On August 31, Mayor Judy Kennedy hit a sour note as she stumbled through a prepared statement that at times reminded me of the statements of former Alabama Governor George Wallace and former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox as they made their last stands in defense of Jim Crow segregation. The City of Newburgh is a majority Black and Latino, sleepy, Hudson River town that has reeled for generations under the weight of racial and ethnic oppression, political neglect, and police violence against the majority community. The tone set by Mayor Kennedy was a disappointing one.
Mayor Kennedy mentioned individuals being strung out on drugs; she did not mention any efforts at intervention to provide for a healthy citizenry. She mentioned violence and criminal activity; she did not mention any efforts at intervention to provide for a productive citizenry. She clumsily read from her paper the codewords that I am so accustomed to as a Daughter of the South.
Mayor Kennedy asked the NAACP for support in conflict resolution and asked the Churches for mentorship; she did not ask her own police chief to stop the intimidation against the community of color that I have personally witnessed and violence attested to by the more-than 21 lawsuits that have been filed against a police force of only 71 officers including the Chief.
I first visited Newburgh, NY in 2007 when Lillie Howard, whose grandson had been murdered by Newburgh police, was running for Mayor. In Newburgh, I saw street after street of abandoned buildings, storefront churches, and dilapidated housing. That is, until I ventured to the “other side of town” where the Whites live in neighborhoods of neatly manicured lawns and barking dogs. I’ve seen this scene too many times in my home state of Georgia. I know what this is. And when Mayor Kennedy announces, as she did yesterday, that she “stands on the side of our police force,” at a time when the police just killed a young man, Michael Lembhard, by shooting him 15 times, 8 times in the back, I know what that is, too.
Madam Mayor, your press conference speech was a low point for reconciliation in Newburgh. You are attempting to blame the victims and get away with it. I attended the rally, as did you; I spoke at the rally. Instead of feeling the pain of the families of loved ones like Antonio Bryant, Nathaniel Cobbs, and Michael Lembhard whose lives were snuffed out by Newburgh City police, you resorted to name calling. No one at the rally urged violence, but everyone at the rally exercised their First Amendment rights to complain about police brutality. You know that the “Rally for Unity” of families struggling through the terror of police violence did not spawn an “out-of-control mob” of “young hotheads.” I was present until the end of the rally. There was an official closing, young people stayed behind to clean up, and then the organizers left and joined me. You stated that any future gatherings would be “tightly controlled.” I should not have to remind you of the Constitution.
I believe that the people of Newburgh can reach a different reality of hope, confidence, optimism, and resiliency, dignity, and respect — with proper leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership was not on display at your August 31 press conference.