Each of us must keep pushing to deliver liberty and justice for all

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

— Dante, “The Divine Comedy,” translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have heard many times in the last few weeks that, if we are white, we cannot understand what it means to be black, to be African-American.

We believe this is true.

“Blacks have a collective memory,” Alice Green told us. Her great-grandmother was born enslaved. Her grandmother was a sharecropper. Her parents lived in the Jim Crow South.

That is a history that embraces the worst in humankind. Green became an activist — a scholar, a teacher, an author, and founded the Center for Law and Justice in Albany to make a difference in the time and place where she lives.

We admire her work and her perspective. Our front-page banner headline about the racial tensions that exploded in Albany at the end of May asked: An uprising or a riot?

Everyone agreed that the death of George Floyd — a handcuffed black man lying on his belly while a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes until he died — was wrong.

The white officials in Albany had called what happened after the peaceful protests a riot and vowed to prosecute those who had broken windows, looted stores, burned vehicles. They blamed outside agitators.

Albany’s mayor said, “I cannot see a connection between anger over the killing of George Floyd and throwing a brick through the window of a library.”

Alice Green called it an uprising. She saw a connection. She was in the midst of the melee on May 30 and, while she said she doesn’t condone violence, Green said that night on the streets of Albany people connected and understood what it meant to be one of the group, what it meant to suffer so much.

“They were saying: We need to be heard,” Green said. She said it was an opportunity for people to express anger and mistrust. “If we hear that,” she said, “it will allow us as a community to think: How do we get beyond white supremacy?”

She also told us that blaming outsiders is another way to escape talking about structural racism. We need to change the structures that perpetuate racism.

Calling in troops to suppress protests is not the answer. We need to unify and work together to change the systems that are unjust.

We were gratified then to hear the words spoken by Albany’s mayor, Kathy Sheehan, who is white, at a prayer meeting the county executive had organized for June 4. “When we hear elected officials talk about the importance of the rule of law, we need to make sure that white America understands what those words mean. We were founded upon the rules of law that permitted enslavement, beatings, and murder of black and brown people.

“We were founded upon laws that enriched white Americans on the backs of slave labor, indentured servants, prison labor — laws that prohibited black people from voting, upheld segregation, and permitted violence against and mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.”

So, yes, we need to change laws that allow wrongdoing and pass new laws so that certain sectors of society are not protected or favored at the expense of others. New York State got a good start on that last week, amending a law so that police disciplinary records are no longer kept from the public and passing laws that will require the state’s attorney general to investigate cases where police brutality is alleged and that will guarantee citizens the right to record and keep videos of police activities.

Other police reforms signed into law this week include requirements for state and local police officers to report within six hours when they discharge their weapons, for courts to compile and publish racial and other demographic data of all low-level offenses, and for police officers to provide medical and mental-health attention to people in custody. 

Further, Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed an executive order that each municipal police department is to “develop a plan that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” State funding will depend on it.

But laws are only part of the problem, or the solution. Cultural changes are needed as well.

The society we live in is layered with systemic racism. After the protests, Albany County’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, noted that racism is a public-health threat, as evidenced by the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 borne by African Americans. She outlined measures her health department has undertaken to close the gap and what more needs to be done.

That’s what each system — health, education, employment, social welfare, housing, criminal justice — needs to do: Evaluate what’s racist and work to make changes. We’ve been heartened by the scores of press releases we’ve received in recent weeks from both for-profit corporations and not-for-profit organizations, pledging to make changes in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Symbols can make a difference, too. Small acts can give hope, Alice Green said, like police officers following Colin Kaepernicks’ lead and “taking a knee” to protest police brutality during the national anthem.

“When you have no sense of hope ... you have no power,” said Green.

Mayor Sheehan’s decision to remove the statue of General Philip Schuyler, an Albany Revolutionary War hero and slave owner, is symbolic. While learning about historic figures — both their good and bad parts — is necessary, revering a slave owner by literally putting him on a pedestal in front of City Hall is oppressive to those whose heritage is slavery.

Slavery was wrong. We can’t pretend that it didn’t exist but nor should we glorify it.

We prefer statues not of an individual to be revered but of an ideal — like the Fierce Girl on Wall Street. Rather than monuments to the leaders of war, we prefer the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that names each person who died there. Maybe in Schuyler’s place, Albany could erect a plaque naming all the enslaved people who helped to build Albany. If their names aren’t known, build a statue to stand for them all.

Movements for sweeping social change — whether its women’s rights or gay rights or racial equality — come in waves: a push and then often a recession as we collectively relax.

That’s why we found the metaphor put forth at the June 4 prayer meeting by Pastor David Traynham so telling. While the pastor made it clear “you will never understand the plight of African Americans unless you walk in our shoes,” we have experienced childbirth — the pushing through pain, then retreating to regroup and push again.

“We’re like a mother that has been in labor for over 200 years,” said Pastor Traynham, “and now the baby is ready to come forth and, when the baby comes forth, the joy of this child is going to supplant all of the hurt, the pain, the hatred and heartache that we have experienced.”

If we are not black, we cannot pretend to understand the pain and suffering that racism has caused but perhaps, if we each do our part, we can serve as a midwife in helping with the birth of liberty and justice for all.

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  • Sacrificing the safety of children for political expediency is unacceptable. Schools need both accurate guidance and adequate funding to keep our children safe.

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