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Activists in Schenectady draw attention to racial disparities in legal system

Activists in Schenectady draw attention to racial disparities in legal system

Activists in Schenectady draw attention to racial disparities in legal system
Jamaica Miles, an organizer with Citizen Action of New York, addresses attendees at a rally Wednesday.
Photographer: Pete DeMola/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — It may have been Juneteeth, the day to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., but many don’t exactly feel emancipated.

Thomas Kearney, 39, made what he described as a bad decision at 19. Ensnared in the criminal justice system for the past two decades, he said institutional roadblocks can often feel insurmountable.

He recalled applying for a minimum wage job and ticking off the box designating him as a felon.

“Does freedom look like begging for a minimum wage job to feed your family?” he said. “All we want is opportunity.”

And often, the post-release structure can feel like it was designed to push people back into incarceration, he said. 

“I did more time in parole violations than the most heinous crimes you can think of,” he said. 

Kearney was among the three dozen or so people who gathered outside of the Schenectady County Jail on Wednesday evening to publicize what attendees claim are injustices baked into the criminal justice system, including racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union claimed Schenectady County ranked the worst in the state for cannabis-related arrests, with blacks 74 times more likely to be arrested despite using the substance at similar levels as whites.

Law enforcement officials have attributed the discrepancy to numerous factors, including the concentration of police calls to innercity neighborhoods and the lack of highway infrastructure in the county, resulting in fewer traffic stops that equalize the numbers in other counties. 

Lauren Manning told her son, who is 22, about racial profiling growing up, warning that he had a target on his back. 

But he didn’t realize it until he started driving.

“They’re literally pulled over several times a week every week,” said Manning, who did not refer to a specific law enforcement agency.

Organized by Citizen Action of New York, Center for Law and Justice, VOCAL-NY and NYCLU, the rally was held on the closing day of the legislative session in Albany, where legislation to legalize marijuana ultimately failed to materialize on Wednesday. 

But despite the lack of movement on legalization, lawmakers renewed a last-minute push for decriminalization.

And there have been some successes in criminal justice reform, including new legislation taking effect next year that will eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent charges, proponents of the measure say. 

People at the rally called for state, local and federal lawmakers to continue to pursue progressive reforms, including the elimination of solitary confinement.

The group turned its attention to the jail, which Jamaica Miles, an organizer with Citizen Action of New York, said was purposely designed to invite isolation, right down to the sliver-like windows that shroud the cells in darkness.

“If we don’t get it, shut it down,” the group chanted. 

Another chant said, “Old Jim Crow, new Jim Crow, the whole damn system has got to go.”

Many carried signs with slogans, including those shaped like tombstones.

Speakers talked for an hour at the county facility, which is located at the bottom of Hamilton Hill. By then, downtown largely emptied out and traffic was waning. But a brief march up and down Veeder Avenue drew supportive honks and waves from passing vehicles.

Miles said many minorities are terrified with publicly expressing their opinion, which can throw up a hurdle to community activism. 

She cited a discussion with a man at Jerry Burrell Park who asked if he would be tracked down by parole officers if he signed a petition. 

“Yes I’m with you,” Miles recalled the man as saying. “I just can’t show up today.”

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