On Saturday, Lashawn Hawkins, candidate for city councilperson-at-large, did one of the things she’s best known for in Fulton County, conducting a peaceful “SAY HER NAME — Breonna Taylor” memorial protest at the Four Corners in Gloversville.
The event marked the one-year anniversary that Taylor, 26, an emergency room technician, was shot to death in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky by police officers conducting what has been described as a botched drug raid. After forcing entry into her apartment, police exchanged gunfire with Taylor’s boyfriend, who survived and was not criminally charged, but she was killed by police in her bed. Her family has since settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the city of Louisville for $12 million, but her story did not initially receive the national attention it would gain later in the summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
In Fulton County, the chief organizer of those protests was Hawkins.
Hawkins on Saturday said she knows too few people know Taylor’s story, because she was one of them.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “I really didn’t even hear much about it until they started doing the protests, and then I started learning about the tragedy that occurred.”
Hawkins rose to prominence in Fulton County organizing her signature style of “silent protests” — during which participants hold signs with messages on them rather than chanting or marching. She organized BLM protests held in the Glove Cities, as well as other locations in the region. The protest movement led her to retire from her day job and form a nonprofit called “I Can Breathe And I Will Speak.” The peaceful nature of her protest style helped earn her a seat at the table during the state mandated police reform plan process, which she hopes will serve as the springboard to winning her first political campaign.
On Thursday, Hawkins was given permission by the Fulton County Democratic Party to gather signatures to run on the Democratic Party line in November even though she missed the deadline to change her party affiliation from blank to Democrat, which she said was a mistake she made filling out her voter registration for the first time in Fulton County in 2020.
She said it took less than 48 hours for her to gather the 31 signatures she needed to run on the Democratic line for councilperson-at-large in Gloversville.
“Already done, all it took was one neighborhood in one Ward,” she said Saturday.
Hawkins will likely face declared Republican councilman-at-large candidate Wayne Peters, a retired Fulton County sheriff’s deputy who served for almost 30 years before he retired in 2016 after his second hip replacement. For 20 of those years he served as the county’s K-9 deputy. His last K-9 partner, a German Shepherd named Max died about a week before he announced his candidacy on March 2 alongside current city Councilman-at-Large William Rowback Jr. who declared his intention to run as the Republican candidate for mayor against incumbent Democratic Mayor Vince DeSantis.
The Hawkins and Peters matchup pits a BLM activist against a career law enforcement official, although Peters said his decision to run was in no way motivated by Hawkins candidacy.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know this lady at all,” Peters said after his announcement. “She is not the reason at all that I’m running, the reason I’m running is I feel like I can do something for the city and I feel like I can do good.”
Hawkins echoed similar sentiments about Peters, saying she’s worked effectively with Democrats like DeSantis as well as Republicans like Rowback and 4th Ward Councilwoman Ellen Anadio, who both served as council liaisons to the police reform plan committee for Gloversville.
“I had no knowledge of who Wayne Peters was prior to his announcement, aside from the fact that [his dog had died] may his K-9 rest in peace,” she said. “I did know that, and thought in the back of my mind, that if Bill announced for mayor that he would seek someone who was very well liked. So, I’m not surprised he picked, what I’m hearing from other people, is a very decent man.”
Hawkins said the police reform she had the most input with was in Gloversville, but she also worked with Republican Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino on the county’s reform plan.
Peters said he did know Hawkins organized the BLM protests in Fulton County over the summer, but he didn’t attend any of them. He said he views the BLM movement as controversial, but he was glad Hawkins’ version of it did not result in violence.
“Nationwide, I think it’s done a lot of damage, but some changes are needed,” he said.
On the matter of the state mandated police reforms the two differ on whether they were necessary.
“I think some of it has to be done, but the extent that they’re trying to do them, I don’t necessarily agree with it all,” Peters said.
Gloversville’s police reform plan had bipartisan support, being approved unanimously by the council.
One element of the reform plan requires police to identify five people requiring regular police intervention and connect them to other, more appropriate resources.
Hawkins said that reform will make a difference.
“I think that’s very, very important, and very, very needed,” she said. “I think everybody’s plan should have some form of mental health advocacy or connection or dialogue, because that is the bulk of [law enforcement problems] in situations that occur. It usually ends up being someone with mental illness.”
