ALBANY — Protests across the region have brought police to their knees and are gaining momentum, clogging streets and changing hearts.
Answer: It’s a work in progress.
“We’re still taking notes on what we want to see,” said Legacy Casanova, an activist leading demonstrations in Schenectady. “We just really want the police to hear us and recognize the things they’re doing wrong.”
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month sparked a nationwide movement.
But the demonstrations go beyond protesting police killing unarmed black people.
At their heart is stamping out the injustice that seeps into virtually every facet of civic life, including what many contend is overzealous over-policing of minority neighborhoods.
It’s about traffic stops, racial profiling and a general sense of condescending mistreatment that can quickly spiral out of control, resulting in violent outcomes.
“Basic daily interactions can be violent and harmful to folks,” said Shawn Young, an organizer with Citizens Action of New York. “It’s just a range of abuses that don’t get reported and things we’ve come to accept.”
Heavy-handed cops have always been a problem, Young said.
The only difference is smartphones now allow people to capture that behavior and transmit it in real-time.
Young pointed at the black couple who were pulled out of their car by officers last week in Albany, thrown to the ground and arrested on charges that were later dropped. Authorities have also launched an internal probe.
“These things have been happening forever,” Young said.
Just about all demonstrations in the Capital Region have been peaceful aside from a clash outside of a police precinct in Albany’s South End neighborhood on May 30 that resulted in people hurling bricks and incendiary objects at officers in riot gear, a spasm of violence that resulted in a night of destructive rioting.
Protests have been growing increasingly sophisticated, with demonstrators snarling traffic as they lay face-down on downtown streets and march through neighborhoods asking residents to join them.
A loose coalition is helping to steer events in the Tri-City area, including Citizens Action of New York, All of Us and Justice for Dahmeek in Troy, which is holding its first rally on Sunday.
But there’s also a lot of regular folks who are outraged and require no invitation.
“I just want everyone to be treated equally,” said Devan Priest, who lives on Georgetta Dix Place in Schenectady.
Priest, 24, originally wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, but soured after being stopped repeatedly on the street.
“If I’m going to join the force, I want to protect the brotherhood for what they’re supposed to be doing,” Priest said, “not what they’re doing currently.”
Casanova, a transgender black male, has spoken at length about navigating a criminal justice system fraught with pitfalls for people like him.
The Schenectady resident had been involved in LBGTQ activism and social justice issues before Floyd’s death, which brought a renewed sense of urgency.
“I just can’t sit here when I see the community hurting and something needs to be done,” said Casanova, a 24-year-old who vibrates with restless energy and isn’t afraid to mix it up with less-restrained demonstrators who risk derailing the broader cause.
City Police Chief Eric Clifford credited Casanova’s decision to yank a protester who was attempting to enter the police station last Sunday as a key reason for facilitating the dialogue that ultimately diffused tension.
AN ADDITIONAL ACCELERANT
Casanova grew up with Mikayla Foster, another young activist leading the Schenectady demonstrations alongside Brianna Johnson.
Foster introduced the emerging group to Jamaica Miles, a seasoned community activist who offered guidance and support, Casanova said.
Activists in the Tri-City area were already planning events following the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot while jogging by two white men in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian who was killed by police officers in March.
But Floyd’s death lit a match.
“Before we got through Memorial Day Weekend, we had another murder of a black man, a senseless murder, by someone who was white, and that added fuel to what we were already doing,” Young said.
Protests have a certain poetry and rhythm.
One component is the bullhorn-wielding leaders like Casanova, Foster and Johnson who lead chants and conduct the demonstrations like a symphony, summoning acute blasts of anger and synchronized movement on command.
Another is the more quiet part when attendees share stories of a lifetime of oppression and negative experiences across institutions, from public schools to the criminal justice system.
Young, 42, was overwhelmed with emotion on Thursday as demonstrators rallied at the county jail and cut his comments short.
But early acts of injustice leave indelible imprints on developing minds.
