Editor’s Note: The Gazette is running a series of articles on the year’s top 5 stories, as selected and originally reported by Gazette staffers. Today is the first installment, written by reporter Pete DeMola. The rest will appear on different days until Dec. 31.
SCHENECTADY — Journalism is unpredictable.
But after spending time in China, I had an inkling that the typical jumble of reporting that constitutes a city reporter’s beat — the churn of urban planning, criminal capers, quality-of-life issues and officials behaving questionably — would give way to one monolithic story by late-winter:
COVID-19, the deadly flu-like virus that emerged from Wuhan, China.
By mid-March, we were all COVID reporters covering the pandemic that instantaneously reordered society overnight, with the functions of our ordinary beats papered over with fear, anxiety, mounting death tolls and a pervasive sense of dread.
Yet just as the pandemic began to recede into the background in early-summer once New Yorkers emerged from eight weeks of shutdown, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 vaulted the U.S. into a second national crisis:
Racism intertwined with COVID-19, like a virulent strand of DNA.
I’ve never seamlessly gone from national crisis-to-crisis before. Neither, I assume, have most local reporters.
The following dispatches aren’t necessarily my top five favorite reports of the year, but are rather five benchmarks that help contextualize the story of 2020.
It’s easy to forget that the state’s suite of criminal justice reforms dominated news coverage in early 2020.
None proved more of a lightning rod than bail reform, which eliminated cash bail for misdemeanors and some violent felonies, drawing outrage from law enforcement as well as Republicans and conservative Democrats who evoked dystopian film series like “The Purge” as evidence that the Empire State was on the verge of total societal collapse.
In late February, a woman named Casey Buckley was held up as the poster child for bail reform gone awry after allegedly shoving an elderly woman and snatching her purse, as well as a string of other petty crimes.
Amid the outrage, I thought it was important to detach myself from her guilt or innocence and simply try to track her appearances through a web of municipalities and court systems. Despite the outrage and headlines, Buckley made all of her court appearances by March 1, the same day New York logged its first COVID-19 case, a woman in her 30s who contracted the virus while traveling in Iran.
Exit bail reform, enter COVID. Most people can probably trace March 11 back to the exact moment when the pandemic became real, shifting from stock images of mask-clad Chinese tromping through far-off urban landscapes to having a direct impact on their life.
That’s when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, the NBA cancelled its season and Tom and Rita Hanks announced they had tested positive for the virus in Australia.
Within days, small restaurants across the city were scrambling to adjust to the state’s new shutdown edicts, the beginning of an eight-week statewide lockdown.
Restaurants for the workboot-wearing crowd like Newest Lunch and Mami’s Restaurant in Mont Pleasant are the soul of Schenectady. Spending the day with them and their counterparts as they scrambled for survival — from interviewing waitresses bracing for layoffs to workers wheeling crates of takeout containers through Restaurant Depot — was a window into the community’s heartbeat as it prepared to hunker down for an unprecedented journey.
Enter late May. Within 10 days of the Capital Region entering the first phase of reopening, hundreds gathered in Albany’s Townsend Park to protest police brutality and racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
While the event was peaceful, a small group splintered off and besieged a nearby police precinct, pelting police vehicles and riotgear-clad officers with projectiles.
Acting off a tip, I was the first reporter on scene, dodging bricks, rocks, and later, as the situation deteriorated, tear gas.
Upon their dispersal by horseback-mounted cops, some tore a riotous swath through the city, smashing windows and lighting fires, setting up days of uncertainty as the Capital Region held its breath — including Schenectady, where tensions were diffused the following day after Chief Eric Clifford took a knee with protestors, a move that garnered national attention.
For the next five months, city police were under intense scrutiny. Marches against systemic racism and optimism after Clifford took a knee curdled into outrage after a city police officer knelt on a suspect’s head, setting off fresh rounds of outrage and precedent-setting court battles over police records that remain ongoing.
At the same time, city police began to embark down the state-mandated police reform process. While city police began making inroads with the Black community and clergy, activists pushed from the left flank, demanding immediate reforms.
While reforms remain a work in progress, the city entered winter with the fresh tendrils of hope and progress.
The above article written at the conclusion of the public input process in mid November attempts to tie those strands together — and doesn’t even get into subplots of the summer of activism, including an embattled ice cream parlor owner’s prolonged showdown with activists, white supremacists skulking through the Capital Region, a vehicular firebombing and a cash-strapped city trying to figure out how to keep the lights on.
The final dispatch is as fresh as newly fallen snow. Too soon? Amid simmering racial injustice and a resurgent pandemic which is currently breaking hospitalization and infection numbers as it tears a swatch through the Capital Region, the gears of government continue to turn.
The city got walloped with nearly 30 inches of snow last week and the public remains outraged, proving that even during historic events — amid the terror, sacrifice and resilience — quality-of-life issues still matter, and nothing unites a city more than the perception of government ineptitude.