CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Schenectady Police Officer Mark Weekes resigned from the department. He’s still an active officer.
SCHENECTADY – The intent of a feel-good community event in which police officers handed out bicycle helmets to schoolchildren quickly pivoted when carloads of critics arrived to accuse local law enforcement of murder. They also hurled obscenities.
The condemnation continued when about a half-dozen Black Lives Matters protesters converged on the event in the parking lot of Trustco Bank at State Street and Brandywine Avenue Thursday evening.
The protesters pulled out cellphones to record themselves angrily confront officers, including Police Chief Eric Clifford. Mayor Gary McCarthy was also given an earful.
The city put on the event for police to engage with the public, as suggested during the leadup to the city’s police reform and reinvention plan.
Members of the Fire Department, code enforcement, the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department, representatives of MVP Health Care and Trustco Bank, and new city School superintendent Anibal Soler, Jr. also attended to answer questions from the public.
Police had said that residents could file complaints during the event, and the BLM protesters leveraged the opportunity, demanding to know how to file one about what they said was the police’s “murder” of Andrew Kearse.
Kearse succumbed to heart failure after being apprehended by Schenectady police officers in May 2017, according to an autopsy.
The officer involved in the case, Mark Weekes, was the subject of a grand jury investigation because he drove Kearse to the police station after the arrest. Kearse was unconscious upon arrival at the station and never regained consciousness.
The grand jury declined to file charges against Weekes.
BLM protester Mikayla Foster pointed out that police had arrested her earlier this year for writing messages in washable chalk outside the Police Department during a BLM protest.
Foster claimed it was law enforcement’s attempt at trying to set precedent for protesters in Schenectady.
With Clifford within earshot, Foster said the chief refused to accept her input when she served on the task force for the police reform plan.
Foster also took issue with police and city officials not showing up to a back-to-school event by the Be A Leader youth group held earlier Thursday. She said the group raised $600 to provide backpacks with supplies to local schoolkids.
“You didn’t go to any back-to-school events put on by Black kids in Schenectady, and then you locked a couple of Black kids up just a couple weeks ago, for chalk,” Foster said. “So that’s why I’m here. I will always disrupt community photo ops for police officers, because none of these people have ever respected me, or anybody like me.”
As Foster spoke, a fellow protester told an officer, “I want you to get fired,” and referred to the police as “Schenectady scumbags.”
Officers rebuked the protesters for using foul language in the presence of children.
A clearly irritated Clifford said he had no comment when approached by a reporter, while McCarthy said the group’s messaging spoke for itself.
“We’re out here in a professional manner, trying to have a dialogue with the community,” the mayor said, as chants of Black Lives Matter grew louder.
But not every person of color endorsed the protesters’ messaging.
Vivian Parsons, a Republican candidate for City Council in the November election, said she wasn’t aware of the particular concern that prompted protesters to accuse the police of murder.
But she suggested officers don’t go out of their way to gun anyone down.
Parsons said her father served as an Albany police officer for 18 years.
“I can tell you firsthand,” she said as her 7-year-old son, Matthew, twirled a replica Fire Department helmet, “the last thing he ever wanted to do was fire his weapon. Right now we need, more than anything, to bridge the gap between the community and our police officers. We need to have that open conversation. The disparaging comments, shouting and cursing at officers, doesn’t help anyone.”
Marva Isaacs said: “All these police officers are my friends, and I came here to represent them because they’re always there to represent me and my community.”
Isaacs is president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association, but she said she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the association.
Isaacs asserted the protesters were “poisoning” people’s minds against police.
“It’s crazy,” she said.
Earlier, Parsons took advantage of the chance to meet the new school chief.
After chatting with Soler, Parsons said she was excited for schoolchildren to return to in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The virtual learning, I just feel, stagnated the kids and their progress with the classes,” said Parsons, whose son is entering second grade at Woodlawn Elementary.
“Not every child processes information the same way, and with virtual learning, the teachers are so limited on how to present the information, and they really don’t have the opportunity for one on one instruction with the kids if they need it, if they’re struggling,” Parsons said.
Parson went on to call the community engagement event creative and effective.
“I definitely want to commend Chief Clifford for his efforts on reaching out to the community and letting the community know that police officers really are accessible, and they really are here to serve everyone in the community.”
Parsons said her son’s face lit up while interacting with police.
“That’s the kind of message that we want to send to our kids, that they’re not anyone that they need to be afraid of, but they’re people that they can come to when they need help,” she said. “That’s the kind of excitement that I want to see fostered even more with our kids.”