Featured photo by Robert Cooper.
Lukee Forbes cranes his neck. His eyes squint with concern as he peers through the imposing black metal gates that surround Bleecker Stadium and Swineburne Park in Albany’s West Hill neighborhood.
“What is this?” he asks. A group of six adolescent girls hurry along the sidewalk, chattering, as an Albany Sheriff’s Deputy and an Albany Police Officer follow behind them closely; the sound of their radios crackle.
“I’ve got to check this out,” Forbes apologizes. Forbes faces a charge of obstruction for another incident where he videotaped police pulling over a motorist and massive media attention focused on him for his role in Black Lives Matter protests; most men in his position wouldn’t risk inserting themselves into a situation involving police.
Forbes clearly isn’t most men. He breaks into a brisk jog up the grassy hill that now separates him from the girls–and the cops.
Forbes has spent the last half hour, on his lunch break, talking with a reporter about his life after leaving prison: his volunteer work, his time studying with Albany Can Code, his new-found fame as one of the most prominent faces of the local Black Lives Matter movement. And just as the interview wraps up, this scene catches his eye.
A Day In the Life
In the past few weeks Forbes has led protests in Albany and farther flung areas like Glens Falls and Kinderhook. He’s had guns pulled on him. He’s been shouted at by Blue Lives Matter protesters, been berated by white supremacists and seen people in online forums discuss how lead might cure what ails him. He’s faced criticism from his fellow advocates as he’s led protests that to some seem like a distraction, or worse, a trap.
A recent Buzzfeed article breaking down the story behind a video pushed by conservative media of BLM protesters “invading” a Lansingburgh Church paints Lukee as a dupe–invited into the racist church that raffles away rifles only so the conservative group inside could capture that image and cast BLM as angry invaders who would dare defile a church.
Last week Forbes led a protest at Coccadotts, a cupcake and car-towing business in Colonie that gained attention for posting a picture of a cake made to look like a MAGA hat with a caption that seemed to invite trouble. It felt to some like another trap.
Forbes was not deterred by those who thought better of his planned mock trial in front of the business.
Hordes of white men and women sporting flag-draped clothing, thin blue line shirts, and some proudly displaying white-power tattoos showed up to counterprotest. They were welcomed by Coccadotts. The BLM protesters and the media were not.
Forbes held court in judges robes dramatically listing off offenses.
Forbes and his supporters accuse the cake shop for having ties to The Proud Boys, a group labeled as a “Hate Group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But those ties are unproven and many wonder why Forbes focuses on groups that have no power over the criminal justice system.
Why confront angry white people who have no respect for your lives when there are systems to be held accountable?
Forbes says he feels it’s his duty to call attention to what he insists is a fact that the The Proud Boys are in the community and that a business he claims is associated with them maintains towing contracts with local governments.
“If I’m not exposing it, who will?” asks Forbes before listing a number of grievances with the shop including low ratings on Google and Yelp and complaints that they are rude to those who have their cars towed.
He’s called for an investigation by the FBI into the Proud Boys and wants the City of Albany to reevaluate its contract with the business.
But again, those ties have not been proven, so why focus on a cake shop?
Why not focus his protests on city officials who are responsible for effecting change or the police departments themselves? Why confront people whose minds appear very made up, people who hate you, people who mean you bodily harm?
“If we protest outside the police departments we see what happens. They say we are rioting. They come out in riot gear with tear gas, and people get hurt. And they change the narrative and make it seem as if we’re the violent ones.”
Forbes notes that he asked to be on the City of Albany’s police reform panels and had his name put forward, only to be excluded. “They only want fluff. They want people who they already know, who are going to support the same old things. Those same old things don’t work and we’re the ones who told them.”
Forbes is inspired by the revolutionaries and change makers who aren’t revered by white people. Whose quotes can’t be trotted out to justify racism. He cites the work of Assatta Shakur, and Fred Hampton–revolutionaries who were not afraid to challenge the police, violate the law, and more.
Forbes catches up first to the officers, who appear to recognize him from TV, or perhaps from actual protests. They aren’t thrilled that he’s inserted himself into the situation.
Forbes was recently charged with obstruction for filming an arrest. He and his attorney, Matt Toporowski, have both questioned why, if Forbes’s behavior had been detrimental to their duties, the officers hadn’t arrested him then, instead showing up at his house later and telling him to go with them or face a warrant.
Now, the young women cut through a park, with the officers in slow, deliberate pursuit. Forbes abandons his dialogue with the officers and begins to to talk to the group. They aren’t having it. They aren’t going back to the place they’ve just escaped. “They keep us locked in there all day.”
Another teen, aged 15, worries that this reporter is taking pictures of her. She screams that she does not want her picture anywhere because she could lose her two daughters.
Forbes makes his case. “These guys are going to put you in a cop car and you don’t want that.” The scene draws attention from onlookers at Second Street and Ontario. The officers give Forbes space to talk to the girls, but they aren’t leaving. Backup is on the way.
“We don’t need cops, we need social workers,” Forbes said earlier bemoaning the state of the city. “The community has been asking for social workers for the longest time now to help with our mental health crisis. However, instead of requesting mental health specialists to join the officers, they request more tactical equipment. We can’t continue to beat up crime. We know that there is an ability to actually cure.”
As it turns out the girls have “gone AWOL” from The St. Anne Institute, a residential and non-residential treatment center for problematic children. Forbes is all too familiar with institutionalization.
At the age of 15 Forbes was involved in the beating of a 30-year-old gay man who was walking home after Pride. Forbes spent time in juvenile detention and prison.
