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Albany Mayor Sheehan On Weekend Protests And Moving Forward

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Joe Donahue: The city of Albany was like cities across the United States this weekend. Dozens of businesses worked yesterday to board up broken windows and clean up the inside of their destroyed storefronts. The city instituted curfew last night through early this morning to try to maintain order in the wake of protests and confrontations, which included fireworks being shot at police sources, a CDTA bus driver having to be rescued after being pinned in her bus, and an officer being injured after being hit with a brick. At a press conference yesterday morning Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said we are better than what happened Saturday night. The mayor joins us on The Roundtable this morning. 

Mayor Kathy Sheehan thank you very much for being with us. It means a lot to me that you are here. Thank you.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan: Oh, thank you very much for having me, happy to.

Well, so where does this rank? When you look at your mayoral career, where does this rank?

Well, you know, there is so much pain out there and I certainly was really moved by the peaceful protesters who, in some estimates, we had upwards of 3000 of them on Saturday to protest what we all witnessed. We all witnessed a person in a uniform, a police officer who is supposed to serve and protect us, literally smother a man to death. The pain and the agony of surrounding that is very real. And I think when you layer on top of it the suffering that people have felt during the months of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the fact that that pandemic has also disproportionately impacted people of color in our community. You know, I certainly empathize with people's frustration out there. But what we saw that then really went from peaceful protest that ended peacefully and then what happened later in the day that resulted in violence and looting, I really separate those two things. I never thought we would see it in the city of Albany. I think that the response of the community on Sunday and the peace and the quiet that we had last night is far more reflective of who we are as a city.

So what do you think happened? As the peaceful protests were winding down and then the violence starts, what happened? How do you look at that, to obviously do the next thing which is to keep it from happening again?

Well, you know, we're certainly going to look at it and step back and really determine. In any situation like this I always say don't judge us based on hindsight, but if we don't use hindsight to look at how we do things so that we can improve then shame on us. So we certainly will be looking at that and making a determination as to what could have been done differently. I think that when you look at the timeline of events, we went from this peaceful protest that mainly broke off as a group of a few hundred, then came down to the capitol, and went on to the governor's mansion. And then it was an even smaller group that went down to South Station and at that time they had a peaceful protest in front of South Station. Police officers came out, they were in their uniforms but not in riot gear. There were conversations that occurred. There was pain. There was certainly people who were expressing their frustration and there was dialogue that occurred as part of that part of the protests. As far as I'm concerned, that was still a protest. And then that group kind of dispersed. The police officers went back into the building and there were then I a small group of people who came back and started and went into the parking lot and started damaging, smashing out the windshield of police cars, stealing things from police cars. And that was when it really flipped from, it was not a protest. These were rioters who were, you know, determined to create destruction and mayhem. I think it's unfortunate. We're not blind to it though. I'm not going to say that this was all outsiders, although one of the people that we've arrested was from Delmar, who is alleged to have thrown a brick that hit one of our officers in the head. But I also don't want to discount we have young people out there who are hurting. We have young people out there who need our help and our direction. And so we do need to continue the work that we're doing to build a better relationship with young people, with everyone in our community and our police department.

Because what you do here certainly has an effect, but what happens outside of the city of Albany impacts the community and impacts your police force and the city at large. Right? I mean, as good as you do, that can be undone in a second by an incident, a tragic incident in the city of Minneapolis.

Sure, and I think though it brings up in people their own pain and their own experience. And we have to acknowledge that pain and that experience because it is very real and it hurts. I think that the difference with what happened in Minneapolis is that I don't see anyone or hear anyone defending what happened. And I think one of the things that I hope people are listening to are police chiefs, even some police unions condemning what happened. No one is defending it, that I'm aware of that does this work. And I think that is really a positive that we've moved the conversation forward. But of course, it's not enough. Of course it's not enough. We still have to do the work.

Do you think anything would have been different had your Chief of Police Eric Hawkins been on the scene on Saturday?

