Schenectady

Schenectady Police Chief talks Sunday’s peaceful George Floyd protests in city; Albany faces more unrest

Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford speaks to protesters Sunday
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford speaks to protesters Sunday

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Following a whipsaw day in which jubilation gave way to overnight anxiety, the city emerged unscathed Monday from the destructive rioting that has enveloped cities across the country.

The lone act of protest-related vandalism in the city was a brick thrown through the window of the PBA on Clinton Street near City Hall, said city Police Chief Eric Clifford. 

Many downtown businesses remained boarded-up and closed on Monday, with several posting signs identifying them as black-owned or supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement that has reignited nationwide following outrage over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

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Mayor Gary McCarthy rescinded the curfew issued the day before after authorities were warned of threats unrelated to the protests. The threat never materialized. 

“It was more a worry from people outside of town coming in,” Clifford said.

Authorities will closely monitor the situation and are working with the Albany Crime Analysis Center and state and federal agencies for signs of potential unrest, Clifford said. 

Both city and county officials met virtually on Monday, but differed in how they addressed the events that have taken place in the city.

County Legislature Chairman Anthony Jasenski offered support for the demonstrators and supportive words for Clifford, said county Democratic Majority Leader Gary Hughes.

But City Council did not reference the demonstrations during its 80-minute meeting — even in passing. 

McCarthy, who has not held a formal press conference since March 13 and did not make any public comments as the protests unfolded on Sunday, released a statement thanking “members of the community for organizing a peaceful event” and applauded Clifford. 

“What occurred yesterday afternoon was nothing short of amazing,” McCarthy said. “In Schenectady, we believe that Black Lives Matter, and that police departments can be defined by their relationship with the community they serve.”

In contrast, demonstrations continued to unfold in Albany Monday evening, where city police Chief Eric Hawkins engaged in a dialogue with protesters at police headquarters shortly before 8 p.m., according to the department’s social media channels.

Earlier, he met with protesters and took a knee, a measure that diffused tension much like the gesture did in Schenectady the day before, according to a photo posted by a Times Union reporter.

Despite vandals causing destruction through Albany overnight Sunday, officials didn’t expect to extend the curfew on Monday. 

“We continue to be in constant contact with law enforcement officials, but at this time we do not anticipate extending the curfew into this evening,” said David Galin, chief of staff to city Mayor Kathy Sheehan. 

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But skirmishes escalated late Monday, according to a Times Union reporter who shot video of incidents late Monday, including law enforcement spraying tear gas amid a group of protesters.

SYMBOLIC MOMENT

In Schenectady, roughly three dozen demonstrators verbally engaged with officers in riot gear late Sunday at Proctors and city police headquarters following the protest, both of which ended without incident. 

Boxes of coffee, water and milk, which are used to mitigate the impacts of tear gas, remained on the sidewalk until early Monday, when nocturnal scavengers carried them away.

The calm came as the country entered the sixth straight day of protests, with violent unrest escalating in at least 75 U.S. cities, including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Long Beach, Calif. 

Demonstrations in Schenectady ended peacefully when Clifford and his officers kneeled at the demand of protesters and later marched arm-in-arm with attendees while chanting “black lives matter.”

“That was the symbolic moment right there,” Clifford said on Monday. “You could hear the cheers as soon as we took a knee. And simultaneously, you could feel everyone take a deep breath; the tension was cut, and things changed.”

The department’s response drew widespread acclaim on social media, where a video posted by a Daily Gazette reporter garnered nearly 100,000 views by late Monday. 

Clifford attributed the outcome to the trust accrued over the years through efforts to step up community policing. 

“These are the deposits we talk about on a daily basis,” Clifford said. “All the good we establish is there for us… it makes me proud that Schenectady is a leader. Things we do here go worldwide.”

‘WE MADE SOME COMMITMENTS’ 

Demonstrations unfolded at a whiplash pace, starting at Veterans Park before making their way to the police station, City Hall, and back to headquarters, where they demanded an official response.

Authorities observed from indoors, and Clifford was heartened when he watched an organizer intercept and pull back a protester who attempted to enter to the building. 

“That was my first indicator that the organizers are OK and they’re actually policing themselves,” Clifford said.

Seasoned community leaders helped the younger crop of activists pave the way for a dialogue.

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“As a young black adolescent, this is what we need,” said Shamiah Walker, an incoming junior at Schenectady High. 

Yarisa Cueba, a member of the school’s law enforcement club, doesn’t think cops are inherently bad.

“They just don’t always make the right decisions, and are not making reforms as fast as they should be,” Cueba said.

Activists have said they’re not just protesting Floyd’s death, but rather what they view as entrenched institutionalized and systemic racism and criminal justice policies that disproportionately impact minorities.

But in the absence of a uniform set of demands, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday advised protesters to not “lose the moment” and urged them to coalesce around a concrete set of reforms and not let disruptive elements infiltrate their ranks, which would allow their opponents to discredit them.

“Otherwise, it’s just screaming into the wind if you don’t know exactly what changes we need to make,” Cuomo said.

Clifford said dialogue with local activists will continue.

“We made some commitments to each other,” he said. “Once the pandemic is over, we’ll do more things together.”

That includes at least one cook-out.

“We’re going to something loud enough so everyone knows we’re doing it.”

While city police have prioritized community policing in recent years, Clifford acknowledged the department could do a better job reaching those in their late-teens and early 20s, perhaps relying more on social media portals like Instagram. 

“While we’re doing good community engagement, we need to do different outreach to reach different people,” Clifford said.

At the same time, he suggested activists and those concerned about police brutality to work community leaders and take an active role in their local neighborhood associations.

“We want to encourage more people to participate,” he said.

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