On May 25, Ithaca College professor Cynthia Henderson, like so many in the county and country, heard the news that George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis, had died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I was heartbroken and angry,” Henderson said. “It didn’t have to happen, any more than Trayvon Martin, or let’s go all the way back to Emmett Till. These deaths didn’t need to happen. And so, I was heartbroken, angry and I was frustrated. There was also a sense of hopelessness because ‘here we go again.’ Then, I tried to figure out what to do.”
Henderson, IC’s first African-American full professor, teaches Acting and Theatre for Social Change. She’s also an actor, director and the founder and artistic director of Performing Arts for Social Change, which “creates opportunities for transformation and proactive change via the arts,” she said.
After George Floyd’s death, Henderson continued her long history of activism, attending and speaking at two separate Ithaca protests. And she was not alone. What happened in Minneapolis has greatly shaken the county, and while the immediate effects have been clear, the future is not as certain.
For this investigation, Tompkins Weekly spoke with area sources about the issue of systemic racism to better understand how the local community will be shaped by Floyd’s death, including strategies for affecting long-term change in the county. And, as sources attest, any strategy to accomplish that goal is facing a host of challenges, many amplified by COVID-19.
The county has seen three consecutive weeks of protests since Floyd’s death, with many attendees protesting for the first time to speak out against injustice. One such person was Ithacan Matt Mayers, creator of Matt Mayers Photography, who hadn’t been to a rally or protest prior to Floyd’s death.
“It was a wonderful experience. It was incredibly powerful,” Mayers said. “It is almost spiritual in a sense there. Such a huge level of solidarity among people in the community, and it was such a diverse crowd. And I’ve never experienced anything like that before. So, it was an incredibly emotionally charged experience.”
Crowds gathered not just in Ithaca but also all surrounding municipalities. Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart spoke about the reaction in his village.
“It spurred a desire for residents and folks in the community to see change, to want to see something done about circumstances and situations that allow for something like what we saw on video that would allow for anything like that to even happen,” Hart said.
Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne shared a similar experience in Lansing.
“I think people are looking at the bigger picture in law enforcement in general,” he said. “I know when I attended the one in Lansing, they were all peaceful. I didn’t ever feel like anybody was attacking me or my department specifically.”
Henderson said that while she was at the Ithaca protests, she saw some common messages, like “abolish the police,” “defund the police,” “Black Lives Matter,” “say their names” and others. She said a common feature among all the protests was the peaceful approach of attendees.
“They didn’t devolve into violence, which is what we’re seeing in several cities across the country,” Henderson said. “Protestors are angry, and some police departments are being brutal. This community is angry and are focusing that anger on the injustices. The police in this community stop traffic to clear the way for the protestors to march unimpeded.”
Protestors helped to spur local action from organizations and government alike. At the state level, the Senate passed the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT Act) on June 8, and on June 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the “Say Their Name” Reform Agenda package.
The STAT Act collects demographic statistics of anyone arrested and charged by police and anyone in police custody, while the “Say Their Name” package implements several reforms, including greater transparency in law enforcement disciplinary records, banning chokeholds, prohibiting false race-based 911 reports and designating the attorney general as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to civilian deaths.
At the county level, the Legislature passed a resolution condemning institutional racism and the death of Floyd, county administration announced plans for addressing systemic racism, and the Sheriff's Department passed a Duty to Intervene policy.
Legislator Mike Sigler explained the reasoning behind the resolution.
“You have to recognize first off that in a lot of police departments across the country, there are problems,” Sigler said. “And then, you have to look inwardly and say, ‘OK, are we dealing with these problems,’ and I think that was the impetus behind it. This is an event that really shone a light maybe on a larger issue. And it was the Legislature's attempt to recognize and say to people, ‘Listen, we understand this. There's a problem. We're going to work with you towards the solution.’”
At that meeting, the Tompkins County Legislature pledged to continue to “promote awareness, understanding, constructive dialog and education regarding inequity, and to adhere to zero tolerance for expressions of discrimination, bias, harassment or negative stereotyping towards any person or group,” the county said in a recent press release.
