Kingston demonstrations highlight the need for change

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky?

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take ’til he knows

That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

— Bob Dylan, 1963

 

In the late afternoon of last Wednesday, June 3, a large number of people of all races and a spectrum of ages and appearances gathered on Academy Green in Ulster County’s capital city to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Estimates of the size of the initial crowd varied from 1500 to 2000, and the marchers and watchers down Broadway after the speeches approached 3000 in number. When everyone took a knee for nine minutes on Broadway in memory of, and in solidarity with, George Floyd, whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer took that amount of time, the crowd stretched from Cedar Street all the way to the new turnabout at Albany Avenue.

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“We had no idea it was going to be that many people,” said Anne Ames with the local chapter of End the New Jim Crow Network (ENJAN), one of several social justice groups, including the Hudson Valley Chapter of Citizens Action of New York, that organized the event. “The demonstration was to show solidarity and let our political leaders know how important this issue is. It’s time to go the drawing board with legislation.”

Amidst placards of “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace,” the Kingston demonstrators listened to speeches. Sign-carrying demonstrators filled the park to the gills, spilling out onto the adjoining sidewalks, where cars parked on Colonel Chandler Drive bore more signs. Among the county and city officials present were county executive Pat Ryan, district attorney Dave Clegg, sheriff Juan Figueroa, Kingston mayor Steve Noble, and Kingston police chief Egidio Tinti.


A 360-degree perspective photo posted to Facebook by Steve Mehm

There was a palpable sense of solidarity at this extraordinary local event, as people in the crowd who knew each other in other contexts discovered that they had something else in common. “It was nice seeing the family get together like this,” said a 28-year-old man from Shandaken who had also attended a Poughkeepsie rally the previous day. “We don’t see each other so often.”

Ames was one of nearly a dozen local activists and educators who galvanized the crowd with words that hit notes of outrage, sadness, empowerment, and urgency. One hundred and forty-four placards bearing a name and photograph of an African American who’d been killed by police were attached to stakes arranged in rows on the lawn, a moving tribute that vividly illustrated the scope and persistence of the tragedy.

The crowd was both black and white, young and old — although the majority were probably under age 35. As millennials emerge as a political force, it is hoped that racist policies, practices and underlying attitudes and assumptions will finally change.

 

Ronnette Parker (photo by Lynn Woods)

Things have to change

“I’m here because it’s very disheartening what’s happening,” said Kingston resident Ronnette Parker, who wore a t-shirt with the words “I Stand With Black Men” and carried a large sign reading “Injustice Anywhere is Injustice Everywhere,” with the names of the states written in in green and red. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to move into a new civil-rights movement, and locally we need police accountability.”

Pastor Rickey McDonald and Shamecca Desousa attended with their 14-year-old son, Demetrius. “We’re one nation under God, but the nation is divided,” McDonald said. “Police see my skin tone as a threat,” undermining the essential trust that’s needed for effective policing that protects rather than endangers the public.

Ending racism and implementing social justice policies starts with voting in the local elections, added Desousa. She worries about her son every time he goes out to ride his bike: “You have to give him a list of things he cannot do and things he can if he’s stopped by the police,” she said. Like what? “Remain polite. Keep your hands visible. Answer every question …. When he was eight years old he was excited to see a cop, but I was nervous.”

Rickey McDonald and Shamecca Desousa with their son, Demetrius (in middle). Photo by Lynn Woods

Gerissa Divalentino, a high-school student from New Paltz, said, “I’m very hopeful. People are starting to take the issue of systemic racism seriously .… This country puts too much money into the police and military.” It should be investing in education and health care, added her friend and fellow student, Vianna Koegel.

Twenty-year-old Ian (who didn’t want to provide his last name) worries all the time about his friends and family. “The police are upholding the system,” he said. “I’ve heard of someone being hospitalized after there was a noise complaint and he had an altercation with the cops. Things have to change.”

And Steven Edwards, age 14, who was there with his two younger brothers, said when he’s out he has to pay attention all the time. “My mom said to be careful of the way we act in front of the police.”

“Enough is enough,” added his mom, Roxana Almonte, reached by phone. “We need everyone to band together.”

 

Steven (center), Silas (left), and Seth Edwards. (Photo by Lynn Woods)

 

Holding officials accountable

People need to “put the foot to the fire” to pass legislation for more police accountability, proclaimed kickoff speaker Ames.

“The power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” said Odell Winfield, also with ENJAN.

Rita Worthington, alderwoman for Kingston’s Ward 4, said protests must continue until the policies change. “Help disrupt the normal for standing for truth, righteousness and the power struggle,” she proclaimed.

Longtime activist Ismail Shabazz recounted how he was assaulted by six police officers in 1988 and after filing a civil suit, got a judgment. “I don’t hate police, it’s the system that allows it to happen,” Shabazz added. He advised folks to “hit the streets, without violence.”

Educator Albert Cook told the crowd “they’ve been killing us since 1619, with no cause” and described how the open-casket funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was beaten to death in 1955 by whites for purportedly whistling at a white woman, “started the movement, because everyone saw the truth.” His advice to the Caucasians in the audience: “This is not a time for self-centered guilt and making yourself feel better. What we need is focus …. Our presence must make people uncomfortable.”

