Update: Black Lives Matter and the UPD, Views from the Bottom-Up

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

Since publishing the article on the activities of the Utica Police Department over the last week, there has been much for Utica activists to get caught up on, and ahead of as the story spread, garnering several thousand reads over the last week and prompting conversations and interest throughout the area.

While short on specific detail, the initial article was only meant to serve as a notice for affiliated groups of activists and community organizations interested in attending, or who had even initially helped plan, an upcoming Black Lives Matter demonstration planned for Oneida Square on Saturday July 30.

Both the Observer-Dispatch and WUTQ’s Talk of the Town covered the developing story of the Utica Police Department’s efforts to gather intelligence on local activists.

While a party to the other side of the story (that would be our side) was not able to give their interview on Talk of the Town due to the station’s technical issues this morning, Love and Rage, which is in-part comprised of local activists, will attempt to fill in the holes surrounding this story so far.

Some Background

There’s been some confusion around the aforementioned demonstration which was to take place at the Oneida Square roundabout on July 30 (the event has since been cancelled over concerns of “negative press”). The demonstration was initiated via a Facebook event by a member of the community and soon caught the attention of others associated with the Utica Activist Coalition (UAC) — a collection of individuals and community organizations which has come together over the past several months to establish a more reliable solidarity network for the planning and execution of grassroots activities, campaigns and events.

The local activists who had been visited by the Utica Police Department in light of that event were involved in the planning of the rally initially, but stepped back over concerns raised by the member of the community who began the event’s Facebook page. The activists originally involved respected that this individual’s name being associated with the event presented a risk to them that needed to be recognized, and that the message of the rally would be separate from later efforts to establish a Black Lives Matter movement in the city.

However, it was as these activists stepped back that they suddenly began getting visits from the UPD. From this point on, several names and locations will be omitted from the story.

One such instance, which began a trend lasting for several days, occurred at one former organizer’s family business. As recounted by the person’s mother, as the police pulled up into the building’s driveway and as she began down the stairs to see what the matter could be, she was startled by very loud banging on the door.

What ensued was a series of questions about her daughter and people that she organizes with, on what issues and where. Eventually the person of interest was contacted, being shaken by the event.

Another organizer, based in Cornhill, noted that her home had been visited while she was at work. Officers banged on the door in much the same fashion. Upon getting in touch with the UPD, it became known that the police had her work schedule on-hand which raises questions as to why her home was visited when her teenaged children were home alone.

When this person spoke with the investigator, she recalled being asked about several names that the UPD claimed to have on a list of people associated with initially planning the demonstration on July 30.

In all three instances, the tone of the officers was reported to be initially forceful and intimidating, leaving those involved disturbed by the encounter. This was not included in the story that was published in the Observer-Dispatch, and since WUTQ’s unfortunate technical problems prevented an interview from occurring on Talk of the Town, only Chief Mark Williams’s account of police procedure was told.

In Clinton, the parents of a Utica-based organizer were visited in much the same manner, though instead of beating on the front door, the UPD opted for the doorbell instead.

One of Utica’s bright young organizers, a well-known Ivy League student, reported that her previous home in Cornhill had been visited by members of the UPD looking to speak with her.

As reported in the Observer-Dispatch’s story, noted organizer Lana Nitti remarked that a member of the UPD came into her workplace which made her feel uneasy.

Even the author of this piece has had their name brought up and asked about on several occasions.

Those involved have since contacted and been working with the National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union in order to assist them in moving forward with their legally-protected activities in spite of potential snooping campaigns on part of the UPD.

It should also be known that the single, non-UAC person who intended to carry on with the July 30th event, met with members of the Utica Police Department in a meeting that they convened. As there was no consensus within the original group to either meet with, nor include police in the demonstration’s planning, what resulted from the unknown details of that meeting has certainly put many local activists and organizers on edge.

Reasons for Privacy

The overwhelming message gleaned from local media covering the story was that the Utica Police Department was just following up on protocol which left Talk of the Town co-host Beth Coombs admitting that it was “frustrating” to hear that people did not want to cooperate with the police.

