by Howie Hawkins
Hundreds of young people in Syracuse, New York, have been marching for many miles every day for nearly two weeks since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25. The marches formed spontaneously as young people in the city networked by social media and figured out where to show up to start marching. By Thursday, they started calling themselves “Last Chance for Change.” They say they will continue marching in the streets for 40 days and 40 nights against policy brutality and racism.
Black Lives Matter Syracuse has been working consistently on police brutality and racism since 2014. It leaders are older, some of them now in their 30s. As the nationwide uprising and the Syracuse youth marches developed over the last two weeks, BLM Syracuse focused on organizing a big rally in order to demonstrate mass support for change, to focus on clear demands, and to uplift the youth they had already been organizing. The demonstration was co-sponsored by their youth group, CuseYouthBLM, and Raha Syracuse, a youth-led Muslim group focused on community outreach and aid, such as providing meals for the hungry and gifts for poor children on Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan.
“The Fight Against Police Terror” rally on Saturday, June 6, was held in front of Syracuse City Hall. Two-to-three thousand people showed up, overwhelmingly young city residents, and reflecting the demographics of a city that is over 50% people of color. The only demonstration in decades that has come close to this size in Syracuse was an anti-Iraq war demonstration in 2006 that drew people from across upstate New York.
State troopers stood at barriers that closed off several city blocks around City Hall. A drone and a helicopter circled overhead. Police in camouflage fatigues and riot gear packed into City Hall as the demonstration started, as if the crowd was going to storm city hall. That was never going to happen at this peaceful, well-organized demonstration.
Two of the key BLM Syracuse organizers who organized this event are Green Party members, Serena “Rahzi” Seals and Nikeeta Slade.
Rahzie Seals (pictured in this article’s cover photo) ran as a Green for city council in 2017, but she prefers to be in the background making sure events are well-organized and run as planned. On Saturday, she seemed to be everywhere, giving directions to the marshals, making sure speakers on the platform had water, tweaking the sound system. For Rahzie, these issues are personal. Her father, Tommie Seals, was one of the first Black police officers in the city. A cousin, Wallie Howard, was shot dead in 1990 while working as an undercover police officer. Another cousin, Jonny Gammage, was suffocated to death by suburban Pittsburgh police officers during a routine traffic stop in 1995 while visiting Rahzie’s brother Ray Seals, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gammage’s killing led to the proposal for a Jonny Gammage Law to require federal investigation and prosecution of civil rights violations by police, including bodily injury and death. Another cousin, Darren Seals, who became a racial justice activist after his friend Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, was found shot to death in a burning car two years later.
Nikeeta Slade gave a powerful speech to close out the rally. She exhorted people to sustain their activism. She urged them to do the sometimes tedious work of organizing new people into the movement. She called for community control of the police because the police cannot police themselves.
A high school senior and leader in Raha Syracuse, Sarhia Rahim, was one of the rally emcees. She described a terrifying school lockdown where police took all students backpacks, searched them, and never gave an explanation for what they did. Other speakers recounted the many incidents of police misconduct in Syracuse, including the deaths of many Black people in the city/county jail, police beatings of Black people that have cost the city millions in civil penalties, an officer who received an award after shooting a Black man in the back, and another officer who used his authority to rape several women and is now retired with his full pension. They called for repealing section 50-A of New York state’s Civil Rights Law that prohibits the public disclosure of police officers’ discipline records. They called for a new use-of-force policy for the Syracuse police. They called for scaling back policing and investing more in the people’s needs. They called for community control of the police.
After the two-hour rally was concluded, Last Chance for Change started leading chants march off around around downtown Syracuse for another two hours.
The Syracuse police department has been under a federal consent decree since 1980 to increase the hiring of people of color and women. At the time, 2% of officers were Black. By 1990 that number grew to 8% and remains the same 30 years later in 2020. Over 90% of the officers live outside the city. Syracuse police are widely viewed by city residents as an occupying army, not police who serve and protect the city’s residents.
When I ran for Syracuse mayor in 2017, I called for cutting back spending on policing and reinvesting that money in social programs to address the conditions that produce crime and violence. I cited the Richmond, California model that took this approach under a Green Mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, and the police chief she hired, Chris Magnus. That approach radically reduced murders, shootings, property crime, and police-involved shootings in Richmond. But that approach was tough sell in Syracuse that year. With the highest level of concentrated extreme poverty among Blacks and Latinos in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the rate of teenager shootings and killings was more double the rate of the vast majority of cities over 50,000 people. People were clamoring for more police. The city has since increased the police force since then, but the shootings continue. While Last Chance for Change was marching last Thursday night, there were seven shootings in this city of 145,000.
Now the demands to cut back on policing and fight crime by fighting poverty are gaining traction in Syracuse and across the county. We are beginning to get some movement in cities, states, and Congress on our demands. The game-changer would be to replace the police policing themselves with community control of the police. It would change who has the power over policing. With community control, we can remove the racists and sadists from police forces, conduct independent investigations and discipline of police misconduct, stop tasking the police with addressing social problems for which they are not equipped, limit policing to solving real crimes and apprehending criminals, and redirect resources to ending the poverty and despair at the root most street crime.
Community control of the police has been a demand of Black movements from the Black Panther Party in the 1970s to the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s. As we enter the 2020s, it is becoming an idea whose time has come. We will need to keep marching, rallying, and voting to make it happen.