SCHENECTADY — The Rev. Nicolle Harris of Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church was elated when she watched city Police Chief Eric Clifford take a knee with protestors back in June, diffusing tension at a moment when a number of cities nationwide were descending into violence.
“It did my heart good,” Harris said. “I even did a little bit of bragging.”
But that jubilation curdled into disappointment five weeks later when Harris viewed footage of a city police officer kneeling on a suspect’s neck area.
Harris, who uses her knees to pray to God in “humble submission,” urged cops to consider the symbolism.
“I want you to remain mindful of what you do with your knees because it is not just hypocritical,” Harris said. “It is disingenuous to kneel on your knees to pray with someone and then to use that same knee to retain them at their neck.”
Harris spoke during a press conference held by Schenectady NAACP and Clergy Against Hate on Saturday to reflect on the tumult of the past six weeks and what comes next.
As the nation continues to grapple with racial injustice, the past week in Schenectady has been particularly turbocharged, beginning with jarring footage revealing an officer placing a criminal suspect in a controversial hold and ending with city Mayor Gary McCarthy calling for potential disciplinary recommendations.
YOUNG VOICES NEEDED
Schenectady NAACP President Dr. Odo Butler acknowledged some will try to argue Officer Brian Pommer’s use of force against Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, which included punching him six times in the torso as he lay curled into a fetal position, as justified because he fled upon being questioned about slashing his neighbor's tires.
But that “demonization” is common in encounters that see minorities beaten by law enforcement — or in some cases, killed — when stopped for low-level offenses, he said.
“We’re blessed he didn’t take that young man’s life,” Butler said.
Footage released on social media last Monday prompted a protest outside of police headquarters later that day.
A meeting with Schenectady NAACP and Clergy Against Hate has already resulted in some policy changes, including a city ban on head holds, pledges to boost de-escalation training and reforms to the Civilian Police Review Board.
City police are also directing patrol supervisors to be on scene to supervise warrantless arrests “when practicable,” Clifford said.
Even more action is needed to build community trust said speakers, including an increased presence at city schools, more student mentoring programs, an ROTC-type recruitment program and a residency requirement for city cops. That last proposal that elicited cheers from the small crowd.
The city has brimmed with protests since late-May.
Even before the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a nationwide debate on systemic racism and police brutality, members of the community activist group All of Us mobilized to protest the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased by white residents in Georgia and gunned down after being suspected of trespassing.
“People see an opportunity to be heard,” All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles said on Thursday, “because they didn’t think anyone was listening.”
About a half-dozen speakers delivered comments in front of City Hall on Saturday afternoon, where on June 25, a city work crew painted Black Lives Matter onto the pavement into bright yellow letters.
Rev. Dustin Wright praised activists, particularly the young people who squared off against outside agitators; gun-toting men in Troy believed to be linked to a militia group, and the owner of a local ice cream parlor who was arrested after allegedly pointing a pellet gun at them.
Wright urged them to now get involved in policy discussions, and for local officials to solicit their feedback and input.
“Make sure they have a seat at the table to build a better Schenectady,” Wright said.
Butler said a key component of Schenectady NAACP’s efforts is harnessing that energy and empowering their voices.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said.
Butler also urged city council members and county legislators to get involved, several of whom, including City Council President John Mootooveren, city councilmembers Marion Porterfield and Ed Kosiur and county Legislator Michelle Ostrelich, were in attendance on Saturday. (Mayor McCarthy, who has previously been criticized by activists for not having a more visible presence amid the unrest, was not present).
“It’s important for the mayor to be a part of this,” Butler said.
However, not all of feedback was sanguine.
City resident Steve Ram faulted Pommer for failing to de-escalate the situation and said he was troubled by statements Clifford made afterwards in support of the officer's actions.
“I think that we have to really focus on the egos of these people that are set up to basically make us afraid of them instead of respect them,” Ram said.
Butler acknowledged difficult conversations will be part of the process moving forward.
“These are the uncomfortable conversations that we’re going to have to have,” he said. “This is what makes a community work.”
Clifford attended the event and said he will bring feedback back to the department.
“I’m leaving taking in a lot of good messages and good messaging,” Clifford said. “Everything that was said by everyone at the podium will be given thoughtful consideration.”
An internal probe into Pommer's actions is ongoing and Clifford said he aims to have a report on his desk this week.
McCarthy has suggested possible disciplinary action based on the “thoroughness of the preliminary investigation” prior to Gaindarpersaud's arrest on misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief and resisting arrest.
But Clifford said potential charges are a big if:
“It would not be fair to presume one way or another that a decision has been made from a discipline perspective,” Clifford said.
BRACING FOR 'OCCUPATION'
While civil rights activists and clergy struck an optimistic tone on Saturday, community activists are preparing to take to the streets Monday.
“We’re going to occupy Schenectady,” said Miles, the All of Us co-founder, who was coy on details.
Activists will meet at the county Library on Monday at 3:30 p.m.
Clifford said city police don’t plan on making any additional preparations at the station, which remains accessible only via the Clinton Street entrance due to ongoing coronarvirus safeguards.
“I’m not exactly clear what she means by occupy Schenectady,” Clifford said. “I guess we’ll find out when it happens.”
The grassroots group plans on facilitating civil disobedience training Sunday at Central Park, and activists confirmed they’re also scheduled to meet with city police.
A dozen-or-so volunteers set up a phone bank at Central Park on Thursday, dipping into the group’s database of 500+ people and urging them to show up on Monday.
A prepared script acknowledges their activism has already directly led to reforms, but more work is needed and urges people to continue to press elected officials to do more to “rectify the damage caused by generations of racist policing and mass incarceration.”
“We must not leave it up to elected officials to figure this out alone,” reads the script. “We must show up to let them know exactly what needs to be done.”
All of Us has issued a list of 13 demands for criminal justice reform, several of which echo those issued by Schenectady NAACP, including strengthening independence of the Civilian Police Review Board.
Miles acknowledged she previously served on the review board after being recommended by the NAACP in 2018.
“Within weeks, I resigned because [of] what a mess it was and how disorganized it was and I said, ‘This isn’t for me,’” Miles said.
The activist said she sees no indication that the Black Lives Matter movement, which drew 11,000 people to Troy in early June, is waning, and continues to be driven by the emergence of smartphone videos capturing local police encounters.
“We have not lost momentum,” Miles said. “If anything, we continue to gain new supporters as we continue to push forward in building a movement that is all people.”
According to city officials, costs associated with the previous demonstrations have cost the police department $86,301 to date.
While Clifford said he supports the right to protest, he draws the line at activists disrupting traffic.
“Public streets are public streets, and they’re free to be wherever they want to be,” Clifford said. “We will not allow for traffic to be interfered with for an extended period of time. That is disorderly conduct.”