Omran Albarazanchi wishes he had been “more vocal” when he heard instances of “pure racism” during high school.
But, like many, he said nothing.
On June 6, Albarazanchi, a 2020 graduate and chemical engineering major stood up and said something.
“Black lives matter,” he chanted alongside thousands of other Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors in Niagara Square, including UB students and recent medical school graduates.
June 6 was the eighth of 14 consecutive days of protests against systemic racism and police brutality in Buffalo. Standing with thousands of others protesting peacefully, Albarazanchi said he felt his voice had meaning.
“I do think something good is coming out of this,” Albarazanchi said. “[Malcom X] once said ‘We aren’t outnumbered, we are out organized.’ If we are organized, we could change a lot of things in this country and it’s unfortunate that some of the leaders we have at the highest level have not stepped up.”
Residents from across the city and across generational divides have marched through downtown Buffalo for two weeks holding signs saying ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘punish police brutality,’ ‘defund the police’ and ‘end white silence.’ They’ve chanted “hands up don’t shoot,” “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace,” at demonstrations at Niagara Square, in front of the Erie County Holding Center, in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and up and down Elmwood ave.
Many said they felt compelled to protest after watching the 8-minute-46-second video of George Floyd dying in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Others said they are fed up with the police system in Buffalo, which has seen four men of color die at the hands of police since 2017. They say they are proud to be part of the change and feel lucky to have the extra time to protest because they are out of work, have reached the end of their semesters or have seen coveted internships get canceled amid the pandemic.
In addition to marching and chanting, protesters made 13 demands of the city to “increase accountability and reduce harm.” Those demands include creating an independent oversight body, firing officers with a history of brutality and cutting the BPD budget: which represents 30 percent of the city’s total spending.
On Tuesday, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown responded to demands by announcing a series of reforms, which fell short of what protesters wanted, but include:
- Eliminating the use of the Emergency Response Team at peaceful protests.
- Making police body camera footage more accessible to the public.
- Increasing de-escalation practices for officers
- Issuing an executive order to halt arrests of low-level nonviolent offenses.
- Reforming and restructuring fines and fee schedules so they do not disproportionately affect low-income residents
But, there will be no cuts to the police budget. Brown says he does not support defunding the police.
Last week, the Buffalo Common Council voted by a 6-3 margin to pass the city budget plan.
“We will shift policing in Buffalo, away from enforcement and to a restorative model that promotes stronger community bonds, civic engagement and an end to young black men, black people, being caught in a cycle of crime and incarceration,” Brown said at a Tuesday press conference.
Protesters insist that while they are protesting the death of George Floyd, they are primarily protesting police brutality issues that exist in Buffalo and pledge to continue assembling every day until more of their demands are met.
During the rallies, protesters evoked the names of the four men killed by police in Buffalo. Wardel “Meech” Davis died during an encounter with the BPD in 2017 and the officers involved refused to cooperate with the attorney general’s office’s investigation. Jose Hernandez-Rossy was fatally shot by BPD in 2017 and Rafael Rivera and Marcus Neal were fatally shot by the BPD in 2018.
On Wednesday, protesters met to demand “justice” for Deyanna Davis: a woman who drove her SUV into officers on Bailey Avenue during a protest on June 1, injuring three. Her mother said Davis –– a mother of four young children –– ran over the officers accidentally because her vision was blocked by tear gas. Police shot Davis multiple times and have charged her with multiple felony assault charges, one count of criminal possession of a weapon and one count of criminal possession of stolen property. She was placed in the Erie County Holding Center hours after her surgery, her family said.
Protesters are advocating for Davis’ release as she awaits trial so that she can heal from her wounds with her family. They say Davis is in danger and that her civil rights are being “violated.”
“When it is time, if the District Attorney decides that he would like to pursue charges and take it to court, then she can have her day in court, just like every other American citizen,” Myles Carter, a local activist, said in a speech on Wednesday. “... We still have an opportunity to save a Black life. There was not a cop there that was willing to tackle George Floyds’ arresting officers. … But we have an entire community [in Buffalo] to take the knee of the criminal justice system off of this Black woman in Buffalo.”
Speakers on Wednesday also spent time speaking about Quentin Suttles. On May 10, a white police officer was caught on video repeatedly punching Quentin Suttles in the face. Protestors demanded that the officers responsible be fired and called on Sheriff Timothy Howard to resign.
Thirty inmates have died in Erie County jails, most of them in the downtown Holding Center, under the management of Howard. Unlike other large cities, the BPD does not have an outside agency that investigates police shootings. Instead, it has an Internal Affairs unit, made up of police officers, which has cleared police in 93 percent of cases.
BLM protesters, Black Love Resists in the Rust, Standing Up for Racial Justice and other activists are demanding better of Brown, who made a round of appearances on national news after a viral video showed 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino pushed to the ground by the officers Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe in the BPD’s Emergency Response Team. The video shows ERT members leaving Gugino bleeding on the ground. After Torgaliski and McCabe were suspended, all 57 members of the ERT resigned in “in disgust of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply following orders,” according to an email to members of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association from PBA President John Evans. McCabe and Torgalski were suspended from the BPD and plead not guilty to felony charges.
Albarazanchi believes the supervisor overseeing Torgalski and McCabe should receive a harsher punishment. He also believes the person who allowed a large number of tactical team members to break up peaceful protesters should also face repercussions. The supervisor has not faced any repercussions thus far.
