After delay due to weather, The New Paltz United Methodist Church presented a reading of The Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 30.
Pastor Limina Grace Harmon led the attendees into the reading. “I would invite us to hear the words of Dr. King in light of a conversation with what is currently happening” she said in reference to the Jan. 7 killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers. A variety of participants took turns reading the letter. Some readers spoke on Zoom, where the event was also being live streamed and projected upon a blank wall of the church.
A history teacher at New Paltz Central School District, Albert Cook, spoke briefly about the context of the letter. “Birmingham, Alabama, by that time, in 1963, was already known as ‘bombingham,” he said. Cook talked about the violence that not only extremists inflicted upon the city, but how law enforcement encouraged violence against anti-segregationists as well.
Switching between readers, including Harmon and Cook, the whole letter took about an hour to read. Harmon led the audience in a guided discussion on the letters’ relevancy to Nichols’ Murder and other killings by police in recent years. Participants stepped out from the pews to the microphones to talk about the difference between justice and legality, which is what King wrote about in his letter.
Harmon then spoke of racism in law enforcement. The five officers that beat Nichols’ to death were also Black, which has raised the question of whether or not the killing was racially motivated or not. “There’s that one part in the letter where [King] talks about ‘internalized oppression.’ He talks about what you take on,” said Harmon. “I glean that many of us are asking the question- this is Black officers. Is this still about race? I’ve actually had a couple of people just straight up ask me so I don’t assume that they’re the only two thinking it.”
Black Studies professor at SUNY New Paltz, Anthony Dandridge, spoke over Zoom about his insight on internalized racism. “You need to understand the brutal ways in which Black folk internalized this hatred and it will express itself. Not only hatred of your own Black body, but hatred of other Black bodies as well,” he said. “So I would say that at the end of the day, racism was an aspect of that traumatic and very real ongoing relationship between this police state and Black bodies as we persist in this nation, not only this nation but this planet.”
After about a 40 minute conversation, the small crowd started to leave the church. “If you can’t have a conversation, we can’t grow, we can’t learn, we can never be better,” Harmon said.
“Be gentle with each other, because everybody’s raw, and everybody’s trying to make sense out of the world. Some of us are maybe doing it more elegantly or eloquently than others, but we’re all just trying to make sense of the world around us.”
That following Wednesday, on Jan. 25, a special session of “Conversations with the Police” was held. The program is designed for law enforcement to connect with residents on any issue or concern in the community. Conversations are held every third Wednesday of each month with varying times and locations to bring as many people as possible into the conversations.
After news of police brutality breaks out, like Tyre Nichols’ case, more people tend to show up at the conversations. “We’re always looking at ways that we can connect, that is a priority for us. You want to build a relationship with your community, you want to build trust and legitimacy with your community and that’s not easy. It’s not going to happen overnight” Police Chief Rob Lucchesi says. “You can’t be complacent. I don’t think that’s the mentality you can take. I think you constantly have to be looking and evaluating and seeing how we can better serve our community.”
In July of 2020, The New Paltz Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative was introduced due to Gov. Cuomo’s order to “reinvent and modernize police strategies and programs with community input.” The collaborative released its final statement in August of 2020, which outlined new practices and policy like racial bias data, and banning old practices like chokeholds and carotid restraints.
“This police department is built on five things: the people we hire, the policies we have in place, the training to those policies, the supervision to the training and the policies, and then obviously discipline, and all five of those pillars need to be strong,” Lucchesi said.
He strongly encourages students to show up at the next Conversations With the Police, being held today, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. in the New Paltz Police department.