On Monday, Jan 25., I joined the group of protestors who disrupted the beginning of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s state of the city speech. It was a very powerful, really well organized action, a demonstration of a community coming together and insisting on being heard. That latter bit is more important than how the mayor reacted. (Hear more from the organizers here.)
However, she did engage the crowd for a while, and a bunch of things have been rattling around in my head about what she said. I wanted to spell them out, especially for people who don’t really understand why what she said met with negative reactions.
Somewhat irrelevant, but for context: As a general rule, though I disagree with some of her policies, I like Mayor Sheehan, I have largely been impressed with her vast command of a range of topics facing the city, and I know she has a really hard job. I think, for example, she’s absolutely right to call Gov. Cuomo on the state’s disparate treatment of Albany and wish that had been done much sooner. I would have been a person interested to hear what she had to say in her state of the city.
However, her response so far to the killing of Dontay Ivy, which was the major catalyst leading to the massive rally yesterday, has been quite off the mark, and what she said Monday offered no improvement.
Here are the lowlights (or at least the ones that stuck with me. I might have missed some):
- “It was a tragedy.” A tragedy implies that there was no one at fault. Even if you want to argue the cops did not intentionally kill Dontay Ivy, it’s pretty clear that the stop was unwarranted and conducted terribly, that good protocol for handling the mentally ill is not in place, and that the hyper-patriarchal need to prevent people from leaving their presence without permission even when they have shown no evidence of being dangerous or committing a crime led the officers to do things to stop him leaving that resulted in his death.
- “These communities are not over policed, they are underpoliced.” Oh good God. Did she try to pick the absolutely worst thing to say? Did she think that because it came from Pres. Obama it would be ok? Look, I know what she meant—that people living in poor neighborhoods of color have been considered less worthy of protection than those living in other places, that when residents of those areas do call on the cops for help they often don’t get it (or they or their families members get arrested or killed instead), and that things that wouldn’t be tolerated if they happened to white, middle-class, uptown victims aren’t given the same serious attention when they happen to someone with less political power. BUT THAT COEXISTS WITH OVERPOLICING. Though it’s not 100 percent this way, these communities generally get policing focused on containment, rather than protection, policing focused on profiling rather than community support, policing focused on low-level crimes and not the criminal exploitation of these communities by those with more power. But it is not under policing. It’s no joke when large numbers of people don’t call the police, not because they won’t come, but because they legitimately believe the police will make any given situation worse not better. To dismiss this as “underpolicing” is like suggesting a rape survivor is primarily suffering from a lack of good sex.
- “That is not this city.” (I don’t remember the exact wording of this, but the important part was that it was a direct contradiction to what was being said about the experience of overpoliced black and brown communities in Albany.)
Can we just start with not dismissing people’s experiences? Can you really imagine you know everything that goes on here and how this city is experienced by people of different races and living in different neighborhoods? It’s great that that is your vision, but believing we are already there is a pretty sure way to keep us from getting there. It could be true that Albany is doing better than some other places (I don’t have data one way or the other on this), but in no way would that mean we’re beyond things no American city is beyond. You may feel defensive if you feel like you’ve been working on this and think you’ve made some headway and now are being lumped in with rogue Southern towns that don’t even bother to give lip service to anti-racism (profiling sucks, doesn’t it?), but you’ve had months to get over that and look at the situation without that defensiveness. If you really feel their pain, as you suggested, you will not try to dismiss it as imaginary with your next breath.
- “In this city everyone is safe.” Um, whut? Except Dontay Ivy? And quite a few others who have stories to tell? Is that even true anywhere?
- “We need to continue to build trust and move forward.” First, clearly building trust is not actually what has been going on recently. And moving forward is generally the cry of people who want someone else to stop talking about a difficult thing where someone did something wrong. Justice involves redress of wrongs, actual apology, and a change in a behavior. Moving forward without actually acknowledging what happened and taking steps to do something about it is completely hollow.
- “I don’t know what we can do.” Clearly the first and main thing I would have to say here is “The protestors had some great ideas.” However, even if you are going to assert that you can’t do those things (a statement I am not condoning), I am quite certain that a respectful dialogue that did not start with the assumption that nothing was actually wrong would generate many, many additional things to do beyond “stay the course.” I can think of many directions to go—changing/getting rid of stop and frisk and profiling practices and taser use, setting protocols for getting medical attention for police-injured civilians and for when it matters to stop someone from leaving a police encounter and when it doesn’t… (***These are not a set of proposals. That’s not my place.*** These are the very beginning of a brainstorm of topics to show that it’s remarkably easy to think of things the mayor might be able to do.)
Mayor, here’s my suggestion for what to say next time: “Clearly, something went wrong. What happened was not ok, and I want to get to the bottom of it, hold my police department accountable, and change the way we do things so that it will not happen again. Dontay Ivy deserves to not have died in vain, and I will work with you in good faith to make some meaningful change.” And then mean it.