Carpe crisis

Sunday morning, as we sat before our computer to write this editorial, we checked our email first. There was yet another press release from the Albany Police with an all-to-familiar story of late — another shooting. We’ve received more than 100 of these releases since May and four more since Sunday morning.

This shooting was on Lexington Avenue and Sherman Street. A 31-year-old man was shot in the back.

We are sitting safely in our home, a farmhouse on the outskirts of Altamont, watching golden leaves on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment.

Why should we care about this man? Why should we care about the violence that has erupted in Albany since the death of George Floyd in May?

We should care because, really, we are part of the same community. 

We were struck earlier this month when we talked to Wanda Willingham, an African-American woman who has represented Arbor Hill in the Albany County Legislature for more than 20 years.

She currently chairs a task force of three county legislators that has been hearing testimony from local business owners, chambers of commerce, and business-improvement districts to understand the impact of the pandemic on local businesses.

The pandemic, Willingham said, has brought into stark relief the inequity in communities across the county.

In her community, she said, “A lot of people are found dead at home.” Even before the pandemic, they were unable to get the health care they needed. People already suffering from illnesses like diabetes or asthma are then more prone to succumb to COVID-19.

“It’s a domino effect because of the way Black people or people of color were living,” she said. The pandemic, Willingham said, should “show people we can’t continue to live like this … Albany County will not survive unless we look at the poorest first.”

Willingham described food drives run by churches in her community that have cars lined up around the block and said she had never seen anything like it in her lifetime. She said she loads up her own car to make food deliveries to the homebound “to make sure people have food.”

“It’s rougher than you think,” she said.

Asked if she thought the stresses from lack of jobs and health care, coupled with the ravages of the pandemic, are related to the spike in gun violence in Albany, Willingham hesitated a long time.

Finally, she said, “The condition people find themselves in, some of it might be hopelessness … It’s very hard to talk about,” Willingham said, concluding, “We’re in a state of shock ourselves.”

We were reminded then of a conversation we had with Alice Green at the end of May, just after a peaceful daytime protest in Albany had turned into a night of violence.

Green, an African-American woman who founded and directs the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, said that she does not condone violence but that she understands it. Prosecuting someone, she said, is not addressing the real issue.

“I don’t like to see people hurt,” Green said. “I don’t like to see people lose their property. When you have no sense of hope … you have no power.”

She concluded, “People are looking just to be a person and accepted as a person.”

Small acts can give hope, she said, like police officers following Colin Kaepernick’s lead and “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest police brutality or a police officer in Minneapolis who joined the march against the officer accused of murdering George Floyd.

But, she went on, the change needs to transform institutions.

County government is a good way to bring about change. Albany County has wealthy suburbs as well as rural areas and cities.

Thinking of ourselves as one community could benefit us all.

Listening to each other is a start. Wilmingham said, in listening to testimonies given to the task force, “It opened my eyes to see that Albany is a rural county, too. We cannot ignore places like Berne and Knox and Coeymans.”

In turn, Jeff Perlee, a Republican legislator representing an area that includes Altamont and part of the Hilltowns, said he learned from the testimonies that businesses “did not necessarily take advantage of federal programs … There was a lot of anxiety and intimidation.”

It was news to him that many urban businesses don’t have established relationships with bankers. “In the newer American communities, there’s sort of an aversion to government debt,” said Perlee. “They don’t want to open up their books,” he said, so there are barriers to fully participating in programs that might lend aid.

While the county can’t provide direct financial help to businesses, Perlee said, he suggested it could bridge gaps to help local businesses take advantage of federal programs.”

That’s a good start. But there is much more to be done.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy is fond of saying, “We need to work together.” He repeats this advice often in his press briefings on the coronavirus. He also frequently says, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

He is talking about all parts of the county — people in urban, suburban, and rural areas — working as one for the long haul to stay safe and healthy.

Both of those mantras could also apply to what needs to be done to rebuild after the devastation — economic and social — caused by the pandemic.

When we asked the new county chairman of the Democratic Party, Jacob Crawford, about this, he said it’s important to see “what can be done to fix the disparities in this county.”

He went on, “This is something the county needs to tackle together. The Democratic Party has always been actively involved in terms of gathering gift cards for families in need, coat drives for families in need ... There are people out there hurting all over the county.”

Food drives and coat collections are fine acts of charity but what is needed is substantive change.

“We have racism in every facet of life. That’s how we live,” Willingham said as she referenced all the red Xs on condemned Albany houses, the low graduation rate from city schools, and the lack of jobs that could support a household.

Albany County has been progressive in dealing with crime. Sheriff Craig Apple has set up programs for drug rehabilitation for veterans in the county jail and this year had an unused wing turned into a shelter to help set homeless people back on a productive course in life.

Albany County was one of the first places in the nation to adopt a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program that keeps mentally ill, homeless, or addicted people from being arrested, providing services to help them instead. This week, the county received a $898,000 federal grant to further its LEAD work.

Those worthwhile programs deal with the ill effects of disparities. What we need is an approach to prevent them in the first place.

If we are fortunate to have a federal administration that will provide much-needed stimulus funds to state and local governments, those funds should be used to rebuild our local economy in a way that is inclusive.

We need to act regionally as we rebuild. This pandemic, and the economic fallout, have shown us all how wide the gap is — in schools, in housing, in health care — between white and Black communities. We should seize this crisis, which coincides with a nationwide racial reckoning, to work together as a county to rebuild in a way that offers hope to those who most need it.

We call on our county legislators — all of them — to lead us into this brave new world.

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