“It’s always good for folks to make statements and to publicly condemn actions that are hurtful to our community as a whole,” said Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. “But it's more than just statements, and most of our legislators have been asking the question, what else? We need to do more. And so, short term, we have looked to our Office of Human Rights to put into place some short-term action steps.”
The Office of Human Rights plans to hold a series of forums, and the Human Rights Commission will work on responses, Legislator Martha Robertson said.
County administration also shared its plans for addressing these issues. Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino said in a June 12 Moving Forward update that he’s asked department heads to “address this crisis head on.”
“We'll be supporting our departments through resources as we start to make some changes moving forward,” he said. “We'll continue to build upon the work of our internal teams such as the [Workforce Diversity and Inclusion] Committee, … as well as some internal teams that we've had around diversity, inclusion and infusion.”
For the Duty to Intervene policy, Osborne explained that requiring officers to intervene if they see a colleague acting inappropriately has been common practice at the Sheriff’s Department for many years, but he still felt it important to make it an official policy.
“I thought it was important that we actually put it in writing, not just for our deputies, but for the public to be assured as well,” he said. “[It was] also for members of my agency to give them the encouragement to actually report something that they see something wrong … and get them more authority to stop it.”
More details about the Duty to Intervene policy, as well as many other department policies, are available at tompkinscountyny.gov/sheriff-8#.
Strategies & solutions
While sources agreed measures like those described above are good first steps, much more is needed to make significant progress. However, sources differ on exactly what strategy will work best in the long term.
Many sources said the best first step is acknowledging that systemic racism exists in Tompkins County.
“I think this county in particular thinks it does a better job with racism, but I think it’s more of maybe people don’t see it as often,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer. “This is literally the whitest place I’ve ever lived in my life. So, people would see things a different way.”
A shared solution among sources was communication between residents, police and local leaders that actively involves groups impacted by systemic racism. Seph Murtagh, a member of the Ithaca Common Council, said it’s especially important for officers to volunteer their time to be part of that dialogue.
“We need to hear from more voices in the law enforcement community that are ready to have a reimagining of what policing means,” Murtagh said. “And that’s not something I’ve really heard locally. I’ve talked to a few officers, but I think that we need to hear those voices from the law enforcement community to say, ‘We know there’s pain out there. We acknowledge it. And we’re ready to work with you to try to find solutions.’”
Mayers said that that kind of substantive dialogue can pave the way for real change.
“Overall, a lot of people want the same thing, but they want to go about it in a different way,” Mayers said. “I think that there needs to be some sort of cohesive conversation you need to make somewhere in the middle or we need to somehow agree to move forward.”
Other strategies proposed by sources varied, with some supporting increased community representation and implicit bias training.
Mayers said that he and others are concerned about a lack of representation in leadership in the county and want to see leaders include minorities in decision-making.
“Important members of the community, from grassroots activists to those who are leaders of institutions and organizations, need to be part of that process and they need to have stakeholders,” Mayers said. “And then you need skillful leadership to help to navigate that, facilitate that. People need to feel that they have a stake in this.”
Several in the Legislature voiced their support for this kind of approach and said it is part of the Legislature’s plans for the future.
“It should be a central thought when we create policies,” Legislator Anna Kelles said. “How is this going to affect Black people in our community? How is this going to affect LatinX people in our community? How is it going to affect undocumented people in our community? How is this going to affect LGBTQIA members of the community? … Is it uplifting everyone equally?”
While implicit bias training is already a part of several law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Sheriff’s Department and the Ithaca Police Department, several sources said more education is needed. Murtagh, who helped draft the body camera policy for the IPD, said he’s heard many say that the education that exists now isn’t enough.
“It’s like, well, you do these reforms, you do the implicit bias training, you do the body cams, you do the community policing initiatives, and yet we’re not seeing the problem go away,” he said. “There’s this exhaustion I feel and people feel like they’re sort of running out of options, which is why I think you’re hearing growing calls for defunding of police departments.”
