Ages in wide range were represented by organizers who spoke this month at the Juneteenth rally for racial justice at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Ithaca Commons.
The rally, one of many such across the country, in Ithaca was called “De-Criminalize, De-Militarize, De-Carcerate. “ It called for reform of police and prison systems, with historical and continuing instances in the U.S. of bias and violence against people of color.
Phoebe Brown is 65. She has worked as a community activist in Ithaca most of her life. At the rally she described personally, as a woman of color, a lifetime of daily worry and concern for the safety of her family, perpetually facing systemic racial persecution.
“I want to thank my ancestors for preparing us for this day,” Ms. Brown said, speaking of racism’s long and brutal legacy. Meanwhile, she said, “I am so happy with the young people today” for their widespread and growing activism.
Savannah Gonzalez is a teenager, a student at the New Roots Charter School. She spoke of a young lifetime of political involvement, describing recent actions as part of the history of struggle and insurrection Brown cited, and not “a trend. Black lives are not a trend.”
Taili Mugambee is 46. “The same age as George Floyd,” he noted from the stage.
George Floyd was killed last month in Minneapolis when a grocery store called police with an allegation of a black man in possession of a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Mr. Floyd, a black man, had been in the store.
Police apprehended Floyd on the street. They handcuffed him face down on the ground. A white officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes, stopping his breathing and killing him. Three other officers stood by watching and preventing intervention from onlookers.
Mr. Mugambee spoke of a police killing three weeks later in Atlanta of Rayshard Brooks, a black man who had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy’s restaurant. Engaged by police and fearful of his safety, he attempted to flee. He died when an officer shot him in the back.
“A twenty dollar bill. A Wendy’s,” Mugambee said. “Send somebody else other than someone with a gun.”
Mugambee spoke of a society where a person of color is regarded “as a criminal before a human being,” and police use violence without reason, sanction, or control.
Mugambee served in the Marine Corps. “We had rules of engagement,” he said, referring to strict, codified limits on how and when force may be used, and raising the issue of the lack of such training, or even awareness, among domestic police forces.
Meanwhile, Mugambee said, with the cover of “the war on drugs,” which he described as “a set-up,” police forces are increasingly militaristic in capacity, and the judicial system increasingly inured to their violations, and inimical to the freedoms and protection of people of color as a vulnerable, even targeted, population.
Relatedly, with what the government has called another war, this time on terrorism, military-style forces were brought to larger American cities, as ostensible likely targets. In recent years, the federal government has funded such units even in small cities, including Ithaca.
The Ithaca Police Department has a SWAT team. The acronym stands for “Special Weapons And Tactics.”
Generally these units are equipped with specialized weapons such as submachine guns, assault rifles, riot guns, stun grenades, and tear gas. They employ armored vehicles, heavy body armor, and ballistic shields.
Needful call for such weapons and tactics in Ithaca is unclear. The potential for tragic misuse of such force, meanwhile, is quite clear; so is its basic malignancy. Its maintenance is no doubt expensive, and adverse to real social needs
Without any real need for them, SWAT units are presumably sometimes used inappropriately, whether from misjudgment, actual malice, or simply to justify their existence.
The latest media report I have found of a SWAT operation in Ithaca is from October 2019. It took place at West Village Apartments. The apartments are home to a sizable proportion of Ithaca’s community of color.
The incident was described as “a reported fight possibly involving a knife.”
A man “surrendered and was taken into custody without instance.”
The report says the man apprehended by the militarized SWAT team was 46 years old.
The same as Taili Mugambee; the same as George Floyd.