Rev. Lewis Stewart and Martin Hawk are united in their outrage and together grieve a shattered trust in law enforcement in the wake of the death of Daniel Prude.
However, Stewart, who is in his 70s, would like the Black Lives Matter protests to evolve into conversations over policy, while Hawk, 28, plans to continue to walk the streets of downtown Rochester, observing protestors demand a cut in the police budget for however long it takes.
Though there are differences—BLM protests aim to be peaceful and nonviolent—the generational divide over tactics has echoes of the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in the power of nonviolence resistance; by contrast, the Black Panthers were an armed revolutionary group that sought to fight fire with fire.
Their demands were not that unalike. Broadly, both nonviolent civil rights activists and more militant groups wanted an end to racial inequity. However, most elders backed King’s way and many young activists aligned with the Panthers.
In today’s fight for social justice in Rochester, the younger faction is calling for resignations and defunding the police. Black elders see a lack of well-laid out policies for systemic change and reimagined public safety. As it was decades ago, both parties ultimately want the same result: antiracist policies to keep Black and Brown city residents safe.
“I don’t think there is any difference between outrage and protest of both generations,” says Stewart, president of United Christian Leadership Ministry’s executive committee. “All of us are angry about what happened. It’s just the fact some of us see that we need to put some policies and procedures in place (versus) just being out there protesting and really not getting anything done.”
Some see value in protests but favor a democratic approach to bring about change.
“Although I’m very proud of this generation for sounding the alarm and continuing to raise their voice, we do have to continue to engage in a democratic process, so that it cannot be said that just the individuals who are out protesting are the only voices that matter,” says LaShunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of Connected Communities. “So, how do we allow others to weigh in? Do we hold community meetings, town hall meetings so that more strategies come to the table?”
Hawk, a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, is not affiliated with the protestors. He says there is power in diversity of thought as long as the goal is the same.
“I believe in the power of the vote as well as the power of marching,” he says. “I believe in the power of aspiring to positions of power within our government as well as picketing on the outside.”
Hawk is working on a documentary titled “Pressure Gradient,” which explores the shades between love, rage, and rebellion as a Black person surviving in America.
Prude’s death has shaken the Rochester community. In late August, police body cam footage from March 23 showed officers restraining a naked Prude, placing him face down on the pavement with a “spit hood” covering his head. He died on March 30. The Monroe County medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, credits activists for letting the community know about the event when its leaders did not.
“Thank God for the protests,” he says. “And I say that to say, were it not for Free the People Roc, we would not have known what happened to Daniel Prude.”
Underwood, like many Black elders, has spoken with the Prude family often.
“I’ve gotten a chance to meet and speak with Joe Prude, Daniel Prude’s brother, several times and they are so broken by this,” he says. “One thing he even said was, ‘Why did I even call the police?’ Think about that question. Why was he calling? He was calling to get help.”
Instead, Daniel Prude did not survive his encounter with RPD officers. And the community trust in the police has suffered a serious blow.
City Councilmember Mitch Gruber points to the fate of the planned police substation, once slated for East Main Street, as an illustration of that breach.
After nearly seven years, City Council in mid-August voted in favor of a $16 million section office. The vote was in line with plans first aired when Mayor Lovely Warren ran for office in 2013. The idea was to have more officers on the ground building community relationships.
“There were just a lot of people who said, ‘If we get to know our police officers better, if our police officers get to know the streets and the people of the community better, that will lead to better things happening,’” Gruber recalls.
When Prude’s death revealed a breakdown of communication and deep secrecy in the RPD and mayor’s office, City Council rescinded its vote. Though some community members still support the substation, there are many others who are against it, Gruber says.
“(They) believe right now we have this breach of trust that no matter what community policing looks like, we need to have a real sense as a community we can trust a number of things—we can trust that the officers are going to do right and treat people with humanity,” he says.
Residents also need to trust that police training and protocols, which the officers allegedly followed in their handling of Prude, are not going to put them in danger, Gruber says.
Diallo Payne, a Community Justice Initiative coalition villager, who like countless others has been on the streets calling for change, offers a sobering view.
“If the case has set us back like this, then we weren’t really so far in the first place,” he says. “I think that the trust was maybe only like perceived trust, not necessarily earned trust.”