And that is a good segue into perhaps the most controversial proposal to move forward, defunding the police. It’s a strategy that essentially boils down to taking money typically given to law enforcement and diverting it into social services, and sources were split on what that might look like locally.
“Are you talking we’re just going to take money out of the police department? Well, that’s going to hurt policing,” Sigler said. “But then they say well, but we’re going to roll it into social services. Tompkins County, for example, spends a lot on social service. And a lot of places do. Our social safety net, there’s a lot there.”
Others said diverting funds helps to create a new approach to policing.
“We need to refocus on doing things like that so that the police aren’t cleaning up problems that they have no business being involved in,” Leifer said.
No matter the policy change, sources universally agreed that leaders throughout the county need to take a hard look at their current policies to find areas of improvement.
“It’s just a matter of each layer of government doing its own inventory of policies and taking some self-reflection to make sure that the policies and procedures and more importantly the culture within law enforcement where we live is what you need it to be,” Hart said.
On a large scale, sources pointed to several societal systems that make real change difficult. Racism was embedded in this country’s law enforcement from its start, Henderson and others pointed out, which means that solutions have to strike at the foundation.
“Regardless of the individual police officers out there, the system is founded on inherently racist ideology,” she said. “So, how do we ferret out the racist ideology that formed part of the foundation of policing in the United States? These are questions that we need to answer because, like any institution, there are good people within that institution.”
Jennifer Tavares, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, also drew attention to the way racism has been weaved into other systems, like education.
“The vast majority of us, particularly in rural, largely white, upstate New York, … we were exposed to a certain type of education with certain information in our history books,” Tavares said. “We were taught one version of history. We were taught the white version of history.”
While these and other challenges are rooted in history, sources cited other challenges related to recent events, mainly the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has taken a significant economic toll on the county. Just this month, the city of Ithaca announced an unprecedented loss of revenue caused by the ripple effects of the pandemic, like lower sales taxes, parking fees and state aid, creating a 2020 budget deficit of anywhere from $4 million to $13 million. And Robertson said she’s worried about a similar effect on the county’s budget.
“I’m really discouraged about what our budget is going to look like, about the mid-year cuts we’re making for this year and about what 2021 is going to look like,” Robertson said. “We have to take the resources we already have, make sure they are as progressive as possible, make sure they’re as welcoming and as supportive of the community as possible, but I don’t see how we can make new investments at this time.”
Beyond economic impacts, the pandemic means that gatherings – like the numerous protests – become even more dangerous.
"It's one thing to show up at a rally and get pushed down or hurt and know that your broken finger is going to heal in a couple of weeks and you'll be fine," McBean-Clairborne said. "It's a different thing to have COVID-19 present, especially as a Black person, where it is affecting us in disproportionate numbers, and think about I am potentially, deliberately putting myself at risk of contracting and dying from this disease if I go to the rally, but I have to show up. The risk to my life because of the system of racism is too high."
While all sources acknowledged this health risk, many also argued that the pandemic could actually be a real force for good in this particular issue. For one, the pandemic meant that county residents were staying in their homes, without much to do, so when George Floyd died, there was no way to ignore it.
“During the pandemic, it was almost like the world stopped and listened and looked at the same thing at the same time,” Mayers said. “And, I’m only 25 years old, I’ve never seen anything like that, in my lifetime, maybe 9/11. And I think what happened with George Floyd, as that happened during the pandemic, it was almost like people had to stop and focus on that issue, compared to before the pandemic, people have so much other things going on in their lives.”
In addition, the pandemic and the way it has disproportionately affected minority communities in the country has helped draw attention to the interconnected web of systems that continue to perpetuate racist policies and behaviors.
“The pandemic exposes so many of the racial inequities that exist in systems, in institutions, and I think that longer term, I would hope that there is a focus on changing our systems and institutions, not just the police, but also our healthcare system, also our education system,” Murtagh said. “We have to harness some of the energy that’s out there to make some change.”
