October 21, 2021

The dreams live on

Cortland’s Black Lives Matter activists continue their work to benefit people of color

Colin Spencer/file photo

Cortland’s Black Lives Matter leads hundreds of people June 6 on a march in Homer. Following demonstrations through the spring and summer, the group remains at work, speaking on police reforms and working to become a community resource.

The marchers no longer fill the streets. Their voices don’t echo across the parks and downtowns. The crowds no longer mingle.

But their dreams remain, as do their demands. And the work of Cortland’s Black Lives Matter activists continues.

And will continue.

Through the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter led protests and marches against racism, police brutality and other injustices following the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, killed when an officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

The group didn’t go away. Members have been working with local officials to see changes to prevent injustices against people of color as well as growing the group to be a resource for the community.

Things might be more quiet now, but the group is still involved in improving the lives of Cortland’s Black and people of color communities.

“We’re in this for the long game,” co-leader Kristina Furi said.

SINCE SUMMER

Black Lives Matter has been working with groups and residents throughout the Cortland area since the protests of last summer, said Melissa Kiser, a coordinator with the group.

In September, the group took part in the Cortland Community Matters Fair at Suggett Park, where people could play a variety of games and talk with city officials.

“BLM was just there to make sure they felt supported,” Kiser said. It took a lot of work, but 400 people showed up. “It was definitely one of the highlights of what we’re trying to do.”

In December, the group posted educational pieces on Kwanza on its Facebook page and has worked with schools to provide resources for materials on being anti-racist.

The work of the summer and the anxiety of the presidential election took a lot of energy from the group, Kiser said. Members are now focusing on their families and themselves.

“Things have been really quiet,” Kiser said.

REFORMS

Following Floyd’s deaths in May and the protests against police brutality and racism, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed executive order 203, requiring that all law enforcement agencies review their policies and come up with a plan for changes by April or potentially lose state funding.

In Cortland County, the Cortland Police Department and Cortland County Sheriff’s Office have had public forums and private meetings to gather information on what people would like to see changed.

Household surveys have also gone out around the city and county, and Cortland County plans a public forum in February to discuss reforms.


Communities plan forums on reform plan
The Cortland County Legislature plans a special meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 11 to hear comment on the county’s draft plan to reform police procedures.

The meeting will be available at:
• Tinyurl.com/2qdtglpg, meeting No. 179 355 1928, password MJkAnbyj585c0035a2ab561418eab60971a1b43be02.
• Video system: Dial 1793551928@cortlandny.webex.com. You can also dial 173.243.2.68 and enter your meeting number.
• By phone: 415-655-0001, access code 179 355 1928.

The panel will also take comments until March 15 at shempstead@cortlandco.org, or by mail to the Legislature Clerk’s Office at 60 Central Ave., Room 306, Cortland, N.Y. 13045.

The Homer Police Department plans a virtual public form 6 p.m. Feb. 15 to discuss the department’s budget, personnel, equipment, deployment, strategies, policies and procedures.

It also sent out survey Friday, which can be found on the village website, for village residents to comment on potential police reforms. They can be returned by March 1.


Furi is a member of the Executive Order 203 Task force of police agencies, city council members and county legislators, religious leaders and other organizations members, she said.

The group reviews and researches policing policies, she said, but there’s more.

“Our work is really around the ability to increase accountability between police departments and who they protect, along with providing some clarity in policy and work to improve relationships,” Furi said.

The task force has been meeting almost every other week since August, sometimes for two hours, sometimes the entire day.

Kiser said she would like to see some of the following changes regarding law enforcement:

Cut down on the over-validation of police officers for small things they do simply because of their occupation.

Change the manner in which police interact with people of color, which Kiser said can make people of color feel like they’re not being taken seriously over matters/

The use of body cameras on all officers.

Expand community policing beyond Cortland’s downtown.

POLICE: ‘ALWAYS OPEN’

The Cortland County Sheriff’s Office has been meeting with community groups to hear what people want, Sheriff Mark Helms said. It’s something he did before executive order 203, but the order put a spotlight on the effort.

Time constraints have kept him away from the executive order task force recently, but he still meets, and the county plans a public forum as part of the order.

Helms is looking to improve transparency and accountability.

“We’re open to anything,” said Helms, who has long been a supporter of having body cameras on officers and improving training — including expanding training on implicit bias and de-escalation.

Both of those efforts, however, require time and money, and Helms said he needs more of both.

Body cameras cost more than $1,000 per year per camera, states a 2018 Executive Research Forum report. That’s an issue, said Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman.

Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano said areas for reform will be discussed when the report based on the city wide survey is completed.

“When the mayor produces the recommendations, we’ll be there,” Catalano said.

But some things, Helms, don’t cost as much, such as staying in touch with residents.

“I think a lot of it is just keeping the doors of communication open,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be an incident” when people speak with the office.

A COMMUNITY RESOURCE

In the coming month, Black History Month, Cortland’s Black Lives Matter organizers will focus on historic people of color and their contributions, Kiser said. That will include live readings on Friday nights by Black authors through Facebook Live videos.

Come June, the group plans celebrations for Juneteenth — which celebrates the emancipation of slaves on June 19, 1865.

Kiser and Furi want to see BLM grow into a local resource, primarily for people of color, but for everyone as well. Kiser said she hopes it can be used as a way to connect people of color to resources they may need, including food and clothing.

“Our biggest goal is to make sure our community members feel supported and safe in our community,” Furi said. “Whatever we can do to support that is something we want to focus on and make sure it happens.”