Local residents organized a protest of police brutality against racial minorities and the death of George Floyd Sunday and worked together with the Schenectady Police Department to help keep the event peaceful.
The fast-moving protests stretched throughout Sunday afternoon in multiple locations in the city and included passionate speeches and culminated in an unexpected moment when Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford led the police department in taking a knee in solidarity with the protest against Floyd’s death.
Protestor Shamiah Walker, a resident of Eastern Avenue, burst into tears and dropped to her knees when she saw Clifford take the knee.
“It made me cry, because I watched [George Floyd] die, multiple times, and I kept on watching it, and it made me cry because — although the police didn’t stand with us for our protest — that was still a step,” she said. “To get that step, and to see that step, is something that’s just, emotional, you know? We just want to make sure that we have them on our side, because black lives do matter.”
Brianna Johnston, a black college student from Colonie, was one of the main organizers of the event in Schenectady Sunday, titled “No Justice No Peace: Rally for Black Lives.”
Johnston said she watched protests that started peacefully in Albany Saturday, turn violent. She said she was tear-gassed in Albany, and she was determined to prevent the same thing from happening in Schenectady.
“They expect us to act like animals,” she said. “We should keep the peace, and show them that we can be unified, because they are scared of us being unified.”
Johnston said the protest organizers in Schenectady Sunday were determined to prevent instigators from ruining the peaceful protest. She said she’s convinced the Albany Police Department was responsible for what happened there, and she could be seen standing between the protesters and police headquarters, preventing, what appeared to be an intoxicated white man, from attempting to enter.
“White people are scared, and I think the police are also scared,” Johnston said of why she guarded the entrance to the police station during a protest against national police brutality.
The protest drew hundreds of people to downtown, many of them wearing masks and few adhering to social distancing measures despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The event seemed to occur in stages, starting at noon in Veterans Park, but taking place mostly in front of the Schenectady Police Department on Liberty Street. The protest stretched well beyond the organizer’s original planned ending, which was a ceremonial kneel-down that became a moment of silence near City Hall.
After the initial peaceful protest began to disperse, a group of men riding what appeared to be colorful off-road dirt bikes and racing bikes arrived, and began revving their engines loudly in front of police headquarters. When interviewed, members of the group said they were from “everywhere” and said the reason they were there was “cause we havin’ fun.”
Simultaneous to the arrival of the bikers, another, seemingly angrier group, who refused to speak to a reporter, arrived and led a surge of people toward the Lafayette Street entrance to the police department parking lot, which had been barricaded.
Police wearing armor and armed with batons stood behind the barricades.
People in the crowd began to shout questions about minority representation in the ranks of the police, police response times in primarily minority neighborhoods and questions about why the police were in “riot gear” and why they weren’t joining with protesters to condemn George Flyod’s death.
Police allowed protest organizers Mikayla Foster, Brianna Johnston, Legacy Casanova and political activist Damoni Farley to ask Clifford questions on the police side of the barricades. The exchange was amplified by the speaker system of a police cruiser, Clifford and the protest leaders taking turns speaking into the car’s microphone.
“George Floyd, what happened to him in Minneapolis was wrong, and no member of this police department condones it,” Clifford said. “I’ve spoken to many members of my department and not one has said that they didn’t see something wrong with what happened to George Floyd.
“We do not use that as a restraint technique here in Schenectady, and I have already told every one of the officers who works here that is not acceptable,” he said. “As a profession, we all acknowledge that we must do better, and we will do better. We are hearing exactly what you are saying here today.”
“What are you doing to prevent future deaths?” someone shouted from the crowd.
Clifford talked about his department’s efforts to recruit racial minority recruits, but people in the crowd were skeptical, yelling “why are there all white officers? Not one black or hispanic! Other officers were on their knees in other cities!”
Farley, speaking into the police cruiser microphone, spoke to the crowd.
“We’re here today because black lives do matter,” he said. “For young people of color, Black Lives organized this with very specific intent to demonstrate and show a community that loves all, and especially black and brown people who have died at the hands of racist police officers.”
Farley, standing between the police and crowd, said the protest must remain peaceful.
“But peaceful does not mean quiet,” he said.
“This does not satisfy us! This is not enough!” shouted a woman from the crowd.
It was shortly after that moment that Clifford took the knee, and the rest of his officers joined with him.
Once they did, tension almost immediately dissipated.
Johnston called city Police’s actions “historic.”
“This is what we wanted,” she said. “Every one of these cops stood with us.”
Earlier during the speech portion of the protest in front of police headquarters, protest organizer Mikayla Foster, who grew up in Mont Pleasant, had started to lead a chant of “Come outside! Come outside,” which seemed to escalate the anger in the crowd, while police remained inside the building.
“There is no peace in [expletive] racism! We’re not here to riot, but where the [expletive] are you?,” she yelled from a megaphone.
Farley spoke next and immediately challenged the crowd to remain peaceful.
“Listen up! Do not disgrace this event by acting like a fool right now!” he said.
Farley said he joined with the Black Lives protesters with the specific goal of keeping the event peaceful, although he said it is unreasonable for the public to always expect that an incident like the death of George Floyd will always be answered with nonviolence. He said many people are angry, but his goal was to prevent organized agitators from escalating tensions to the point of violence.
Community activist William Rivas was following the demonstration from his home next door and rushed over to diffuse a situation he thought would turn ugly, making his way to the front of the line to join Farley and other leaders in helping to steer the conversation.
“We want to make sure everything ends peaceful and productive,” Rivas said. “It’s our community. We gotta control the energy we put out.”
At times the peaceful protesters appeared to be struggling with angrier agitators for control of the event. Farley explained his purpose.
“We are here to uplift our community with love, not hate, but you will have people who are not a part of that movement who will come in with their own agenda and make it about something it’s not,” he said. “I just hope people are smart enough to be able to discern between people who are here speaking about justice, even though you’ll have a few knuckleheads — who probably aren’t even from Schenectady — trying to do something crazy.”
Foster said she believes organizing any protest event carries with it the risk that white nationalist groups will attempt to infiltrate the protest and attempt to spur violence.
“I think white supremacists do want things to become violent in an effort to discredit us, but many people fail to acknowledge the violence that is perpetuated against [racial minorities] in America,” she said. “I didn’t say what I said today to elicit a riot, but I’m always afraid, simply because the situation is what it is.”
Foster said she has been afforded some social privilege from being a light-skinned black woman, a privilege she feels obligates her to stand-up against racism and violence against minority groups, even as she receives criticism for doing so.
“It’s not a comfortable thing — it’s humble pie that you have to eat every time — but I will put my body on the line to make sure that people who are more likely to be targeted than me can have their voices heard,” she said.
Foster said Clifford’s kneel-down, which came about an hour after she led the kneel-down meant to end the protest, offers the potential for improvement in the relationship between police and minority groups.
“Taking a knee means there’s still hope,” she said.
The mood remained cautiously celebratory shortly before 5 p.m. as police mingled with protesters on the steps of the station as trunks rattled from cars parked on the street and dirt bikes and motorcycles zipped back and forth.
City police then agreed to march with demonstrators in solidarity around the block, a measure one demonstrator called “an example for the nation.”