You know, I think that that's pretty fantastical thinking. He had a scheduled time away from the office for a personal issue before we even knew about the protest. So when the protest was scheduled he was not in town. We have lives. You know, I've been out of the city of Albany when we've gone on vacation or to funerals or whatever, right? You know, we can't always be here. So when he learned that there was going to be a protest, he met with command staff and he met with me. And all indications were that we were going to have a peaceful protest. This is a city known for its peaceful protests. We have protests here all the time. You know, we’re the state capitol. We had had conversations with the organizers of the protest. The Health Commissioner had conversations with the organizers of the protests about the concerns that we had around COVID and around keeping safe. Everyone was receptive to that. When you look at the video of the protests people stayed far apart, they were wearing masks overwhelmingly. And so the decision was made if it looks like it's going to go bad or we might have problems, then he was going to come back. But the protest was peaceful. And so all indications were that we were good until what happened really escalated very unexpectedly and very quickly. And he was commanding the scene, which we can do now with technology, essentially aware of what was going on through the entire night. He immediately got in a car and got back here. So, you know, this idea that if the chief had shown up, I think its fantastical thinking. I think that there were some people who still want to speak to the chief who are from the community and we're going to make sure that that happens. A number of the individuals that were there were not from Albany. They were not people who necessarily had a problem or any interactions with our police department, it was more about, as you said earlier, sort of this national incident, this thing that happened in Minneapolis that then had had ramifications here.

But is there any point for you as a mayor, where you're watching this unfold and are very much a part of it and you say, “Oh God, I wish Eric were here?”

Well, listen, I felt like he was here. He was managing this. I will tell you we have a phenomenal command staff throughout this who have deep ties within the community and relationships with people who were part of the peaceful protest. I want to commend Derek Johnson, one of our council members from the south end. I called him and said can you go over and see if you can calm this situation down. And he did that, he went over and he attempted to calm it down. But what he said to me afterwards was, “I didn't recognize any of the people there.” So again, you know, that sort of who were we talking to was an issue with the group that really was engaging in the initial violence there at the police stations, throwing rocks throwing bricks. They weren't people who were familiar to our community leaders who are in the community. And so I'm not sure that they would have known who Eric Hawkins was if he had walked onto the scene.

I'm interested just out of curiosity, because so much that I've read on this issue is about police brutality- the overall issue and who is hired as a police officer and one of the many programs that have come out of it that is looked to quell some of the problems is neighborhood policing. That you hire people within the neighborhoods so that they are supportive of those neighborhoods when they are policing them. So it's interesting to me and I'm not looking to direct this to you in a negative light. I'm just asking it as an issue of that we have to talk to people who are angry from outside our communities, but we also are getting pressure, you and others, within the police force are getting pressure to have people that are from the community.

Well for me personally, this is Kathy Sheehan, resident of the city of Albany speaking, I would love for every one of our police officers to live in the city of Albany. I think that it helps to build community and you know, these are people who are your neighbors and that you see at the grocery store and who have a vested interest in the city of Albany. But I don't think that you necessarily can't be a really good police officer if you don't live directly in the city. And I think it's about what we do to train our police officers to be aware of and be willing to walk in the shoes of the residents of our city. This is a very diverse city. It’s diverse racially, it's diverse ethnically, and it’s diverse economically. I start with the premise that everyone deserves to live in a neighborhood that’s safe. Whether it's a low income neighborhood, whether it's a neighborhood with a lot of students, every neighborhood deserves to be safe. And we need to build those relationships and that sense of respect among our officers for people who live in very diverse neighborhoods and embrace that. And I think that's one of the things that we try to do and why we have our own training academy. So that from day one, our officers are out there in the community, getting to know people and building those relationships. And I do think that that's important. It doesn't mean that somebody won't have a bad day. Right? I would love to think that we could get to a point of perfection where, you know, one of our officers never had a bad day and is never rude to someone or behaves in a way that doesn't reflect well on our department or on our city. But I think if we can get to a point where we all agree that that's the goal and that the community trusts that that's really what our officers are working towards, that's how we move forward and create that mutual sense of respect where our officers are acting in a way that we respect and they are being respectful to the community.

What do you think the level of safety is right now for residents of the city of Albany?

You know, when I implemented the curfew for last night, it wasn't because I wanted to keep people in. It wasn't because I didn't believe that if people wanted to protest peacefully, they couldn't. Because I have faith in our residents.  I implemented that curfew because I couldn't guarantee that I could keep them safe. And that is not a good feeling for a mayor or a police chief. We weren't sure what was going to happen because we did believe that some of the instigation of this was coming from outside of the community. And we were hearing there were lots of rumors right on the internet, on social media, about what could happen and so we wanted to keep people safe. And they stayed home, they listened. People listened. People came out yesterday morning and cleaned the streets, helped business owners board up, came together as a community. People of faith came and prayed together. There was a lot of conversation that happened. We need to continue that conversation. But people listened and they stayed home. And it was a very quiet night last night. And we're going to continue to monitor social media and see what's happening but I think that we are a very safe place to be and if we can continue on this path, I think we can move forward and embrace the pain that people are feeling. And I do want to stress, the pain and agony of COVID-19, it plays into this. People's frustrations of being cooped up. Our young people are not getting the education they deserve. And that's not a criticism of the school district. It's just kids should be in the classroom with a teacher, you know, who can see them.