History of policing
Policing, especially in the South but also in other parts of the U.S., was shaped by the drive to preserve slavery, Connected Communities’ Smith says. Historians have shown how slave patrols that were charged with chasing down runaways and preventing revolts laid part of the foundation for community law enforcement.
“Any system that is rooted and bound in that type of pedagogy is bound to have some residual effects that we’re seeing here today,” Leslie-Smith says.
David Anderson, a founding member of Blackstorytelling League of Rochester and renowned Frederick Douglass historian, says he has never encountered issues with police like communities are seeing now.
“These were folks that were respected in the community, in the ranks,” he says, pointing to his friend Charles Price, RPD’s first Black officer. Price, he says, rose in the ranks as a beat cop and eventually retired as captain in 1985.
The Rochester Black Freedom Struggle: Online Project at University of Rochester has recorded Price’s experience in the police force. Though he did face several racist attacks, Price said when he worked at the corner of Main and State and Front streets, he was respected by fellow officers and residents alike.
Dorian Hall, vice president of the PL-EX Neighborhood Association, also remembers a time when cops lived in the city—now 93 percent live elsewhere—and they understood the culture.
“They were role models and people would look to them; you kind of had more people wanting to be officers … it was just a different time,” he says.
Former police chief La’Ron Singletary was trying to bring that feeling back. Known for walking the beat and listening to the community, Singletary acknowledged a need for change in the police force. Hall and others were disappointed in his decision to retire. (Singletary was fired by Warren on Sept. 14.)
“I’m sad because he’s a great guy,” Hall says. “I know he was very supportive in the community and I’m sad that he stepped down. We in the community feel he was a good guy.”
UCLM’s Stewart calls Singletary an “upstanding citizen.” Though BLM activists saw Singletary’s decision to retire—which preceded his firing—as a victory, Stewart says he told Ashley Gantt, a BLM organizer, that they had nothing to do with it; instead, Singletary’s departure was political.
Still, the former chief’s lack of transparency over Prude’s death has left a bad taste in many mouths.
“Being in a city where we have a Black mayor and we have a Black interim police chief, there is a bit of a false narrative that we’re better off … inherently (by) having our leaders in positions of power,” Hawk says. “I think that what this has all revealed (is) that it’s bit more about the system than the actual people. You can put these people in these positions of power and still the system inherently is working as an occupying force.”
Hawk and his fellow demonstrators want to change that system. He points to the police response against protestors as an example. Though he admits that Singletary was a “man of the people,” Hawk is mystified by the order—given on Singletary’s watch—to tear gas activists.
“The police response was grossly disproportionate to the level of ‘threat and aggression’ shown by the demonstrators,” Hawk says.
He adds: “As far as (Singletary’s exit), it’s more symbolic, isn’t it? So, we’re sort of replacing one figurehead with another figurehead, but clearly it’s the system that is allowed to persist and occupy and brutalize.”
In a recent Facebook post, Free the People Roc called for the firing and prosecution of the officers involved in the Prude case; dropping criminal charges against protestors; and the resignations of Warren, Deputy Mayor James Smith, Locust Club president Mike Mazzeo, and District Attorney Sandra Doorley. The passage of Daniel’s Law—legislation prohibiting police from responding to mental health calls—is also on the list of their demands. (Attempts by the Rochester Beacon to interview BLM and Free the People Roc organizers for this article were unsuccessful.)
Perhaps the most hotly debated demand is the defunding of police. The term is provocative and often misunderstood, fueling a fire that shouldn’t be there, Leslie-Smith says. Former Mayor Bill Johnson is among those who are unsure if that’s the answer, at least the way it been articulated by protestors.
“Because what are you going to do?” Johnson says. “All the bad guys are going to go away? Crime is going to disappear? There are people in besieged neighborhoods, many of them are people of color, who understand that the only thing keeping them safe is that there’s somebody who can enforce the law that can be called. When you talk about sending mental health workers into situations like that where the situation could flip on an eyelash, you’ll create another tragedy (and) all of a sudden you have another victim.”
Says PLEX’s Hall: “We need policing from a community perspective.”
Connected Communities, whose mission is to partner with Beechwood and EMMA neighborhoods on issues like poverty through antiracist community revitalization, has been talking with residents on policing. While nobody is advocating the abolishment of law enforcement, residents do want to feel safe from potential crime and from the police, Leslie-Smith says.
