Throughout my life, I have been asked, “What is it like having your grandparents own a funeral home?” It is not something I’ve ever thought about, aside from a couple of times.
Growing up next door to Keenan Funeral Home, I have become desensitized to living around death. Families come in and out of the funeral home every day. I have never paid much attention to it. It is the norm for me.
There have only been a few instances when I became aware of my surroundings. I vaguely remember when five girls from Fairport High School died in a car crash, a story that made national headlines. I remember thinking that my grandparents’ business was actually important. Recently, the funeral home found its way into the spotlight, with the death of Rochester Police Department Officer Anthony Mazurkiewicz.
I first heard about Mazurkiewicz’s death through word of mouth. On July 21, Mazurkiewicz and his RPD partner Sino Seng were gathering intelligence for an ongoing murder investigation. Mazurkiewicz was shot twice in the upper body and later died from his wounds.
Little did I know it would mean police cars surrounding the entrance to my home. My mother told me that Mazurkiewicz’s funeral would be held at my grandparents’ business and that the police would be there to watch the area for 10 days until the day of calling hours.
I had many feelings. For starters, since I live next door, I would be surrounded by cops throughout the day. As the funeral date neared, police cars were parked out front, with at least two cars there at all times. Sometimes there were three, depending on the time of day.
For some reason this made me feel unsettled, as if my every move was being watched; when I took my dogs for a walk or went out to run errands, law enforcement was present.
I started to wonder, what if they didn’t like the way someone was driving or thought we were out too late? What would they do?
Throughout my life I have had conflicting views of the police. Growing up in a white household, we were told that they were here to protect us. As a child, I admired them.
As I got older, my views shifted; I’d had some negative encounters with the police. But what really caused my disdain for the police force is when I learned more about the brutality inflicted on Black people and other minorities.
It was during 2017 that I extensively researched the Black Lives Matter movement, seeking a better understanding of what the activists were fighting for. I learned about racial bias which has been a part of our police force since the early days of our country.
One story that stuck with me was that of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old girl who was killed by a SWAT team during a night raid in Detroit. Her story is just one of many cases of police brutality. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Saheed Vassell are among the many names of people who have lost their lives at the hands of police.
One morning, as the RPD prepared for Mazurkiewicz’s funeral, an SUV pulled up and a man emerged from it with a large gun strapped to his side. This would make almost anyone nervous. Immediately I thought we were in danger. It turned out he wanted to ask if the SWAT team could use our driveway to set up surveillance for the calling hours, since our house is next door with a perfect view of the funeral home.
I woke up on the morning of July 31, the day for calling hours, to find a giant van in my driveway. This was the SWAT team’s primary setup. Originally, my family said they would be setting up in our garage, but then the team opted to use their van instead. I wasn’t able to get a good look–the van’s windows were tinted.
Across the block, police cars and motorcycles were parked around the sidewalk and people were waving American and Blue Lives Matter flags.
Some might be eager to have the police surveilling their house, but I didn’t feel at ease. It did not help that the whole situation was vague. Were we in immediate danger or not? I was told that they were there as a precautionary measure. But I have never seen this level of security at any event in the area.
The calling hours caused a stir on social media, with people posting on Instagram that it was “disgusting,” that the funeral home was allowing white nationalists to wave a Blue Lives Matter flag outside. Facebook posts used the event as an opportunity to speak negatively about the Black Lives Matter movement. I never would have thought that the place I grew up would become the center of controversy.
Just like those on social media, I had plenty of thoughts myself.
It is no secret that the public perception of police has drastically shifted in recent years. People are speaking up about the injustices that police have perpetuated on Black and brown people in our country.
I wondered since my extended family played such a big role in this, would decorating the funeral home’s columns in blue ribbons and allowing white nationalists to wave flags to counter the BLM movement cause people to think I supported them as well?
While I have vocally supported BLM, there are times when I feel like I haven’t done enough for the movement. And here I was with the police using my driveway to survey the area and white nationalists gathered around the sidewalk.
I wanted to do something because I felt my silence meant compliance. I had to take a step back and come to terms with the act of violence that led to Mazurkiewicz’s death.
Violence against any person is hard to forgive. Whenever events like these happen I can’t help but wonder who the person was. Did they deserve to die such an awful death? How do their loved ones feel?
Amid all the noise, the question that seemed to be lost was, “Who was Mazurkiewicz?”
A man was shot and killed, and some people used it as an opportunity to make him a martyr for white nationalism. People are so caught up in his label as a police officer that it seems to have overshadowed him as a person. Do these people know that he liked to cook? Or that he was said to have a witty sense of humor that could make anyone laugh? What about how he supported his children with their many sports hobbies?
Would he support the white nationalist cause? What would he say if he was alive? What would he think about being used as a pawn in a culture war?
These are things we will never know.
Rylan Vanacore is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.
Rylan Vanacore deserves a lot of credit for writing this article. His sincerity shines through and I appreciate the courage it took to express his view on this local tragedy which unfortunately now becomes part of the continuing pattern of gun violence with two more killings in the city this weekend.
Many of the questions he posed should be a call for each of us, especially those of us who live in relative suburban comfort and safety, to spend some time to reflect on. And perhaps as a result, this will inspire some new thinking, dialogue, and possible action steps to assist the Mayor and other city/county leaders in curbing the evil of gun violence so pervasive in OUR city.
Rylan Vanacore raises some fundamental issues. Uppermost in my mind is stereotyping or making assumptions based on scant information. As I read the article, that’s the message I thought about.
Humans still haven’t evolved to the point where we look at a person as a sum of all their parts. Our primitive survival “fight or flight” instinct takes over our better selves. I’ve met many police officers, and I’m proud to call some of them friends and acquaintances. I’m also aware of a few “bad actors” and lazy or incompetent individuals. This behavior is probably true of just about any group. Society grants police certain powers necessary to protect society. It’s not a perfect system. But don’t just police based on what’s on the news or one or two interactions. Try to see them as people doing a very challenging and dangerous job.
These days the word “appropriation” is popular. Some people with a given ideology may take advantage of an event for another purpose to gain attention, notoriety, or commit criminal acts under the guise of the group protesting. That happened when citizens in Rochester marched peacefully on the Public Safety Building to show their support for Black Lives Matter but were infiltrated by anarchists who were using the protest as cover for nefarious purposes. Fortunately, some were identified, tried, and convicted for their crimes.
At the risk of generalizing, it is still unclear what the killer’s motive was and if he was affiliated with other potentially dangerous people who could take advantage of a large gathering of law enforcement personnel and their families to harm or kill more police. Police officers, if nothing else, are cautious and suspicious. From that perspective, it makes sense to have early and effective surveillance to identify any potential threat. That’s why they didn’t share what they were doing because in the world we live in today, it’s safer to keep your plans to yourself. Don’t take it personally. Is it possible they told your Grandparents what they were doing and asked them not to share the information with anyone?
Honestly, if it were my house, I’d offer the officers a cold drink, a cup of coffee, or even access to my powder room if they needed it. You’d be surprised just how grateful they might be and even open up to you. Many police officers aren’t often treated like neighbors or human beings, mothers, fathers, cousins, moms, or dads. Their jobs require them to put shields up as a matter of survival. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When appropriate, extend your hand in friendship, say a kind word or just a thank you to any member of law enforcement, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. We will never have a better relationship between the community and the police if we don’t start to tear down barriers.