Well and out with their friends. All the stuff that kids do.

Right, all of it. So, you know, I think we have to acknowledge that and then acknowledge that we can deal with this in more positive ways. So, I'm really proud of the way the community has come together. We want to continue the dialogue. I know we have work to do. And this is not to say that everything is fine we're doing a great job. Building a relationship with a community is kind of like a marriage right? You have to work at it every single day. We've got to work at this every single day. We can always get better we can always improve. And that's really what I want to focus on as we move forward.

Just a quick clarification. So you don't see a need for a curfew tonight yet.

At this point, again we continue to monitor social monitor social media, but at this point we do not intend to extend the curfew.  

We’re waiting for the governor to come on so you and I can talk right up until we get preempted by him and, you know, make up your own joke. But I'm curious as to the political sense here. Look, Albany is a democratic city and we all know that and it has been for decades and decades. What do you think in the larger picture for you as a Democrat and for someone who is so supportive of the party, how do you look at this as an issue in the upcoming yes, presidential campaign, but in political campaigns throughout this state, throughout this region, and throughout the country?

I mean, this specifically what, the protests or?

Meaning when you see this level of violence and you see what is happening, does it in some way, which many people are concerned about, does it help the Presidents cause?

I don't see how, right? I mean, we are seeing people who are frustrated, we are seeing people who are angry, we are seeing things that are I think not necessarily directly related to the frustrations of people who are protesting what happened to George Floyd. I do believe that as we sort of unpack this and I've talked to mayors, you know, I talked to a Lovely Warren, I've spoken with the mayor of Binghamton had a terrible fire. And I don't know whether they're still trying to sort it out, where a playground for children with disabilities and senior citizens was burned last night. You know, so I think we're seeing some of this civil unrest and it's hard to really unpack where it's coming from. And I don't see it as a political issue. I see it as elected officials were called upon to keep people safe, first of all, but we're also called upon to try to understand the underlying causes of whatever unrest is happening in our city. You know, I'm concerned about the uptick in shootings that we're seeing across the country and in the city of Albany, and those are things that we have to look at. So I think Democrat or Republican, we're supposed to be focused on how do we keep people safe? How do we address the needs of our community? And how do we lead? And I think that's what elected officials, Democrat or Republican need to focus on. We have to lead through this.

But not to fan the flames here. However, the President, I mean, I don't have to tell you what he is saying from his bully pulpit. It can't help you on the ground to do what you just described that you want to do as Mayor of the City of Albany.

Well, you know, this is going to sound really arrogant and mayors can kind of be this way sometimes.

Oh, you won an election. You can be arrogant.

No, but you know, like we have to meet people in the grocery store, right? I can't walk down the street without somebody stopping me and either, you know, sometimes they say hey, you're doing a great job, but most of the time, they might say you're doing a great job, but… right? So I think we're connected to what is happening in our communities. And sometimes the folks in Washington aren't there, right? They're looking at things and politicizing things that are not political, right? And so when I listen to some of the President's comments, like some ridiculous thing about this is a problem for democratic mayors, well, it's not. It's just not. It's not a partisan thing. This is about people who are suffering. This is about people who are economically disadvantaged, discriminated against, you know, decades and centuries of racism. These are real things and mayors are called upon to be there in community with people solving these issues and you don't solve issues and you don't move forward by, you know, lobbing partisan insults at people. So I think I try to filter out that noise and focus on what we need in our community, to move our community forward and to address the very real concerns, very real struggles and challenges that exist here in this community.

I understand all of that. And I certainly get your point. And I'm not arguing with you in any way, shape, or form. I'm just putting myself in your shoes. And I assume, yeah, people were coming up to you in the grocery store. But if they're hearing from the president, that, oh, this is Antifa. Are they asking you that? And is that something that is then added to your plate? To discuss that you otherwise wouldn't have to?

You know, the short answer, of course, is yes. And that's why the communication piece of it is so important and having relationships is really important. I think one of the reasons that people stayed home last night is because I reached out to people from very diverse groups proactively to ensure that the message was because curfew has a very long and disgraceful history of being used to oppress black and brown people in this country. And I wanted to stress that this wasn't about keeping people in, it was about keeping them safe. And so I think when you have those relationships, and you're able to find the ways to weave and address those issues up front, does it make the job harder? Does it mean that we have to communicate and over communicate even more? Yes. But you know, he's the president he can tweet what he wants.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan, I thank you so much for being with us this morning, for having this extended conversation, and really for the work of your entire staff. I know it was a challenging weekend. Doing things like this is part of communication and it's far from over communication and I very much appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.