By Jack Besterman | September 12, 2021
Smoke, anger, and coarse words hung in the air Thursday evening as the UAlbany Young Democratic Socialists of America and other Albany area activist groups rallied in front of City Hall for proposed Local Law C of 2021, which would ban all use of “kinetic munitions", commonly referred to as rubber bullets and tear gas by the Albany Police Department.
After hours of impassioned speeches, the Albany Common Council voted 7-4 to not enact the law. Although more council members voted for the ban than against, they failed to gain a majority, as four members of the council voted “present.” As soon as the news hit the crowd, attendants were outraged, with voices shouting “coward” in reference to those who didn’t vote either for or against.
Discussion of the need for this law began in 2020, when the murder of George Floyd sparked protests in Albany. On May 30 and June 1, 2020, these protests ended with APD launching teargas at civilians after some protestors threw rocks, fireworks, and firebombs at APD officers in riot gear. Eight months later, Councilwoman Judy Doesschate, who represents Albany’s 9th Ward, proposed a total ban on the use of tear gas and baton rounds on March 24, 2021.
The proposal was publicly opposed by Police Chief Eric Hawkins and Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who said she would veto any ban on tear gas. After the Common Council voted to table the ban in April the mayor’s office drafted an amendment to the bill that would restrict the use of tear gas, but allow its use in hostage situations or anything the police declare a riot. While New York State law specifies that a riot must involve 11 or more people, under this amendment the decision to deploy tear gas would still be at the discretion of the Chief of Police. Sponsors of the initial bill rejected this and called for a straight vote on whether or not to enact the law, leading to the issue being set aside to be voted on at a later date.
Before the vote, two out of the 15 Common Council members commented to ASP how they would be voting. Tom Hoey and Jack Flynn. Hoey, of Albany’s 15th Ward, said he would be voting in favor of it. “I was gassed last year and it was horrible.” Flynn, who represents the 8th Ward, said that he opposed the ban.
As the crowd waited for news on the vote, speakers at the rally explained their reasons for why they believe the ban is necessary. Discussion mostly revolved around events that took place during the summer of 2020, when APD officers gassed crowds of protestors after some threw rocks, fireworks, and fire bombs at police officers. Among those gassed were Councilman Tom Hoey and Councilwoman Joyce Love. Councilwoman Love, who voted to oppose an outright ban.
Many speakers cited collateral damage and the uncontrollable nature of tear gas as a reason why it can’t be safely used by police. Others pointed out the health risks posed by tear gas and the fact that it is a chemical weapon illegal to use in a warzone, per the Geneva Protocol, which was signed in 1925 after the destruction caused by tear gas in World War I.
Speakers also talked about other past instances of police violence. On April 14, a Black Lives Matter protest ended with police officers pepper spraying and assaulting protestors. This led to further protests, with some activists camping outside of the South Street Police Station with the declaration that they wouldn’t leave until Lieutenant Devin Anderson was fired for getting into a physical confrontation with protestors where he swatted a light and a megaphone out of their hands.
Co-chair of the UAlbany YDSA Mehr Sharma, a junior at UAlbany, was present on April 22, when Chief Hawkins declared the encampment unlawful and sent officers to physically clear it. Officers in riot gear forcibly removed protestors while using duct tape to cover their badges (which is against city policy).
“I was thrown to the ground and my right wrist was broken,” Sharma said. “I don’t have health insurance, so that was really fun. And I couldn’t work for two months so my only source of income was gone.”
Reverend Joe Paparone, a lead organizer for the Labor-Religion Coalition, told the story of Donald “Dontay” Ivy, a Black man who was tased to death by Albany cops in 2015. A grand jury voted not to indict those officers on any charges.
Paparone’s speech also contained notes of optimism and renewed determination. “This history weaves and builds…What we’re doing is important. We need to keep doing it. We need to keep organizing. We need to keep talking to our neighbors and our community who are suffering under this system and who the Common Council and the mayor don’t want to listen to,” he said.
Lexis Figuereo, a Black Lives Matter activist from Saratoga Springs, led the protesters in chants of “No justice! No peace!” He also criticized the mayor. “Kathy Sheehan says she’s a so-called Democrat, that she’s for equality, says she’s for justice, says she’s for the people. Then show us! ‘Cause right now I don’t believe you.”
Figuereo also railed against any exceptions to a ban on tear gas. He said, “Do I trust when Kathy Sheehan says… they’re only gonna use it in certain circumstances? ‘Certain circumstances’ means against us! It hadn’t been used in 32 years, they said. They decided to use it in 2020. That ain’t right!”
Activist Mikayla “Miki” Foster rounded out the night with a discussion on the intersection of various causes from police brutality to imperialism to transphobia. “The safety of Black, brown, and Indigenous people is your safety also.” She encouraged those gathered in front of City Hall to keep turning out at protests and to push the people they know to do the same, emphasizing the need to take direct action.
“We need y’all on the front lines... tell your friends, ‘Damn, I just saw something for a protest. It’s Black-led, it’s Indigenous-led, it’s trans-led. Let’s go down there,” said Foster.