While George Floyd’s death has spurred passionate response from the county, sources were split on what the future may hold. Some, like Mayers, are optimistic about the direction in which the county is headed and see this as an encouraging movement.
“At the protest, there were a lot of people of color who mentioned that they have been compelled or inspired to take leadership positions, to run for office,” Mayers said. “So, I do think that a lot of people of color are going to take leadership positions, they’re going to have a seat at the table, and they’re going to ensure that their voices are heard about these issues moving forward.”
Others are a bit more cautious or even skeptical about the long-term effects of Floyd’s death on the county, with many citing the fact that this isn’t the first time there’s been a large movement calling for change.
“We’ve cried out and called for change and have worked towards change,” McBean-Clairborne said. “And I don’t feel like the needle has moved any. So, it’s hard to be optimistic, and I want to be. My heart says it’s not going to happen, but my brain and my soul says it has to happen.”
Many sources said there are ways concerned citizens can help in this fight. The best way, sources agreed, is by getting involved in your government.
“I find at least in this county, if you want to call up your county legislator, you say, ‘this is what I want to change,’ you’re going to get a response,” Sigler said. “So, if there’s any time that you think that something is needed, you should reach out and talk to your elected officials. But then again, if you feel that they’re not listening to you, hey, guess what, you can run for office too. And I recommend people do that.”
Osborne said the same goes for law enforcement involvement.
“I certainly wasn’t against any of the protests,” he said. “And I appreciate what people have to say. And I think they should take an active involvement in their law enforcement. At least for sheriffs, that’s why people have an elected sheriff. If they don’t feel their law enforcement in the realm of the sheriff world is being effective for them and their needs, then they get to vote for somebody else.”
Many also argued that residents should be an accomplice, not just an ally, saying that voicing support is great, but you have to be prepared to give continuous effort toward progress.
“This is a long-term crisis, and long-term crises require long-term commitment,” McBean-Clairborne said. “We’re not going to snap our fingers and everything will change tomorrow. And so, people need to be in it for the long haul. You need to be willing to be accomplices and agitators for change, be there to experience some of our hurt and pain and not retreat to your sanctuary, your safe space.”
Sources said residents can also educate themselves, listening to members of minority communities to better understand how these issues are affecting them.
“Probably one of the most important things right now is to seek understanding and to understand people who are different from us, to seek understanding from the people who are speaking up so we can understand where they’re coming from and how they’re feeling and why,” Groton Assembly of God Senior Pastor Sam Neno said.
Last, sources said residents can analyze their own behaviors to look for implicit biases and move toward correcting them.
“It’s important for people to realize that when you realize these things, it doesn’t mean it’s your fault. This is what you were taught,” Tavares said. “But once you realize it, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself and to do the work to dismantle those things that you were taught that are not true or that are not the full picture of our history.”
Residents looking to learn more about these issues are encouraged to reach out to area organizations like Black Lives Matter - Ithaca, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Latino Civic Association, Multicultural Resource Center, Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR), Southside Community Center and Tompkins County Showing up for Racial Justice. Additional resources can be found at tompkinscountyny.gov, tompkinschamber.org and others.
The root issue behind all these reactions – institutional and systemic racism – is not unique to George Floyd’s death. But many sources argued that this is a unique opportunity to create changes that shouldn’t be wasted.
“I have not seen an American tragedy with this kind of global impact or that began to have the more immediate impact that we’ve seen just in the last week,” said Office of Human Rights Director Kenneth Clarke. “It’s almost like we’ve sort of reached this particular moment that you don’t see very often. … The question is whether this will be a movement or a moment. That’s yet to be determined.”
Henderson shared that sentiment, adding that Floyd’s death is causing many residents to say “enough is enough.”
“It’s time for the nation to accept responsibility for what it’s done and create substantive changes so that we are able to be equitable citizens in a society that we helped build for free as slaves,” she said. “That’s why this is wrong, and why this moment is important.”
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