Lisa Lent-Royer described how her 16-year-old daughter was “pounded in the face” by police when she was 16 and had an asthma attack as cops withheld her inhaler. “We need police accountability in Kingston, Ulster County and New York State and I won’t sit my grief until we get it.”

Jessica McNabb from Harambee began with the words, “My heart is broken,” regarding a discussion with her ten-year-old nephew to let him know he could be safe. “You must take care of your house first were the words of my grandmother, which holds officers accountable,” she said. “You are just as guilty if you are not holding people accountable.”

The last speaker, Fanon Frazier of Citizen Action, admonished white people to “please put your body in front of a black body” and “share your privilege.” He directed everyone to Broadway, with people holding the 144 placards of those who had died in the front.

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(Photo by Dion Ogust)

An extraordinary event

The crowd crossed Albany Avenue and marched down Broadway. The chants ceased as everyone stopped and kneeled, some raising their arms.

A group of ninth-grade girls from New Paltz, accompanied by parents, were veteran activists — they’d previously attended the women’s march and climate change rallies. Retired 89-year-old Kingston High School social studies teacher Howard Rust, accompanied by his dog, said he had attended a Martin Luther King rally decades ago. When he started the high school’s first black studies program, he recalled, he had been labeled a Communist.

As the marchers strode up Cedar and wound through Midtown on Prospect, Franklin, Broadway, Liberty and Clinton streets, people came out onto their porches. Some raised their arms or lifted signs in solidarity.

It was nearly 7 p.m. by the time the demonstrators got back to Academy Green. The sky, streets, houses and people looked luminous in the sunset’s afterglow. The air was fragrant with sage attached to a torch that a couple of demonstrators had lit. It was a moment rich with hope.

The answer, my friend, was blowin’ in the wind.

District attorney Dave Clegg later described the event as an extraordinary moment in the community. “People talked about their major concerns about our criminal-justice system, policing and the history of racism in our country, which was supported by everybody who was there,” Clegg said. “Important decisions need to take place.”

For the organizers, top of the list of their agenda was repealing of a state law which bars public access to police officers’ disciplinary records, and police accountability, said Rashid Tyler.

Police training needs to be extended from six to eight weeks to a year, she said. “More emphasis needs to be if they have to use force, limiting it so it’s not intended to kill,” she added.

The demonstration and march were just a first step. “The march draws attention to the problem, but it’s not the work,” Tyler said.

“Until the legislation gets passed, we’ll keep walking,” added Ames.

 

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Independent oversight

Locally, a priority is creation of an oversight body that is truly independent of the police regarding issues of police discipline, hiring and firing.

Mayor Steve Noble has been in a tight spot. The 75-member police department constitutes 26 percent of the city’s 2020 budget, with more expenses possible to pay for additional capital outlays and the results of binding arbitration. Like police unions throughout the nation, the Kingston Police Benevolent Association uses its bargaining power not only to gain higher pay and better working conditions but also to protect its members by representing their interests in disciplinary proceedings.

In a recent issue of The New Republic, writer Kim Kelly expressed some of the negative possibilities inherent in the position of police unions. “The law-enforcement community — and especially its unions — first response, when one of its officers is caught red-handed, is to circle the wagons, vilify the victim or survivor, and bat away any criticism or dissent as virtual sedition,” Kelly wrote. “If and when reforms are introduced in the wake of an abuse of police powers, police and their unions remain in wagon-circling mode, determined to shoot them down. The bottom line here is all too plain: The police do not want reform; they want the freedom to operate with impunity.”

The city’s law office had advised the Common Council not to move forward with police-reform legislation during union contract negotiations. “Exercising caution,” read a release from majority leader Rennie Scott-Childress and Common Council members Rita Worthington and Jeffrey Morell, the three-member policing subcommittee of the Laws and Rules Committee, “we agreed to await the conclusions of contract negotiations.”

Recognizing the complexity of their task, the subcommittee chaired by Worthington spent many months on a proposal they felt would result in permanent improvements. They were asking the mayor to support their legislation and appoint a more diverse body of police commissioners. No reform proposals and no appointments came from the mayor.

The subcommittee release criticizing mayor Noble for stalling was made public two days after the Academy Green rally. The members were glad, the statement tartly said, that the mayor had pledged his commitment to signing the legislation. He could start by appointing qualified community members to the police commission.

Perhaps the answer to the mayor’s change in position was blowin’ in the wind. On Facebook the evening of the Academy Green rally, Noble had written, “I hear you, I see you. I know it has taken too long.” He said he would support and sign the Common Council’s legislation. “Let’s make this happen.”

This Monday he elaborated on his new sense of urgency. “I have personally been confronted with a hard truth,” Noble wrote. “My privilege has allowed me to believe that Covid 19 is a public-health emergency, but racism and police brutality is not. Every day, people of color are afraid for their lives — afraid for their children’s lives — because the system that was designed to protect them has also caused devastating harm. This is an emergency, and I am committed to start treating it that way.”