Urban Contrapuntal

Last Chance for Change, Kayla Johnson, Syracuse.com

Urban Contrapuntal

In music a contrapuntal is having two different melodies in one piece of music. What is happening in our cities is a kind of social contrapuntal where the actions of one group drown out the actions of another. Syracuse, NY will serve as an example, but it is not the only city with groups that are experiencing cacophony, rather than harmony. 

After the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, many cities saw demonstrations and many of these demonstrations had both peaceful elements and violent elements, usually not involving the same people. In Syracuse many groups combined to protest racism in policing and to ask for police reform. They vowed to march for 40 days, and they achieved that impressive goal. They achieved that goal despite some bad actors who shattered windows at police headquarters, the courthouse, and downtown businesses. Peaceful protestors showed up the next day to help with clean up. 

Protestors, led by a group named Last Chance for Change requested things like demilitarization of the police, a way for citizens to understand what the police unions were saying and doing, a view through the blue wall. They asked that social services be called in for cases involving mental health problems, that a Citizen’s Review Board have a bigger role in affecting policing in the community. On Juneteenth, 2020, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh announced that there would be reforms and a document was drafted and sent to the State of New York for approval. 

At the same time protestors statewide won a battle with the Justice Department for bail reform. The Brennan Center says, “The purpose of the original bail reform law was to reduce the number of people jailed while awaiting trial simply because they could not afford to pay bail.” This would, they say, and I paraphrase, reduce the jail population by at least 40% percent by eliminating cash bail for as much as 90% of arrests. “In a system where everyone is supposed to be presumed innocent, cash bail can be extremely harmful to people who have not been proven guilty. In addition to the trauma of being imprisoned, even a few days in jail can cause people to lose their jobs, housing, or custody of their children.”

But that contrapuntal theme line is always there in our cities. By 2021 homicides in Syracuse, NY looked to be on track or slightly ahead of other years, judges were turning people back into the streets who were repeat offenders because they claimed the guidance on bail reform was unclear, and the police were losing employees and claiming that they could not follow the new reform guidelines and apply law and order in ways that most citizens required. There were murders of two elderly white women living in housing in Syracuse by young people. Several victims of homicide were shockingly young. 

Here is the current list from Syracuse.com: 

Toddrick Rice, 21, January 5, 2021

Eva Fuld, 84, January 25, 2021

Darwyn Quinones, 21, February 13, 2021

Concetta “Connie” Tuori, 93, March 17, 2012

Dior Harris, 11 months old, April 11, 2021

Quentin Harrison Jr., 26, April 28, 2021

Kathleen Montreal, 51, May 8, 2021

Radames Francesco, 15, May 21, 2021

Najee Wright, 13, May 24, 2021

Bobby Ford Jr., 31, June 8, 2021

Darren Rosa, 23, June 8, 2021

N’y Kim, 15, June 23, 2021

Rashein Fortune, 42, June 26, 2021

Tyce Smith, 35 July 26, 2021

Kelvin Sharp, 42, August 2, 2021

On July 4, 2021, five people were shot in two different incidents, two with non-life-threatening wounds, 2 teens shot in the back, a 20-year-old shot in the head.

August 3, 2021, in localsyr.com, there is a report that says, “At the corner of Turtle and N. Salina St. late night block parties have become a problem. Early Sunday morning Syracuse Police ended up in that area after a man opened fire into a crowd of more than 200 people. A local resident heard gunshots. He said that every 3 to 4 weeks he hears gunshots at these parties. He is worried that someone will be killed. 

Police Chief Kenton Buckner said, “one of the challenges we have is that we have very limited latitude when engaging individuals on the scene, and, in most cases, they only qualify for an appearance ticket, that makes it very difficult for us to move those crowds along.” Two stripper clubs are nearby but they claim the parties are unrelated. They will do what they can to help police, but these people are not their customers.

So, we have 15 murders and plenty of mayhem against the concerted actions of 14 activist groups whose earnest efforts have led to reforms of the Justice system in NYS, and to reforms of policing in Syracuse, NY. But, as you might imagine, pushback is powerful. Traditionalist and conservatives (at the top, Syracuse is a very conservative city) never wanted either bail reform or police reform. 

Protestors used the popular meme about ‘defunding the police’ but they did not ever intend to get rid of the Syracuse police force. Police have created programs in the city during the summer to help steer children in positive directions and offer them more positive relationships with local police. They have helped some youth get paying summer jobs working for community groups. But it is a difficult slog when violence and civil disobedience dominate the local news. 

The original Bail Reform laws lasted 3 months before they were amended allowing judges to impose cash bail for more situations, and these are not necessarily bad changes as the original law was perhaps lacking in guidance for the courts. Judges also have more discretion in setting bail and other conditions of pretrial release, the Brennan Center tells us.

Police continue to chaff at both the bail reform laws and the police reform laws. In Syracuse the plan is entitled “Syracuse Police Reform and Reinvention Plan.” The plan is not a total victory for activists. The department did buy body cameras, did not agree to include social service workers in obvious mental health interventions but did agree to train more officers in mental health responses. Police have not yet decided to take police out of schools, although this was a request, but it is still being considered. They agreed to form a Cadet program with a Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler HS, with the highest rate of poverty, to target those most overlooked by traditional recruitment. At graduation they would be given interesting employment until they passed the Civil Service police exam. They would try to have better cooperation with the Citizen Review Board. All very police-y solutions, not as community oriented as one might wish, and the blue wall will remain intact. 

Sadly, drugs, gangs, turf disputes, family disputes still serve to counteract the efforts of others in the community to reform policing, to make policing less discriminatory in the African American community. The coldness, the hardheartedness of the attacks on the two seniors who were brutally murdered suggest an escalation in the disconnect between social groups, and the role of trauma in allowing a disconnect with the value of a human life. The death of an 11-month-old baby in a drive-by shooting is especially grievous and yet it was, in a way, an accidental death. No babies should be killed in accidental deaths involving guns. We can’t address this either, because traditionalists and conservatives believe that absolutely everyone has a constitutional right to own a gun. 

It seems that conservatives will have their way with policing and bail reform, using their reactionary attitudes to undo the work of activists and keep racism alive until activists demonstrate again. We do need the police to go after those who exhibit antisocial behavior, but the police unions and the blue wall will not allow police officers to get too creative about how they will help the community wipe out the practices that cause the antisocial behavior. We don’t want policing to be as dangerous as it is, but the problems require long-term solutions and the public wants results right away.

“Syracuse is going to get the change,” said Kayla Johnson of the Last Chance for Change group. “This is the time.”

It seems the hopes of Kayla and other groups of activists in Syracuse could be dashed and they will find that the reforms they fought for will dwindle away in the face of the contrapuntal scripts we find in most American cities. Syracuse is a small city, but a great way to examine what is happening throughout America. This does not imply that that the only crime in America is in cities; it’s just harder to find when it is happening in less populated places, or when people live in big houses with air conditioning.

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