As a longtime resident of Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, Marva Isaacs thinks of the Schenectady police as her allies and friends.
“I can go to them for everything,” Isaacs said Friday, speaking through tears at the end of a tumultuous week of strife between black America and law enforcement. “Why can’t we get along? I’m sitting and working and crying. It’s too much.”
The peaceful Black Lives Matter march Thursday night in Schenectady was a perfect example of how the two communities can get along, she said. “It was beautiful.”
As the nation was reeling after back-to-back police shootings were recorded in Louisiana and Minnesota, sniper fire rang out in Dallas Thursday evening into Friday morning, taking the lives of five police officers and shaking community-police relations across the country. News of unnecessary violence and hate rolled in relentlessly this week, leaving little time to process one incident, let alone three.
The violence in Dallas troubled Isaacs deeply. “You lie in wait for these police officers … and you shoot them down?” she asked tearfully.
“I have sons [and grandsons] and it’s hard to see black men getting gunned down and it’s hurting me. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to see they’re killing innocent police officers,” she said. “Not all police officers are bad. Not all black people are bad. We can’t just go killing people. Those police officers have families. I’m heartbroken,” she said.
Some members of the Schenectady Police Department play basketball in the park with the kids in Hamilton Hill every Saturday. “They try to interact with the young people. The ones who don’t want to interact with the police, they’re the problems,” she said.
Isaacs said the police “talk to me with respect because when I go speak to them, I give them respect.”
Isaacs noted that police don’t walk the streets of Hamilton Hill, but said, “We had those police walking before but you can’t have one police walking on Hamilton Hill. I’ll tell you that. You have to have two walk together.”
Living with fear
A man named Kevin who has lived in Hamilton Hill all his life said his uncle used to be a cop and walked the beat in this neighborhood. “I haven’t seen one cop in two years walking the beat here,” he said.
“People don’t even want to bring their kids to the park,” said another Hamilton Hill resident named Efraim. “Every time I tell someone where I live, they don’t want to come,” he added.
Looking over to his 5-year-old daughter smiling and playing on his front porch, Efraim said, “Anything could happen.” He worries the relationship between police and minority communities has been reduced to “it’s my life or yours.”
Reflecting on the death of Philando Castille, a black man who was shot in Minnesota after being pulled over for a broken taillight Wednesday, Efraim said, “I could be reaching for my ID [and get shot]. … It’s not right.”
Efraim’s uncle, Jose, questioned whether all cops are qualified to carry guns. “Not every cop deserves a gun,” he said. “Some of those rookies are too afraid.” Jose said his nephew was “whooped” by police, though Efraim insisted the incident had nothing to do with race.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover. We’re human beings. We go back to our homes, to our families like everyone else,” said Efraim. “There are good cops. It’s 50-50 both ways.” He noted, “Personally, I’m traumatized. I keep walking [when I see a cop]. I try to avoid them. I didn’t see you, you didn’t see me.”
Efraim, Jose and Kevin did not want their last names used.
‘The way we live’
As Efraim’s daughter skipped around the porch steps and along the sidewalk, Kevin said the police sometimes speed down the streets of Hamilton Hill at night with no headlights on. “This is the way we live on Hamilton Hill and we pay taxes. We need sidewalks. We need curbs,” said Kevin. “They can do every other street but not on Hamilton Hill. I was born on this street and I’m still waiting for it.”
Nathan Kirkland, 89, sat on his front porch Friday afternoon enjoying the sunshine underneath his cap and bifocal glasses. Kirkland raised 13 children with his wife in Hamilton Hill after working his way north from South Carolina in his youth.
“I tried to raise ’em the best I could. When you got 13, you have some good and some bad. You just gotta deal with it until they get grown,” he said. Kirkland added, “A couple of the kids went to jail. You know how it is when they think they’re grown.”
While he said he hasn’t seen any police walking the streets of his neighborhood, he said he hasn’t had a problem with the police over the past 60 years in the neighborhood.
Angelica Morris, executive director of the Schenectady Human Rights Commission, grew up in the suburbs of East Greenbush but moved to Hamilton Hill 15 years ago to take a job with former mayor Brian Stratton. For Morris, living on Hamilton Hill is a choice.
“I wanted to experience what the community was going through and be part of a community that’s diverse on all levels,” she said.
In 2006, Morris’ home was burglarized and police solved the crime within 24 hours. Then, in 2015, police knocked on her front door to notify her that a murder had taken place in front of her home. When she heard the news, she was in a state of shock, anger and grief. She thinks of her street on Hamilton Hill as a very quiet, close-knit community. With the help of cooperative community members, the police solved the crime in just three days.
Morris remembers feeling unsafe, vulnerable and violated after she became aware of the violence in her neighborhood.
“I understand the pain of the minority community in a state of fear, in a state of vulnerability, in a state of confusion and in a state of anger,” she said. “We had to build trust between the community and the police to ensure our quality of life and our safety weren’t in jeopardy.”
She knows the unease that comes when one wonders whether their house has been burgalrized or whether someone has been killed on their street. She sometimes hears the sound of a gun pop as she readies for bed, and wonders whether someone has been killed again.
“We must establish a culture that binds us,” said Morris. “Build community first, enforce the law second,” she said.
Morris said the aggressive targeting of black people by police has led to anger and frustration erupting and spilling over into acts of violence.
Call for contact
Memorials from years past made of flowers, candles and balloons dot the streets of Hamilton Hill. Bullet holes still show on the side of a deli on the corner of Craig and Emmett streets.
A few streets away, five little girls excitedly launched a toy rocket into the sky outside the Hamilton Hill Arts and Crafts Center. Remnants of colorful chalk designs cover the sidewalk like mismatched patches in a quilt.
Morris hopes local police departments will start walking beats and getting out of their squad cars to interact with the people they serve and protect.
“Nothing builds more trust than human contact,” she said.
Police should be guardians, not warriors, according to Morris. That distinction must be made in order for minority communities to heal, she said.
Morris has worked with community members and local police departments to organize a memorial service for those lost to violence across the nation this week. It will be Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Bridge Church on Crane Street in Mont Pleasant.
Speaking about living conditions and police relations in Hamilton Hill, Kirkland said, “It ain’t gonna change. It’s all in the people. Just treat people like you want to be treated.”
Still, he said, “Sometimes you don’t get that.”