SCHENECTADY — Mikayla Foster wants to make something very clear:
“We are not in any way becoming complacent because a couple of cops knelt with us,” Foster said.
The activist was among those who led a demonstration that brought city cops to their knees on Sunday — literally, after the group extracted the powerful gesture from the chief and his officers, who later marched with the group around the block in an effort to diffuse tensions.
Both city police and leadership of the recent anti-police brutality protests agree the measure was a positive development in improving relations between law enforcement and a community battered by injustice. But they say this is just the beginning. The protests began nationwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“We are not letting up from this pressure,” Foster said.
Foster led a rapidly swelling group from Veterans Park in downtown Schenectady to the county jail on Thursday evening.
Demonstrators blocked numerous city intersections, a symbolic gesture they say drives home the message of the systemic racism that’s disruptive to their everyday lives.
“They’re going to move their lives around us,” said Jamaica Miles, an organizer with the Schenectady-based action group All of Us.
For people like Shamar Nivens, it’s a story of racial profiling.
Nivens said he was picked up by city police on Wednesday night as he relaxed on his porch on Georgetta Dix Place, handcuffed and grilled at the downtown precinct Wednesday evening after authorities told him he fit the profile of a suspect in an unknown crime.
Black with glasses and a beard, Nivens said. “I feel like they violated my rights.”
It’s a system that leaves white people unscathed, said Dayanara Marrero.
“I know in our community, it happens everyday,” Marrero said.
After lobbing verbal grenades towards the county jail, demonstrators lay face-down against the hot pavement as drones whirred overhead and neighborhood kids gawked from the hilltop.
“I can’t breathe,” they chanted.
The event was peaceful except for a white passerby who hurled invective for a few tense moments on Veeder Avenue, resulting in a brief verbal scuffle before he left.
Speakers told raw and painful stories of how racism has manifested itself in local institutions.
A former staffer at the city school district shared an anecdote about watching a student getting pinned against the wall by a staffer.
The former student is now incarcerated at the county jail, she said.
Is there a definite connection? It’s unclear. But it hurts, she said, and there is much fertile ground to explore.
Organizer Legacy Casanova spoke of a five-year journey through the Albany county and city criminal justice system over a non-violent petty crime, one exacerbated by being a transgendered man navigating a hostile climate without the proper services and safeguards.
“Let our people go,” the crowd chanted outside the jail.
Many speakers appeared to be unaccustomed to the spotlight, offering flee-flowing stories about their encounters with injustice, issuing primal screams punctuated by a supportive crowd shouting words of encouragement and solidarity.
The group then marched up Albany Street, an area of deteriorating buildings and many residents facing hard economic times. As they marched past, black and brown fists were raised from porches, entryways and from dark interiors.
People cautiously peered from their homes, filming from smartphones and raising their fists in solidarity.
“Walk with us,” implored leaders shouting through bullhorns.
This, organizers said, is the beginning of a long-term campaign to remedy injustice, one in which Schenectady, Troy and Albany are marching in lockstep.
“This is a moment,” said Shawn Young. “But we must make a movement,” he said, adding an expletive for emphasis.
Organizers implored marchers to stay involved in local politics, from attending local government meetings to voting in school board races.
Police followed the group from afar, blocking off intersections as they continued their march up Albany Street.
At one point, demonstrators directed their ire toward the patrol cars, their lights swirling in the evening haze.
“Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” they said.
But the police were dismissed almost as an afterthought, as the crowd turned away and marched up Albany Street.