Foss: Cleaning up in Albany’s South End

Dannielle Hille, a neighborhood resident who organized Sunday's cleanup.
Dannielle Hille, a neighborhood resident who organized Sunday's cleanup.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

Anita Wilson marched on Saturday. 

On Sunday, she cleaned. 

I met Wilson on South Pearl Street in Albany’s South End, around the corner from the police substation where protests spilled into violence the night before. She was carrying a broom and a garbage bag, and wearing gloves, jeans and an eye-catching, colorful T-shirt that declared “I am Black. Woman. Beautiful. Proud. Intelligent. Resilient. Love.” 

“This is my community,” Wilson told me. “This is my fight. This is my struggle. … I understand there’s a lot of anger. But I believe in the importance of us having a safe and clean environment.”

Wilson was one of dozens of Albany residents who responded to a call for volunteers to cleanup a neighborhood where protesters and police clashed the evening before, leaving chunks of glass, rock and brick on the sidewalks and streets. As Wilson and others tidied up, property owners covered windows and doors with plywood; at Pearl Discount & Beauty, a hand-written sign assured customers that “We R Open.” 

The South End is an area I know well. 

I lived in the Mansion Neighborhood, which is part of the South End, for about seven years, and though I now reside in a different neighborhood, I still feel a kinship and love for the place I once called home. 

It’s a neighborhood where I still walk and visit frequently, and listening to the unceasing blare of sirens from my house just a half-mile away was painful. I wondered what the neighborhood would look like in the morning, how much damage there would be, whether anyone would be injured, even killed. 

I don’t condone violence, and I was relieved to see that the South End was largely intact when I ventured down there on Sunday morning. There was damage, but it could have been much, much worse.

Wilson was part of the large crowd — some estimates put it at nearly 1,500 — that marched in Albany Saturday to demand justice for George Floyd, the black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, denounce police brutality and declare that, yes, black lives matter. This is an important message, and it risks being drowned out by the spasms of violence occurring in cities throughout the country.  

“What’s boiling over?” Wilson said. “It’s years and years of oppression. … The march was really powerful. I was disappointed in what happened last night.” 

“I understand where a lot of the anger is coming from,” volunteer Isabella Higgins, 21, told me. “I feel the best way to give back at this point is to help clean up the community that was affected.” 

The police brutality protests call for an end to police violence, but the concerns of the demonstrators go beyond that. 

They’re also angry about the poverty and blight that plagues many minority neighborhoods, and the hopelessness that consumes those who can’t see a way out. These are real problems, and they deserve real attention.

The fiery images from the South End obscures what those of us with ties to the neighborhood know to be true — that this is a unique and interesting place, where people tend gardens and create art and get involved with organizations that promote the common good. There is a school and library in the neighborhood, and lots of children.

It’s also a neighborhood with problems, and while there’s little clarity as to where the protesters came from — the only arrest thus far was of a white man from Delmar — that doesn’t change this basic fact. For too many in Albany’s South End, life is a struggle. 

Dannielle Hille, a resident of the Mansion Neighborhood and former neighbor of mine, organized Sunday’s cleanup through her grassroots group A Block At a Time. She told me she was “hurt” by Saturday night’s violence. 

“I was upset to see [protesters] destroy my home,” she said, while distributing garbage bags and masks to volunteers. “I know they’re upset. I understand they’re frustrated. But to destroy stuff …” 

Her voice trailed off. 

Could Saturday’s confrontation have ended differently? 

That’s the question I found myself wondering on Sunday, when Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford and other city police officers took a knee with protesters outside of Schenectady police headquarters. 

It was an unexpected and welcome moment — and might have helped keep the peace in the city overnight. Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins knelt with protesters on Monday, but a similar gesture, on Saturday night, might have made a difference, though we’ll never know for sure.  

Clifford deserves praise for engaging with protesters, but the engagement must be ongoing. 

Taking a knee is only meaningful if it’s part of a larger process of working with the community to address their concerns.

Building trust takes time — it can’t be done in a day. Protest organizers, who worked hard to keep the event peaceful, also deserve a lot of credit. 

The question — one I don’t know the answer to — is what happens next?

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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