By Howie Hawkins
The movement against police brutality and systemic racism in Syracuse, New York has not let up since I reported on a June 6 demonstration of 2000-3000 people.
At that time, Last Chance for Change group had promised to march for 40 days and nights. They marched for 45 straight days and nights and they are still marching, although not every single day now.
Following up on the June 6 demonstration, a coalition of 14 community groups issued a People’s Agenda for Police Reform of nine demands concerning use of force, body cameras, surveillance technology, demilitarization, defunding, police union contract negotiations, and the Citizens Review Board. They want a “right to know” law requiring police to tell people their privacy rights and why they are being stopped. The want all police “school resource officers” removed.
While the daily marches and other actions in support of the People’s Agenda have continued, the movement returned to city hall on Saturday, August 1 for another mass rally. About 1000 people showed up in over 90 degree heat and humidity for a four-hour rally and march to send a message to the mayor and other city officials that they are moving too slow on the People’s Agenda and that the tactics will escalate without prompt acceptance of the demands. After two hours of speeches, the rally marched from city hall to the headquarters of the school district to demand the removal of school resource officers.
Greens in the leadership of Black Lives Matter Syracuse played a central role again in this demonstration. Rahzie Seals again coordinated the marshals. Nikeeta Slade gave another rousing speech. We were joined by Ashley Rivera of the Bronx Greens who is in Syracuse studying at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Howie Hawkins and Ashley Rivera.
Nikeeta Slade speaking to the rally at Syracuse City Hall.
Yusuf Abdul-Qadir speaking outside the headquarters of the Syracuse City School District.
The Syracuse movement received national attention when a video clip from a four-hour meeting on July 2 of some 20 activists pushing Mayor Ben Walsh on the People’s Agenda went viral. The 2-minute clip shows Yusuf Abdul-Qadir of the local ACLU explaining to the mayor how the city’s police and teachers are taxing poor city people to subsidize the “good suburban life” while undermining the city’s tax base and services. He demanded that the city redirect to community services $20 million of the police department’s $50 million dollar budget, which consumers 20% of the budget of a city that is in extreme fiscal distress. The clip reached over 6 millions viewers and drew commentary from many prominent people, includig Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.
Movements against police racism and brutality by the Black community in Syracuse go back to the movements of the 1960s when the civil rights and anti-poverty activist George Wiley was organizing here with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). In 1980, the US Department of Justice imposed a federal consent decree to desegregate the Syracuse Police Department. It authorized preference in hiring Black officers until force reflected the Black proportion of the city population.
After 40 years, the department is still 89% white, with 95% of officers living outside the city. The city is 30% Black and 50% people of color, with sizable Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities. The city hired its first Black police chief in 2018, but all of the department’s sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and deputy chiefs remain white except for one Black officer and one Asian officer who were recently promoted to sergeant.
In April 2019, Trump’s Department of Justice filed a federal court notice saying the Syracuse consent decree would be dissolved, claiming preposterously that the Syracuse Police Department had “substantially complied with the requirements of the decree and that its basic objectives have been achieved.”
In the early 1990s, a police reform movement successfully got a Citizens Review Board established where citizens could get a hearing for grievances against the police. The movement insisted on calling it a “citizens” rather than “civilian” board to counter the idea that the police are a military force. The board suffered from neglect by city officials until a movement for its revitalization got it functioning properly around 2010. But it is limited in its powers. It cannot compel police officers to participate in hearings because the their union contract gives them that power. It can only recommend discipline of officers for misconduct. Disciplinary power remains with the police departments internal affairs.
Another problem with the board is that it is appointed by the same politicians who maintain the police department as it is. As in cities all over the country, these politicians’ careers are funded by the real estate industry—the landlords, developers, bankers, and lawyers—who profit from segregation. The police are tasked with keeping downscale people down, and out of the upscale communities. They police the New Jim Crow lines of school districts, municipalities, and exclusive affluent enclaves in the city. They devote most of their time to harassing Black and other people of color for low-level offenses and non-criminal behavior. They raise revenues through tickets and fines. Meanwhile, most serious crimes of violence and theft go unsolved. Review boards are not what we really need, which is community control of the police so the police work for the community instead of the racist real estate industry’s paid-for political machine.
I have campaigned for alternatives to this system running for city council and mayor, calling for reducing the police force and re-investing the savings in community jobs and housing. To increase funding for schools and services in this high-poverty, fiscally-stressed rust belt city, I proposed a progressive income tax that included the incomes of the suburban commuters who hold the high-five and six figure salaries at the university, the hospitals, and government agencies, including the police force. My calls for reducing the police force in order to concentrate resources on fighting violence by fighting poverty ran into the popular myth that more police will prevent Syracuse from continuing to have among highest rates of teenage shootings in the nation. The progressive tax reform ran into the real estate machine behind the politicians that profits from the repeated cycles of segregation, gentrification, and displacement.
This time may be different. This movement is a mass movement, not just a core of activist like previous police reform efforts in Syracuse. It is multi-racial. It is sustained. One of the refrains from the speakers at the August 1 rally is that they “drank the kool aid” when they supported the election of the current mayor and city council, but that they are not going to make that mistake again.