There are several reasons, from precedent to personal politics, why several members of the local activist scene do not seek out police cooperation or collaboration, each reason could easily be expanded into larger articles, but for the sake of brevity, here are the concise reasons:

First, there is no onus to do so.
The type of organization going on is Constitutionally protected. If there’s a discussion to be had on whether or not people should be allowed to flex their rights, or defer to them, this will not be the place as this is only an attempt to fill some holes, not lay out an ideological argument. That said, via the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments, there’s no need to cooperate with police in this fashion.

Furthermore, police are known disruptors of social movements.
In the post-9/11 world, where every example of unwillingness to cooperate with police is unfairly brought to scrutiny, there has been a well-documented increase in domestic spying that seeks to monitor the activities of leftists in the United States. Tactics used in the suppression of the Occupy movement have also been refitted to combat and disrupt the Black Lives Matter movement — especially in the wake of the Baton Rouge police shootings.

Community concerns are overlooked.
There is a distinct and explicit desire among those organizing beyond the scope of the demonstration that was planned for July 30th to develop a consensus-based message on part of the community, which reflects its concerns before any attempt at dialogue with the police is wanted or needed.

There are examples of co-option of community outreach which span the country, but a recent example in Albany brings to light the worst-case scenario in which an attempt to establish dialogue during a workshop involving lawyers, activists, Albany teens and members of the police force, was whittled down to “obey or die” rhetoric from one of the attending members of law enforcement. This is not the type of dialogue that gets results. BBQs and meetings that end with hugs, while great for public image, do not resolve the return to tactics-as-usual for police departments thereafter.

There’s also a tendency for community dialogue to be one-sided. As Coombs brought up during her on-air interview with Chief Williams, one of the issues of contention between activists, the community and police, stemmed from the 2005 fatal police shooting of Walter Washington. This was immediately dismissed by Chief Williams who accused activists of not knowing all the facts and “hiding behind computer screens”.

Also, the one organizer whose house was visited when she wasn’t home, when called again by the UPD, remarked that she instead hoped to hear an update on the investigation her son who was the victim of a non-fatal shooting in Utica. Instead, she was pressed about a Black Lives Matter rally.

The issue of the UPD’s controversial Facebook page, which I personally have written about before, is another issue that when law enforcement says it’s looking to work with people, brings up an immediate contradiction.

Disparity in the way police are viewed from the vantage points of a Black, inner-city population and white onlookers from affluent neighborhoods or suburbs is not going to be conveyed accurately through a radio interview like that on Talk of the Town. It’s also the belief among many local activists that without an organized, grassroots message, there can be no meaningful collaboration with local law enforcement.

Public Safety

While Chief Williams, commenting on another story in the in the Observer-Dispatch, noted that recent events have his department focused on officer safety, Black Lives Matter is not to blame.

In neither of the recent ambushes of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were acts of violence committed by members associated with BLM. Rather, the perpetrators were critical of the movement and it has been learned that the latter shooter, in Baton Rouge, was even a member of the sovereign citizen movement. While the sovereign citizen movement has a growing autonomous Black component, it is traditionally a white nationalist space.

As Lana Nitti, in the O-D’s article on the controversy said, local activists have not organized an event, over the course of several years of like activity in the area, which has resulted in any violence, rioting or destruction of property.

In all, the overall message that activists involved wish to convey is not that their actions are anti-cop, but rather pro-community. The actions and initiatives undertaken are done with an expressed interest to build solidarity and people power throughout the Utica community as opposed to constantly relying on solutions from local authorities.

Update: While Chief Williams did mention in the Observer-Dispatch interview that they had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP, the New York branch of the ACLU (NYCLU) has ordered a cease and desist order on behalf of the activists in Utica.

As the reasoning and arguments herein can be the basis for full-length articles of their own, in the coming days and weeks those involved in local activism and community organizing hope to expand upon the notable concision lent to the several points stated above. Simply, an article that is too long will not be read and will compromise the dialogue occurring on this issue as it would remain top-down in orientation.

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