molinaro, you should be ashamed of yourself for hosting this forum while the county attorney is falsely charging my daughter with crimes when they were victim,”
Molinaro did what he set out to do; he listened. He did open the session nearly an hour-and-a-half earlier.
“I want you to know that what you share this evening is not the end but merely the beginning of what will be many more conversations,” Molinaro says.
“I feel like the system failed me and my children,” Johnson says.
Moderator Angela Henry offered closing remarks.
“This is not the end. Marc Molinaro wanted this to be a first step, and some of you have asked, why haven’t we heard from him? Because he’s here to listen along with the other elected officials,” says Henry. “So they’ve heard you, and now let’s see what will happen next.”
The listening town hall is posted on the Dutchess County government Facebook page.
After this story aired, Rep. Maloney released a statement on Melissa Johnson's comments during the town hall:
“Last night, I joined former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others in a community conversation on race hosted by Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro. The point of the virtual gathering was to provide an unscripted forum for community members to share experiences and voice grievances on issues of racial justice in Dutchess County. That’s exactly what happened.
“Of particular concern to many participants were the circumstances surrounding the March 2019 arrest of Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins by police officers in the City of Poughkeepsie. Melissa Johnson, their mother, spoke powerfully about her frustrations with the County and how disappointed she was that I had not been involved. She noted that I too have African American daughters and would not want them treated this way.
“After reviewing the situation, it is clear to me that she is right. This is a case that I have not followed closely enough, nor have I used my position to advocate on behalf of her family. For that, I owe Melissa and her daughters an apology.
“At a minimum, Dutchess County should immediately drop the charges against Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins and demand accountability for what this family has experienced. While I have no formal authority in this area, I do have a voice. So, I am communicating directly with the County Executive and Mayor to achieve this goal.
“I hope acknowledging my own shortcomings on this particular case can be part of a larger soul searching by all of us in positions of authority on ways we have fallen short in advocating for our vulnerable neighbors. My office remains committed to issues of racial justice. Going forward, we will work even harder at being a better ally to those who most need our help.”
Wednesday evening, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro released a statement to WAMC:
"Today, after weeks of negotiations, the County Attorney agreed to the settlement request made by the family. After all these months, this young lady's life shouldn't be defined by this incident. I'm grateful a resolution could be achieved."