Opinion: Sheehan’s apology can’t undo the harm she caused

“Apology not accepted!” retorts Lexis Figuereo, prompted by a reporter inquiring about Figuereo’s response to the “apology” Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s issued just a few hours earlier. A who’s-who in Albany group of activists are gathered in Townsend Park on this gloomy Saturday to lead a march that will cross the now faded and barely legible white “Black Lives Matter” slogan written across Lark Street, past the Capital to the South End, where they’ll establish a makeshift camp featuring a pink toddler’s tent and a fire right out front of South Station. This is the station where Sheehan claims a riot occurred on April 14. Where protesters say police aggression escalated into a brief melee where protesters were pepper sprayed, shoved and beaten by police. 

Sheehan’s Saturday missive contains something resembling an apology for having earlier compared the fifty or so Black Lives Matter protesters who rallied outside Albany’s South Station last Monday to the hordes of white supremacists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, leading to the deaths of multiple police officers.

Note that the more recent statement starts not by acknowledging a mistake but by laying out that she had heard from angry constituents who objected to her comparison.

Albany residents have reached out to me regarding my comments at Friday’s press conference comparing the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 to Wednesday’s attack on South Station. My comments referred to the physical actions of the use of violence to attempt to gain unlawful entry into a government building. To be clear, the January 6 insurrection was fueled by white supremacy and was an assault on our democracy. In no way did I intend to compare the insurrection to the BLM movement or protests. I am sorry.

Why would Figuereo accept the apology? It doesn’t appear the mayor was directing it to him or to his sister, who was injured by an officer. 

It does not appear to be an apology to the protesters she maligned, as they aren’t actually addressed, and because she continues to characterize their protest as “an attack on South Station.” 

This spin that there was an “attack” on south station, which Sheehan and police chief Eric Hawkins have pushed with a series of video clips, has been challenged very directly by The Times Union, Albany Proper and other outlets that have exposed video not shared by the police or Sheehan. That video shows Lt. Devin Anderson exit South Station and try to physically take a light out of the hands of a protester.

That action escalates tensions and leads the protesters to bang on the station door in anger. Another piece of video not shown by Sheehan and APD is that of Anderson pushing a megaphone into the mouth of 25-year-old protester Merissa Hickenbottom, who sustained injuries. Other footage shows officers then shoving protesters over one another into piles, while striking them. Activists also say, and footage confirms, that officers taunted protesters. Protesters also taunted officers. 

Sheehan and Hawkins praised officers for their restraint during the incident, and yet, looking at similar protests held around the region, it’s hard to identify what restraint they are referring too. A similar protest, including many of the same activists, took place in Troy on August 21 of last year. Protesters banged on the door and shouted slogans and antagonizing phrases. And while the Troy PD officers were clearly annoyed, they didn’t engage the crowd in such a physical and direct manner. Eventually, space was cordoned off, protesters pushed back and the crowd dispersed. 

Another reason Figuereo shouldn’t accept Sheeehan’s apology? It came far too late. Watching the comments sections of the live streams carrying Sheehan’s feed, it was clear the second anything close to a comparison between Capitol Insurrectionists and BLM protesters came out of the mayor’s mouth the damage was done.

“Arrest the savages!” exclaimed one poster. “They’re animals!” said another. Other posters said that foul language and “intimidation” is not peaceful protest. Sheehan gave further legitimization of this kind of thinking in right wing circles that BLM protesters are inherently violent criminals. 

Its the kind of comparison Fox News’ resident white supremacist Tucker Carlson is fond of making.  Sheehan has been a guest on his show in the past to “discuss” sanctuary cities. And here’s how he’s characterized BLM protesters: “So who’s doing this to our cities? Strictly speaking, you know the answer. It’s BLM and Antifa, crazed ideologues, grifters, criminals, antisocial thugs with no stake in society and nothing better to do than hurt people and destroy things.”

Activists rightly noted on Saturday that they have become prominent figures thanks to their work and as such are the target of white supremacists and others who want to do them harm. Sheehan’s characterization of them did them no favors. 

Another reason protesters should reject Sheehan’s apology? It came less than a day after she announced she would veto any ban on the use of tear gas passed by the city council. 

This was a decision it apparently took her almost a year to reach, as the ban is something progressive groups and voters have championed since the APD recklessly unleashed the gas on protesters during two nights of protest last May following the murder of George Floyd. Their actions sent tear gas creeping through apartments of the elderly, the young and the sick during a respiratory pandemic. 

Labeling Monday’s protest a “riot” and comparing it to the Capitol Insurrection gives Mayor Sheehan cover to insist tear gas is necessary right here in Albany, and it allows her to ignore the glaring and costly mistakes made by her officers. Sheehan has covered for the APD’s aggressive tactics that escalate protests, and apologized for its siege mentality for far too long. 

Sheehan’s spokespeople were parroting her fear mongering as of Friday evening, going to great lengths to paint protesters as a terrifying and violent mob. 

 

Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s next apology should come in the form of true police reform, reform that allows officers to be held accountable for reckless and injurious actions taken against the public. Reform that allows the public ready access to their personnel files. Reform that takes chemical weapons out of the hands of officers who can’t handle Black protesters expressing their outrage. 

If our police officers can’t handle peaceful protest without resorting to violence, how do they behave when the cameras are turned off? 

What does Sheehan’s and Hawkins’s spin tell us about how much we can trust their accounts of other possible police misdeeds? 

Sheehan’s behavior, like the APD’s, has only raised the temperature on an already boiling pot of water. Her leadership on this has been based on excuses, distractions and dishonesty, and appears to be based on the hope that the public and the media won’t push for answers, or real change. We shouldn’t be cowed by cheap spin and the veil of authority. Trust your own eyes.

One Reply to “Opinion: Sheehan’s apology can’t undo the harm she caused”

  1. I just returned to the area after a 20 year absence. As a boy in the 1990s Albany way a progressive city and not even Jennings would have gone on Fox in a craven effort at gaining wider name recognition.
    Albany was in the vanguard of civil unions when I was young. It did the same with CDPHP, which President Obama considered using as a template for national healthcare.
    Now let Albany be an example in community policing, urban renewal–not gentrification–and giving activists from organizations such as BLM a seat at the table given the toll taken on our community.
    Let the Mayor worry about lower Madison Ave for residents and business as opposed to visiting Tucker Carlson!

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