“What must that be like?” she says. “To be a resident and to be afraid of someone who could potentially do harm to you, and then be on both sides of the line. That’s not OK.’”
Is there a way forward?
Everyone agrees change is needed. Not by demanding resignations, Stewart says, but by re-envisioning policing, implementing racial justice education, de-escalation training and transparency. However, protestors aren’t inclined to come to the table to talk without direct actions from the city that meet their demands.
Stewart and Johnson have advocated for mediation to begin a conversation.
“I’m wary of calls from elders for mediation,” Hawk says. “In my opinion, we need resignations, not mediation.”
He would like elders’ criticisms to focus on the police, “who, by the way, are the reason we’re having these protests in the first place.”
As far as sitting down the with the police, Hawk says it would require a cut in the budget, for starters. Elders proffer a dose of patience.
“I think there’s going to be a new dawning,” Johnson says. “I appreciate all of the protests to dramatize these episodes and these young people who are very impatient, saying, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore.’
“But (in) the final analysis is two things: You’ve got to be able to sit down. Nobody will ever get everything they ask for. And when you’re negotiating, you decide what it is that is absolutely nonnegotiable and then you decide what it is I can give up in negotiations because the other side is going to want something as well.”
Warren last week named Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan as RPD’s interim chief, the first Black female to lead the department. She has expressed interest in sitting down with protestors, in addition to examining facts of the Prude case. In a Facebook post, Free the People Roc dismissed the move, saying, “Lovely Warren’s decision to appoint a new interim police chief and command staff doesn’t address the deep structural issues in policing. Nothing short of a complete transformation will address the problems we see every day.” The post then reiterates the group’s demands.
So, for the moment, there is no negotiation, which has been frustrating for some.
“Real systemic change and transformation of law enforcement and the criminal justice system has to come (from) sitting down at the table, engaging in dialogue and communications saying what you will accept and won’t accept and then doing the hard work of developing and making policy and saying this is what we want,” Stewart says. “But they have taken the simple route, meaning ‘we’re going to protest and we’re going to have sit-ins’ and what not, and none of that is working.”
UCLM, which has been asking for change for years, has a plan. At its core lies implementing antiracist policies. No more Band-Aid approaches, Stewart asserts.
“The police department needs to be able (to) administer as servants-protectors to the community, not as warriors, because the training now with the police, it hypes them up,” he says. “It hypes them up that they are somehow the warriors and they are the occupying force that is occupying a hostile country and we as Black and Brown people are the hostile antagonists to them. That attitude needs to change.”
Payne, who respects the wisdom of elders in the Black community and doesn’t believe there is true generational animosity, says activists need to play a bigger role in learning what the people want, since they interact with residents regularly. He says these individuals are more likely to get at the truth, since people respond to people “cut from a similar cloth.”
Hawk would like City Council to exercise its clout, while Hall hopes for disciplinary power at the Police Accountability Board. Most elders would like to make residence in the city mandatory for police officers, at least for a period. Stewart’s plan calls for a vetting by a panel of residents, before officers get the job, for a cultural fit.
“There is no one silver bullet that gets us there, but what we know (is) that in strong, viable communities the public servants are part of those communities, from teachers to firemen to police,” Underwood says.
Optimism in dark moments
The road ahead is arduous and not for the faint of heart. The situation in Rochester will feel unsettled for some time, Gruber predicts.
“The community is grieving because we were blindsided by this tragic case that no one had known about for months,” he says.
And yet, positivity shines brightly in the young and the old. Underwood deeply believes things will get better while Hall knows change is going to come. With tangible trust, Johnson says, things could move forward.
As he documents this time, Hawk observes two extremes on the streets—anguish and pain mixed with generosity and selflessness. People from different walks of life have forged relationships under fire, shielding each other from tear gas and pepper balls while also sharing food, singing and dancing.
For a city known for Susan B. Anthony’s and Douglass’ crusades, it is a new reckoning. One that elders and activists say has been coming for a long time.
“We live in a new era standing on the shoulders of giants where we can say we want liberation for all of our movements,” Hawk says. “We can stand next to one another holding each other accountable while moving toward the same goal, which is freedom from oppression of all people—prejudice against Jewish people, prejudice against Muslims, prejudice against East Asians, all of that comes under the same umbrella. I think it’s a really powerful, beautiful thing to see.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.