SCHENECTADY — Protesters calling for police reforms stood in formation across Liberty Street in downtown Schenectady Monday evening and pledged not to disperse until they were forcibly removed.
They stood arm in arm in front of City Hall for nearly 90 minutes before breaking formation around 10:20 p.m. Even after doing so, protesters were still gathered in the vicinity of City Hall late Monday night. The scene -- and the protesters -- remained active and animated.
All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles wondered if police would follow through on their warning that they would not tolerate activists blocking traffic.
“I was told we could not 'occupy,' but here we are,” Miles said.
Despite several tense moments when protesters again mobilized and stood arm-in-arm preparing for police to break them up, those concerns failed to materialize and the crowd dispersed peacefully.
The protest wrapped up at around 1 a.m. as Miles declared victory.
"Tonight we have won, and we will go home to fight tomorrow," she told her fellow protesters.
She then asked everyone to leave, pledging the movement would continue. By then, the activists had been there for more than 10 hours. Activists were leaving, and cleaning up the site.
The protest's end came about an hour after Police Chief Eric Clifford responded to the then-ongoing protest in a tweet, referencing work over the past month, but also "disorder."
"I have shown this community my willingness to discuss reforms @schdypolice , have made efforts to engage conversations, and remained patient during a month of peaceful protests," Clifford wrote. "That ends tonight. No more disorder in the city."
Asked about Clifford's tweet as the protest continued, Miles declined to respond at length, noting the day of non-violent activism: "We said what we said, period."
Activists started to camp out at City Hall beginning at 3:30 p.m., pledging to occupy the government center.
Demonstrators nearly gained access to the building shortly after 8 p.m. when a small group of activists abandoned their post at the Clinton Street entrance to join marchers taking a lap around City Hall.
A handful sprinted back and almost entered the vestibule, prompting at least a half-dozen city police officers to spill out and repel the protesters.
Several police vehicles immediately responded, including a van with officers in riot gear, who did not exit the vehicle.
Police sized up the situation before quickly retreating to police headquarters a block away. After their departure, the atmosphere settled into an uneasy tension for a couple of hours as a light rain fell and sentries monitored the perimeter around City Hall.
“They’re more scared of us than we will ever be of them,” said activist Mikayla Foster.
Street medics handed out tear-gas antidotes, while the occupation's organizers reminded protesters that they could be arrested for failing to disperse.
Miles mocked any notion of a curfew, which city Mayor Gary McCarthy said was not being considered shortly after 10 p.m.
By 10:15 p.m., tension gave way to a sense of guarded jubilation with a bloc party-type atmosphere as chants continued while activists pounded bongo drums.
Protesters had been camped out at City Hall all afternoon, pledging to “occupy” City Hall until city police agreed to ban the use of hogties on suspects, just one of 13 demands All of Us issued last month.
“And after that, we’ve still got 12 more demands to go,” Miles said.
Armed with civil disobedience training and signed forms confirming their willingness to be arrested, activists blocked all four doors, pledging to prohibit people from leaving.
However, city officials cleared out the building earlier in the afternoon, McCarthy confirmed, with just an unspecified number of police officers, including a K-9 unit, remaining inside.
Numbers swelled to what organizers placed at 300 people, a number that dwindled as afternoon morphed into early evening and heated speeches and marches gave way to a bloc party-type atmosphere as activists lounged on the grass and organizers handed out pizza.
Nearly 100 people participated in civil disobedience training on Sunday, according to organizers All of Us.
Throughout the day, the event was peaceful, although tensions flared when city police looped the block in a convoy and asked demonstrators not to block traffic.
Activists were also piqued by the K-9 unit.
City police previously declined to confirm whether officers were in the building, citing sensitive security planning.
Nearly two dozen activists also called into Monday night’s virtual City Council meeting as a disruptive tactic and also attempted to flood the online chat portion with messages.
Following several protests, racial tensions reignited in Schenectady last week following the release of footage that showed a city police officer placing a criminal suspect in a controversial hold and ended with McCarthy calling for potential disciplinary recommendations.
Officer Brian Pommer has since been placed on desk duty, and the city quickly ushered in a series of reforms, including a city ban on head holds, pledges to boost de-escalation training and reforms to the Civilian Police Review Board.
Activists contend those reforms show the city is capable of taking swift action when it chooses to.
Police Chief Eric Clifford said he was in the city monitoring events.
“I’m happy it’s remained peaceful,” said Clifford shortly before activists attempted to swarm the building.
Clifford declined to comment on the activists' ongoing push for demands, which also including firing law enforcement officials for racist posts on social media, and banning ticket-writing incentives they contend disproportionately ensnare minorities in the criminal justice system.
“I will listen and speak to All of Us about their demands, but I will not respond directly to them until we have a public discussion to see what the community as whole wants,” Clifford said.
Clifford and McCarthy met with All of Us Sunday in a virtual meeting, a measure Miles said was appreciated -- but also belated.
“They could have had this meeting with us weeks ago, months ago,” Miles said. “It’s not as if we weren’t saying all of the things that we’re saying now.”
Clifford said both he and his predecessors have embarked on reforms.
“I’ve been reforming this police department for the past 3.5 years that I’ve been chief, and my predecessors were also involved in reforms.”
City police banned knee-to-neck holds last month, and announced a series of reforms just last week, including plans to overhaul the Civilian Police Review Board with community input.
The demonstration attracted two counter-protesters, including Carl Wallace, who said while he supports the Black Lives Matter movement, he feels like activists are straying from biblical values.
“I just want to make sure people understand God gives us our rights,” Wallace said, who said he believes the prolonged unrest is proving to be decisive.
Shaqueena Charles told him activists are trying to bring reforms to better all city residents.
“We’re trying to build up our community,” Charles said.