His conservative detractors point to his arrest to paint him as violent, or somehow unworthy of his position as an activist. Forbes continually expresses his deep regret over the attack. He says through his work he is acting to prevent injustice in the way he didn’t act to prevent it when he was a teen.
Liberal media can’t help but harp on the arrest before getting to the work he’s done since. Work that includes working with the formerly incarcerated to help them return to society. Work that includes talking about his past in schools and taking part in programs that get children to think about what real heroism looks like.
“Another Day in Albany”
Forbes seems to channel all of this into his plea to the girls. “Let me help you. Let me take you back to St. Anne’s so these cops don’t. I’m fighting them. Let me help you.” He promises he’ll take their information and note their interests so he can, perhaps, as part of his position at the City’s Summer Youth Employment Program get them out for a time, or at least bring them books and music.
They finally cave. Forbes promises to drive them back in a van. The group retraces their steps back to Bleecker Stadium with one officer and this reporter trailing behind.
It’s during this trek that Forbes repeatedly notes the Deputy is wearing a Thin Blue Line face mask. He notes its connections to the confederacy out loud. The deputy eventually removes it.
There’s disappointment as the group reaches Bleecker Stadium. The two officers reconvene, watching as Forbes talks to his boss.
“How are you doing?” one of the officers is asked. “Another day in Albany,” he quips with a mixture of exasperation and disgust.
The van Forbes promised isn’t here. Undeterred, he secures masks for the group, some of whom aren’t wearing them, and then starts the short walk back to St. Anne’s.
But it’s hot out and the girls haven’t had anything to drink in a while. Forbes promises a stop at Stewart’s for ice cream.
The girl who was previously screaming about not wanting pictures taken apologizes. She’s happy now. Another girl talks about how boring it is at St. Anne’s. Another worries about the kind of punishment that awaits them when they get back.
They pile into the Stewart’s on Central Avenue and Manning Boulevard and head directly for the beverage cooler. I tell them I’ll cover their drinks. They gleefully put down their small bottles and get the larger size. Then they line up at the counter to order their ice cream.
The police car idles in the parking lot outside, the officers watching.
“Residents don’t feel they have enough support from police with rash of shootings,” reads the news chyron splayed across the TV screen mounted on the wall.
Facing the Harsh Reality
The girls have grown a bit more trusting, but they’re still curious. Why is Forbes doing this? He explains his focus was on deescalating the situation so that the police wouldn’t need to call backup and force them into the back of a squad car.
One of the girls holds up her bright red wrist; it stands in contrast to her pale skin. “This is from the handcuffs from last time,” she says. “It hurts.”
As they stroll Forbes points to the waist-high weeds that sprout from the sidewalks and asks, “Where’s DPW?” He points out dilapidated buildings and asks why the city isn’t doing more to check for code violations. “The people that own these buildings live out in Connecticut. So in the winter you come here and no one shovels the sidewalks. DPW doesn’t do it either, so people are forced to walk in the street.”
Passersby start greeting the odd parade from their vehicles. “Hey girl!” “You go AWOL?”
Staff members from St. Anne’s are now closing in. The shadow of the massive brick complex looms ahead. This Catholic institution, founded in the late 1800s, does not look like fun. The girls confirm it is not.
A quick review of the institution’s web page reveals Albany Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard as the head of board of trustees along with parentheses “on administrative leave.” Hubbard faces at least five lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse.
The girls begin to come to terms with their fate. They face a search for contraband, which stands out as their biggest fear. They also worry about what privileges they might lose, other punishments.
A staff member joins the parade, walking up front with Forbes, who explains why he’s involved. When the group reaches the entrance, the police cruiser arrives as well. The police approach the group of assembled staff as does Forbes. The girls argue about who will go first.
One of the most outspoken of the bunch is ordered to be the first searched while the rest of the group waits outside. She refuses. She appears to be stalling to avoid being searched by a specific staff member.
Forbes pleads with her. “If you work with me and go in, I can help you. I can take down your names and your interests and I’ll come back and maybe get you into a summer program, or I’ll contact the administration and bring you programming.”
A staff member says the girls can not give out their information. “OK, I will contact the administration. I can hold them accountable by being here. I’m here to help you, so take advantage of it. Just go inside,” Forbes stresses.
He appears desperate to connect, to give them hope, to ensure that they have a chance to transcend their current situation.
One of the officers advises Forbes to leave it alone, let the staff deal with it. And with that the police depart the scene.
Forbes does not relent. He pleads and explains, but to no avail. The most outspoken member of the group matches his stubbornness and then some.
Finally, it’s the staff that relents, allowing two girls who have been asking to go inside to take the lead.
The leader of the group still isn’t having it.
The man in charge of searching the teens disappears and a woman appears at the door. “See,” Forbes says, “There’s someone else now. He doesn’t have to search you.” The straggler pops up in delight and runs toward the building.
Forbes breathes deep and begins the walk back to Bleecker Stadium.
“Those cops told me there are shootings all over the city,” Forbes says. “They should be out there dealing with that. I had this handled. They didn’t want me here, but thank god I was. What are the odds? What if I hadn’t been there? Maybe we’d be watching a video of some girls getting their heads slammed into the side of a car.”
What did Forbes accomplish today?
Did he save six miserable young teenagers from spending time in a police car before being dropped off at an institution they loathe?
Did he deescalate a situation?
Yes, but to what extent we can’t know.
In the end, will the girls get anything out of it other than an ice cream cone, and a cool story on a hot Tuesday in August?
If Forbes has anything to do with it they will.
The harsh reality though is that it probably won’t be up to him.
What matters to Forbes is that he tried.