Peters and Hawkins both agree Gloversville has a major problem with drugs, particularly overdoses.
Both are critical of the way the recent plan to privatize the city’s garbage service was communicated to the public, although both say they haven’t decided whether they support it or not.
“I’m not necessarily against the private garbage hauler, but I’m against the way it was done,” Peters said. “John Q. Public did not know anything about it in a lot of cases.”
Hawkins said many of the people she’s talked to were also unaware of the change, but she doesn’t consider the issue as important as other priorities.
“There are more important things to talk about than garbage,” she said.
Jerry Ryan, who serves as the Fulton County Board of elections Democratic commissioner and the secretary of the Gloversville Democratic Committee, said the vote Thursday night to allow Hawkins to run as a Democrat was unanimous, including from City Democratic Chairwoman Robin Wentworth.
Gloversville’s city committee has not met much over the last several election cycles. In 2019, the committee decided not to endorse Democrats DeSantis or at that time incumbent Democratic Councilman-at-Large Steve Smith.
In the prior mayoral election in 2017, Wentworth endorsed Rowback.
Ryan said the committee listened to speeches from Democrats DeSantis, 1st Ward Councilwoman Marcia Weiss and 3rd Ward Councilwoman Betsy Batchelor, all seeking re-election in November, but decisions won’t be made on those endorsements until after the political petitioning period is over at the end of the month.
He said the idea of whether Hawkins’ recent career as a BLM activist might have a deleterious effect on the Democratic ticket, and potentially galvanize Republicans was considered, but rejected.
“That was discussed, and the conclusion was we have no concern, whatsoever, about that,” Ryan said.
President Donald Trump in November won every election precinct in Gloversville, receiving 2,695 votes to President Joe Biden’s 2,040.
Greg Young, Gloversville’s 5th Ward supervisor, also serves on the city committee. He said Hawkins has proven she can work with Democrats and Republicans.
“She’s somebody who isn’t just talking about change in the community, she’s getting involved in making it and that really stood out for us,” he said.
Young said Hawkins voter registration efforts will also likely help the Democrats in Republican-dominated Fulton County.
Hawkins said she recently helped register eight new Democrats and intends to register more, particularly people in their early 20s around the age of her son, Esean Brown, and his girlfriend, Riley King, both 2018 Gloversville Enlarged School District graduates.
King and Brown attended the Taylor memorial Saturday. King said she has never voted in a local election but intends to in November because of Hawkins.
“All of our friends are saying that since Lashawn is involved they’re going to get registered and vote,” King said.
After seeing a surge of new registered voters between 2019 and 2020 both Republicans and Democrats have lost registered voters between the Fulton County Board of Elections filing with the state Board of Elections in November 2020 and Feb. 21, 2021.
In November 2020, Fulton County had 8,211 registered Democrats, up 293 voters from November 2019, but since then the Democrats lost 436 registered voters as of Feb. 21, 2021 dropping down to 7,775.
Republicans also saw a similar seesaw effect. In November 2020 Republicans had 16,974 registered voters in Fulton County, up 641 from November 2019, but according to the Feb. 21 filing the party had lost 421 registered voters since November, dropping down to 16,553.
The total number of registered voters in Fulton County also dropped between November 2020 when there were 35,509 registered voters, up 1,711 from November 2019, and February when the total dropped 1,321 down to 34,188 registered voters.
Hawkins said she hopes to change the momentum toward an increase in voter registration.
“That’s the whole plan,” she said. “Obviously the people who have been voting they aren’t voting for the right stuff. We’re not voting for what really needs to be getting changed, so we’ve got to get some new people and get some other people’s ideas. There’s a lot more people who live in Gloversville than vote in these local elections and that’s what I’m trying to bring back to light.”
Peters said his main goal is to increase transparency in local government.
“One thing I kind of believe in is transparency — for the people of this city to kind of know what’s going on with that board instead of, how can I say this, having closed door meetings,” he said, referencing executive sessions of the council to discuss contract negotiations. “A lot of things have probably been done that way because of COVID-19, but I’m just not in favor of that. I believe the public should be aware of what’s going on.”