Activists Commemorate Black August, Say Police Reforms Not Enough

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Activists gathered in several New York cities on Saturday as part of a statewide event to mark Black August, the commemoration of the 1979 deaths of Black Panther George Jackson and his brother in California’s San Quentin Prison.

The event was also a chance for some activists to speak out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s police reform plan. Organizers said the executive order, signed last year, did not go far enough in curbing discriminatory policing against Black New Yorkers.

Last year, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said he would abolish the city’s police force. But instead of disbanding the force, the city instead opted for a series of ongoing reforms.

With the exception of a food distribution table near Dewitt Park, the Ithaca rally was shifted online due to concerns over increasing COVID-19 rates in the county. Lushima Lumumba-Kasongo was one of about fifteen people who attended the event in person.

Activists hand out food as part of a hybrid rally near Ithaca’s Dewitt Park. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

“We have to let go of this idea that this armed force, that has this SWAT vehicle that has just been repainted and now they’re less dangerous to folks,” Lumumba-Kasongo said.

Lumumba-Kasongo is referring to the city police reform bill that passed in Ithaca earlier this year. Among other changes, it includes a proposal to replace the police department with an armed public safety department.

Activist Sonja Taylor said while she still favors police abolition, there has been some good to come out of reforms so far.

“The cops that are there now really do want to see change in a community,” Taylor said. “You know, some officers have left, and maybe it was for the best.”

Lumumba-Kasongo said that he attributes a lot of the progress to changes in Ithaca’s broader community rather than in the police department.

“Things haven’t inherently changed within the system,” Lumumba-Kasongo said. “But it’s that the community has taken note. We have events like this, where people are standing together with each other. It doesn’t take the cops for us to come together. It doesn’t take the feel of danger.”

Reported crime rates are down in Ithaca so far this year, according to analysis of Ithaca Police Department data first compiled by the Ithaca Voice.

Organizers said they planned eight simultaneous Black August events on Saturday night. The events took place in different cities across New York State, including Ithaca, Binghamton and Oneonta.