A National Moment of Silence takes place tonight, with the country again debating race, violence and the role of the police. The fatal police shooting of St. Louis-area teenager Michael Brown set off a wave of unrest and protests. Four unarmed black men have been killed by police in the last month, including Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold on a New York City street.
Mark Emanatian, a community organizer with Citizen Action of New York, says Albany activists are marking the Brown shooting and other police-related deaths downtown at the state capitol. Albany is one of about 50 cities taking part in the vigil. "And there's been several other incidences like this all over the country that have taken place where police officers have shot and killed unarmed black youth and Citizen Action stands with all of the people of conscience and faith all over the country who have said 'enough of this' - this has to stop - these lives are important. And that we need to have, as in the case of Missouri, the federal government go in with its full weight and investigate what's taken place there and prosecute the police to the fullest extent of the law for this murder."
Vigil organizer Angelica Clarke says part of the reason why people are coming together, unified under so-called “hashtag activism,” is to answer some questions. "Are these young men scary, are these young women scary? Should black people be feared? Why are we allowing young black men, women and children to be murdered in the street and not reacting to it, not trying to change it? How can we not see that as a systemic problem that we also have to address here in the Capital District as well as everywhere else? The Capital District is no stranger to police brutality and police violence."
The police shooting of a mentally ill black man made national headlines in Albany in July 1984, although officers claimed Jessie Davis had lunged at them with a fork, police photos showed him holding a set of keys and a toy truck. Interestingly, the case seems mostly forgotten today; the Times Union refers to the case as the shooting of "Albany teen Jessie Davis” – but Davis was 35 when he was gunned down in his apartment. A $40 million civil rights trial was settled by the city for approximately half a million dollars.
Perhaps stronger in post-internet collective memory: police staging a mock drill at a public housing project. The power of social networking proved a force to reckon with in March 2013 after citizens in Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood posted photographs of SWAT teams and shell casings on Facebook. Those teams stormed the Ida Yarbrough Homes, a city housing project, on a quiet Thursday morning, reportedly shooting blanks and tossing tear gas into a vacant building during a police training exercise that involved a simulated hostage rescue.
A flier circulated by community organizers read, "We are outraged that residents were not forewarned and then were subject to arrest if they protested." Angelica Clarke: "It's moments like that where you see the total disregard for the lives of people who live in places like Ida Yarbrough, and also this idea that they need to create exercises that are testing for when you need tot take over a building. That to me is an expectation of violence. They're setting the police up to imagine the world as a place where everywhere you go, every neighborhood you're in, you need to be afraid. Every neighborhood that is full of black and brown people. I think that is really problematic and really de-humanizing. It's really hard to be a person of color living in the Capital District knowing that something like that could happen in your building or your neighborhood and you're not even human enough to be given the information."
Police claimed they went door to door the evening prior to the exercise to notify nearby residents. But the community was shaken. Chief Steven Krokoff did issue an apologetic statement, and since that incident the Albany Police Department has been rebuilding community relations. Police say they are not expecting any trouble at tonight's vigil at the West Capitol Steps. Again, Mark Emanatian: "We're calling on all people in the Capital District to come out with your presence, with your prayers, with your thoughts and with signs saying what you stand for, and come out and join us in this moment of silence."
The moment of silence will be observed at 7:20 p.m. and attendees are urged to mingle and get to know one another afterward.