On Tuesday, September 27, Mayor Lovely Warren and Councilmember Adam McFadden announced a new initiative to address Rochester Police Department’s with the community. This comes after a slew of discussions, events and a July protest, which ended in the arrest of nearly 70 protestors, and a viral video showing bystander, Letorya Parker, being tackled and arrested by the RPD in September.
Many have called for city leaders to take action by creating and enforcing policies that hold officers accountable in cases of police brutality and unnecessary use of excessive force. Though it seems there have been efforts to improve the relationship with police, many of these initiatives are being questioned. And some are wondering if black leaders in Rochester actually believe that black lives matter and are they doing enough to represent these concerns among their voters.
The rocky relationship between the RPD and Rochester’s black community is hardly a new development. This tension dates back more than half a century, further even than the 1964 race riot. And since, there has been little done to actually ameliorate this relationship.
Most people assume the problem is representation. However, historically, black leaders haven’t had any real political power so although they sat in these seats, they were unable to truly represent their voters. They were frequently outnumbered and didn’t often have community support outside of their own districts. They often resorted to aligning themselves with separate organizations independent of their positions.
Now, Rochester has black mayors, black councilmembers, black legislators, and black community leaders who are working avidly specifically on community relations and have the power to begin to effect true change. Yet, we continue to struggle with excessive force and few ways of holding these officers accountable.
Mayor Lovely Warren has been one of the most criticized of all local black leaders for her actions and stances on Black Lives Matter. This isn’t wholly because of any specific actions she’s taken against the black community, but because of her inaction and a history of backing RPD chief Mike Ciminelli.
After the July protest, protestor Paloma Hernandez originally told TWC News that she was disappointed in Warren. “Why weren’t you there with us?,” she asked. “Why are you against us?” Others who attended the protest asked the same question. Rochester native Deremi Bordeaux, who shared live video of the protest throughout the night, asked “Where is Mayor Warren when all of this is going on? Where is she when her people are hurting, huh?”
At a press conference held the following week, Open Mic Rochester questioned Warren on the community’s behalf, asking whether she believed she was properly representing her constituents. She stated: “As mayor of this city, I happen to represent all of our citizens. And I believe that that is what I’m doing…First of all, I’m a black woman. I’m not removed from this. My family still lives on Jefferson Avenue so I see it every day. I live in this community, I’m a part of this community and I’m not exempt from what people are feeling or how they’re expressing themselves.”
She’s even gone as far as showing support for the movement’s ideology: “People think about the fact that, ‘Why are they doing this in this particular way?’ I understand why they went to East Avenue. I definitely understand it. I understand the philosophy behind it. That’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. We want this world to know, they want this world to know, what is happening to young African-American males in our community where they feel like their lives are not valued.”
So why do so many think Warren has let them down? Another black leader shed some insight on that answer.
Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, who has been very vocal in supporting Black Lives Matter and reforming the system to cleanse it of its many flaws, is an activist and policy maker for Monroe County that says the duties of the Mayor may play a role in how they publically represent themselves.
“Think about the duties of the mayor,” he said. “Mayors aren’t policy makers, their councils are. They make suggestions that can affect policy based on what is happening in the community…When you have one spectrum of the city saying the police are doing a great job because they don’t experience the injustices the other side of the spectrum have to deal with, you can’t isolate one side of the spectrum.”
As an activist, Flagler-Mitchell has spoken out against the system as well as rallied and protested throughout the city. He even criticized RPD for arriving in riot gear earlier in the day outside of the Strong Museum of Play. His support of Black Lives Matter is one he hopes to spreads throughout the community.
“At the end of the day, I’m black,” he said, addressing why he believes it’s important to be a black leader supporting Black Lives Matter. “Second, the system keeps black and brown people down. We need to come out against the system and we need to see more black people say that black lives do matter.”
As a legislator, Flagler-Mitchell works on the county level and said he looks at how police are trained to operate in different communities. “The system was never designed for us. It stemmed from systems in place since slavery and it has never undergone actual reform. We want to define these grey areas and hold officers accountable, just like we would criminals. We need to make sure we look at the policies and make sure that we’re hiring and training for cultural sensitivity of the community and have officer reporting if there’s an issue.”
Flagler-Mitchell isn’t the only black leader pushing to change how black citizens are treated. Councilmember Adam McFadden, who announced the new initiative along with Warren, has been adamant about holding officers accountable in clearly unacceptable situations. Not only will he be leading the initiative to establish policies and procedures in accountability, he will be leading as the Chair of the Public Safety committee to reformat the current Civilian Review Board, which reviews cases of police misconduct in Rochester, so that it’s able to subpoena officers when misconduct is found.
He stated in a July special committee meeting that he needed to understand why the police seemed to unfairly use more force in arrests involving black and brown residents. He said a white woman living in the suburbs would’ve never received this treatment.
Though it may not be entirely clear if all of Rochester’s black leaders believe that black lives matter, the motives behind recent initiatives seem to support this stance. With our current leaders in play, it may not be long before we see effective change in how black lives are treated in Rochester, especially if the community continues to place it foremost on the agenda.
What’s clear however, is that it won’t come in overt packaging; It won’t scream “Black Lives Matter” and demand officers be fired. It’ll be quieter; demanding more oversight and better training for young officers. Right now, its the gray areas where excessive force is being used, so many local black legislators want to dismantle the laws bolstering these gray areas and replace them with more inclusive legislation.