“These people are trying to go after the little guys,” Albarazanchi said. “Why don’t you suspend the person who gave that order? Why don’t you suspend the person that gave the order for the tactical team to get out with 60 people against 20 [peaceful] protesters?”
Formed in 2016, the ERT is deployed to manage large demonstrations and riots. The ERT is trained in baton-holding positions, mass-arrest procedures and riot-control formations through a Federal Emergency Management Agency Field Force Operations course.
Albarazanchi said using the ERT to control peaceful protesters is a “waste of money” and believes the mayor should be held accountable for “being incompetent” and allowing it to happen.
There is an online petition on Change calling on Brown to resign. The petition currently has over 470 signatures.
Brown asked Interim Commissioner of the BPD, Byron Lockwood, to replace the use of the ERT at peaceful protests in the future with a new unit: the Public Protection Detail (PPD). Members of the PPD will receive “specialized training in constitutional rights, such as the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and will work with protestors to ensure their safety, their freedom of speech, and their freedom of assembly rights,” according to a statement from Brown.
Amari Fall, a legal studies and sociology major who graduated in May, also joined protesters on June 6 and said there weren’t many police officers at the protest and some officers were watching from the top of buildings. Fall also said police officers weren’t enforcing the 8 p.m. Buffalo curfew, which was still in effect that night. On June 2, Brown imposed a curfew on the city that was supposed to last until June 7 but was cancelled one day early.
“We were there until 8 p.m. and then after 8:05 p.m. we kind of dispersed and [from what we saw,] there were no police officers approaching the protesters,” Fall said.
Zachary Graham, a senior political science and philosophy major and a candidate for SA President, attended two of the Buffalo protests. Graham said he wishes Buffalo would divest from the BPD and look to develop alternative public safety institutions like Minneapolis, MN, whose lawmakers vowed to disband its police force.
“The Minneapolis City Council decided to disband the Minneapolis Police and I would like to hopefully see something similar to that in Buffalo,” Graham said.
Fall believes in defunding the police because it is “one step closer” to abolishing them and also believes something can be put in its place.
Fall was disturbed to learn in 2019 that Buffalo has “the worst jail system in New York” and grilled Howard on it when he visited Fall’s spring 2019 Criminal Justice Systems class.
“It was a little before then that I found out about police brutality in Buffalo [and the case] of India Cummings and all the other individuals and I asked him about that and his response was, ‘Not to listen to reporters and do my own investigation,’” Fall said. “It’s funny because the worst jail’s [information] came from a DOJ report. So the Department of Justice is saying Erie County has the worst jail system.”
Cummings, 27, had a history of mental health issues when she was arrested by the BPD in 2016. She spent 17 days in the ECHC before succumbing to kidney failure, neglect and complications from a broken arm. The New York State Commission of Corrections’ medical review board called her treatment at the Holding Center "so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."
According to a 2018 Commision of Correction report, ECHCF was one of out five “worst offenders.” The report stated the facility experienced “managerial shortcomings” which have contributed to multiple “serious incidents” within the facility. In April 2012 they were short on staff and had to hire 72 correctional officers. In 2010 and 2015, two inmates escaped from police custody. In 2016 an inmate assaulted inmate Carl Miller even though he had asked to be placed in protective custody. Additionally, an inmate committed suicide in 2012 due to nursing staff errors. From January 2016 to December 2017, there have been 423 inmate-hospital admissions, two cases of sexual violence from personnel, 97 cases of inmate-on-inmate assualt and 51 cases of inmate-introduced contraband.
Carter was arrested on June 1 after peacefully protesting and spent a night at ECHCF.
“It is a disgusting cesspool,” Carter said. “If you get a paper cut in there and walk on the floor, you are 99 percent sure to get an infection. ... There is poop smeared on the walls. When you walk through the door, you smell urine immediately.”
Since the entire ERT resigned, there has been little police presence at protests and gatherings have remained peaceful. Graham said he thinks the peaceful protests since the resignation of the ERT implies that the protesters aren’t “the bullies.”
“Obviously I think the protests have done a lot of good, because [since the ERT resigned] there’s been almost zero violent interactions between protesters and police,” Graham said. “So I think that just goes to speak volumes that it's really not the protesters that are the bullies.”
Since the killing of George Floyd and the widespread media attention to the BLM movement, Fall feels too many people have remained silent and believes their silence makes them “complicit.”
“If you’re willing to be silent and not take a stance, you might as well just say that you’re not for Black lives.” Fall said. “It’s not even a controversial issue saying that Black people should not be killed, arrested [and] jailed disproportionately.”
Fall said they don’t understand how one can “ignore” the issue when it is being displayed “everywhere” on social media.
Albarazanchi wants people to try “stepping into others shoes” and practice empathy. He encourages people that oppose the BLM movement to do research.
“You’re not seeing it, you’re not putting yourself in other people’s shoes. You can have your own opinion but at the end of the day, just remember where you're coming [from]. As soon as you realize that, ‘Wow I’m just a small dot in this whole system,’ you really gotta step out and watch what other citizens’ experience, citizens of different economic classes and different [races].”
The news desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julian Roberts-Grmela is a senior news editor for The Spectrum and an English and philosophy major. His favorite book is “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and he hopes that one day his writing will be as good as hers.
Alexandra Moyen is the senior features editor of The Spectrum.