As a child, Young watched police officers chase a group of white and black kids suspected of a rash of car thefts through Central Park.
“They chased all the kids but grabbed the black kid,” Young said in an interview. “They shoved his face to the ground, and I learned later one of the white kids stole it.”
The incident left a stain and taught Young an early lesson about how society views people like him.
It also opened an existential crisis, leading him to question his role in society.
Activism didn’t always come naturally to Young, a native Schenectadian, who has embarked on a transformative journey following a stint in state prison.
“I was a perpetrator of harm in the community and I came to my senses in that journey,” Young said. “It began with wanting to heal some of the harm I personally caused and addressing the larger system. It’s about giving back to who I negatively impacted.”
Protests crackle with tension, and provocations by police and bystanders alike can set off outsized reactions, with emotions shifting on a dime.
While the demonstrations have emerged as forums for people to share their stories, which are almost always raw and cathartic, some accusations can be unfounded, a measure which is starting to concern police, particularly when it comes to claims that may inflame tensions.
As the crowd surged outside of the county jail last week, a neighborhood resident took the bullhorn and relayed how her mother’s boyfriend had been pulled in for questioning by an overzealous cop the night before.
Shamar Nivens told the Gazette he was simply trying to enjoy a pleasant summertime evening when he became the subject of racial profiling.
But authorities contend Nivens is in fact a legitimate suspect in an ongoing investigation.
“He was not racially profiled,” said city Police Chief Eric Clifford. “He was located, we know who he was, and he’s part of an active investigation.”
The ramifications, Clifford said, can be incendiary.
“In fact, they’re just doing their job,” he said.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Combating systemic racism isn’t about showing up and waving a sign, but attendees need to openly engage their families and friends to embrace policies designed to dismantle an unjust system.
Activists believe the nation has reached the opportunity for broader, long-lasting change to wipe out systemic racism.
Now it’s about harnessing that energy.
“The symbolic words have a place in the transformation, but it’s at the very beginning,” said community activist Damonni Farley, referring to pledges by city police to improve community relationships.
Dozens of people faced off with city cops last week, yelling in their faces in a turbocharged environment.
Collateral damage, Farley said, is always an afterthought because once the smoke clears, everyone still needs to live in the community.
He’s wary of possible repercussions. But as a veteran activist, he’s used to it.
Sometimes he worries about the new crop of activists rising through the ranks.
“That can be hard for some of the younger organizers who don’t have thick skin,” Farley said.
While a concrete list of reforms remains in the making, broad goals are to reduce harm for people of color and greater accountability for law enforcement, Farley said.
Early consensus is emerging that overturning the law shielding police disciplinary records from public disclosure would be a positive first step to help regain trust in over-policed communities.
“The public has to get through loops to get that information, which is critical for assessing someone who has such a great responsibility,” Farley said.
The state Legislature will reconvene this week and reforms of police tactics are expected to dominate the agenda.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to ban chokeholds and race-related 911 calls, and task the state Attorney General as an independent prosecutor to probe deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police.
The governor also said he will sign a measure requiring local governments to release police disciplinary records, which are currently guarded from public view under a statute known as 50-a.
“You have to heal the police-community relationship for the sake of the police and for the sake of the community,” Cuomo said on Friday.
Young not only wants the federal government to increase funding for minority neighborhoods, but would also like to see guaranteed job opportunities for residents in neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment — like slots on work crews on the Community Builders Project, the $62 million affordable housing project reshaping Hamilton Hill.
At the same time, regular people must become engaged in their local communities, he said, as well as put pressure on city and county leadership to further equitable policies and ensure their needs are prioritized.
“What are the leaders doing in this moment?” Young said, citing anger over county's leadership early failure in publicly addressing the racial disparities that have emerged during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “You don’t ever hear from them. You can see it’s an old boys community, and the power of that is scary.”
Casanova said whatever the end result of the still-unfolding movement is, he won’t rest.
“Until we see it start happening, we’re not going to stop until we see it,” Casanova said. “And even when we see it, we’re still going to continue.”