The Divide: In Albany, racial, social and environmental injustice collide in the South End

The Divide: In Albany, racial, social and environmental injustice collide in the South End

“Divide” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “ . . . a boundary between two things. . . . ”  This column will discuss people and politics and the issues that affect our Capital District community, the State, and the country.  Especially the issues where governmental action (or inaction) either helps to fill in the gap in The Divide, or widens The Divide.

The 2016 presidential election season has unwittingly brought out into the open that The Divide of racism and the socioeconomic gap between different races, sexes and religions is alive and well in the USA. I’m not just talking about the overt racism we saw during the television coverage of the Trump campaign, but institutional racism and implicit biases which simmer below the surface. The biases and fears that we may not even know we have inside of us.

This racial Divide that was exposed over the recent national campaign brought back a sour memory from 2014 that happened right here in Albany. It concerns the plight of the residents of Albany’s South End, specifically our neighbors who live in the Ezra Prentice Homes on South Pearl Street. Ezra is the public housing authority complex where hundreds of mostly low income and people of color live.  Ezra is located in the southern end of the city of Albany, adjacent to the Port of Albany, alongside the rail tracks that carry the crude oil trains, and almost totally encircled by I-787 and Route 32 which are traversed by over a thousand diesel engine trucks every day of the week.

While I will write more about the DEC designated “Environmental Justice” community that Ezra is a part of and the fight the residents are waging to breathe clean air, I want to concentrate on the institutional racism that reared its ugly head in February 2014.

On a chilly, but seasonable February evening in Albany’s South End in 2014, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation participated in a community meeting on the crude oil trains, commonly referred to as “bomb” trains, at Giffen Memorial Elementary School.  The meeting was convened by the recently elected Common Council members that represent the Ezra community: First Ward Council Member Dr. Dorcey Applyrs and Second Ward Council Member Vivian Kornegay. These two African-American women came into office on Jan. 1, 2014 and were immediately thrown into the crude-oil-by-rail controversy in Albany.

When I arrived at the school, there were armed DEC rangers wearing bulletproof vests stationed at the entrance to the building, in the auditorium, and at every exit in the auditorium. I, as were many other attendees, was outraged that the DEC felt that armed police were necessary to conduct a public meeting in Albany’s South End! Why did the top brass of the DEC feel that they needed a dozen or so armed police at a community meeting in a public elementary school in one of Albany’s majority-minority neighborhoods? Was it just the fact that the meeting was being held in a community of color?  Was it that the DEC, where just about, if not all of the administrators are white were afraid of dark-skinned people?  Was it just the simple fact that the institutional racism which is still prevalent in our country to this day, was on full display at Giffen?  Was it that DEC employees were showing their ignorance of our South End community and let implicit biases of fear of black people “color” their views of what to expect when attending a meeting in a community of color?  I asked one of our Albany Police Department beat officers who was at the meeting why the military force was on display, and all he did was shrug his shoulders and look as bewildered as the rest of us.

I was never as enraged at a public meeting as I was that night to see the community I live in, the community I represented on the Albany Common Council for twelve years treated like we were all criminals!

After the meeting, I immediately wrote a letter to Gov. Cuomo and then DEC Commissioner Martens complaining about the military-style police in our neighborhood elementary school.  While the Governor never replied, I did receive a note from the Commissioner stating that the deployment of armed guards was common procedure for public meetings. I almost fell off my chair when I read this response from the DEC! The deployment of armed guards is a ‘normal’ procedure of the DEC when conducting a public meeting?  You have got to be kidding me! I have attended many public meetings involving the DEC and I NEVER saw armed police at any of these other meetings. The DEC’s action that February night in Albany’s South End was not only a clear demonstration of the DEC’s ignorance of how to work with a community of color, but absolute proof that institutional racism is alive and well in America.

This singular incident underlined the fact that The Divide of racism and socioeconomic disparities in our City, State and Country still exists fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were made the law of the land. As the plight of the residents of Ezra Prentice, who live in an ‘Environmental INjustice’ area has shown, our country has a long way to go to correct the injustices suffered by people of low income and/or with the ‘wrong’ skin color and/or are the ‘wrong’ sex or sexual orientation, and/or are members of the ‘wrong’ religion.  

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