SCHENECTADY — A community meeting on policing ended prematurely on Wednesday after activists aggressively questioned city police and criticized clergy hosting the forum, prompting organizers to shut it down after deeming it unproductive.
Activists then spilled out onto State Street in front of Grace and Mercy Church and demanded city police officers answer their questions, a familiar scene that has unfolded as demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have continued throughout the city since late-May.
As the spurt of activism enters its third month, the incident laid bare the tensions that have been simmering under the surface between the more hardline young activists who want instant police reforms and Schenectady NAACP and clergy, who are calling for a more measured approach.
“You don’t know how to work that anger so you can be heard,” said Janice Rouse, a Schenectady NAACP member. “This was a debacle.”
Roughly 50 All of Us-led activists showed up at Grace and Mercy Church in the city’s Central State Street neighborhood with the belief that it was a city-sanctioned meeting organized by a newly-minted task force. The task force is designed to spearhead community conversations as part of state-mandated police reforms.
It was not, but rather a forum organized by Grace and Mercy Pastor Ronald Butler, the third in a series of community meetings between police and clergy — and the second held at his congregation.
Tensions were hot from the beginning as activists demanded to know why they weren’t aware of the meeting.
“We were asked to be guests here, but we need to be doing this as well," said Lt. Ryan Macherone.
Butler later said he spent two days promoting the event, including distributing fliers in the neighborhood.
“We should not continue to accuse,” Butler said. “We should make a statement and wait for a response.”
Activists later pressed Macherone and Sgt. Nick Mannix to answer questions about the violent encounter between a Schenectady police officer and suspect fleeing arrest.
Madeline Charles repeatedly called for more accountability for officers in the community, including Officer Brian Pommer, who is the subject of an internal investigation after he knelt on Yugeshwar Gainderpersaud’s neck area while detaining him July 6.
“They’re not trained to handle issues in this community,” Charles said.
Mannix and Macherone repeatedly said they weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation.
Tensions were also inflamed when Pastor Arnetta Dix reminded the crowd that police accepted an invitation to appear and asked them to tone down the accusatory language.
“They don’t need to do this,” Dix said. “We have to be fair.”
That prompted dissent.
“This is part of your job description,” said Thearse McCalmon, a Democrat who is running against state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, told police.
Mannix responded, “This is exactly what we’re doing. We’re not trying to hide anything.”
Others lamented their perceived inability to ask questions.
“What’s the point of a community meeting if you’re not going to let people speak?” said Jayme Laing shortly before Butler shut down the meeting after 40 minutes.
Fran Butler, Ronald’s wife, told the crowd that they share the same goals, and both suffer from the same racist policies.
Her uncle died at the hands of police, Fran said, while their son has repeatedly been the subject of racial profiling — often multiple times in the same week.
“You’re telling me that’s not a sense of racism?” Fran said. “Absolutely, to the point my husband and I had to go downtown.”
All of Us co-founder Jamaica Miles lashed out when the crowd was told Grace and Mercy invited city police to set up a police substation in the building.
“You want it here at a church?” Miles said. “Right now, their presence in our communities is harmful.”
Miles, Schenectady NAACP members, and several city lawmakers engaged in heated discussion immediately following the meeting.
Rouse later downplayed a divide between the Schenectady NAACP and the younger crop of activists.
“What you saw was a reaction to a meeting that was poorly run,” Rouse said, contending organizers should have been more skilled at de-escalation tactics. “Meetings like this need more seasoned people who know how to run a meeting.”
Butler faulted activists for being unwilling to listen.
“These people are not hearing what’s being said,” Butler said. “This is going to take time as a process.”
Many of All of Us’ demands are complicated and cannot be accomplished overnight, he said, and questioned if young activists come with the sincere hope of achieving positive results.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m Black,” he said.
Earlier, he questioned Mannix and Macherone about what he perceived to be a lack of transparency in the department when it comes to which officers have used excessive force.
Macherone pointed at the repeal of 50-a, the statute used to shield police disclosure records.
“For an officer’s conduct to exist in secrecy is not a good thing for the community, and not a good thing for the department,” he said.
Before the meeting dissolved, Macherone said he’d be willing to meet with All of Us and later fielded questions from activists outside.
Activists also demanded that city Mayor Gary McCarthy and city Police Chief Eric Clifford directly address their proposed 13 reforms.
Clifford has repeatedly said he will not directly address their demands until feedback is collected from broader community conversations.
City Councilwoman Carmel Patrick said she hoped ongoing lawmaker presence at public events will show attendees City Council is committed to reform.
“We’re here to listen and work together to make change,” Patrick said.
Councilwoman Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas stressed the need for civility.
“There has to be some respectful discussion,” she said.
Dix said previous community discussions have been productive, including the session at Refreshing Springs two weeks ago
“I believe with the congregation, we’re helping people to settle their spirits,” she said.
Dix said it’s important for parishioners to know the officers patrolling their neighborhoods, and said residents need to play a role, too, in bettering their communities, including getting involved in the city’s ailing neighborhood groups.
“Maybe that’s something we can do to help,” she said.