Chanting "no justice, no peace," anti-racism activists from across Westchester County marched two blocks from Bohlman Towers to Peekskill City Hall last night.
Soon after, during the Peekskill Common Council meeting, the same crowd was chanting "shame," at the council. Several members of group refused to wait until the public comment session, reserved for the end of the meeting, to speak their minds at the podium.
The anti-racism protesters were a mix of newcomers who had answered a call for "white allies," they said, and of members of the Committee for Justice and the Cortlandt-Peekskill Anti-Racism Collaborative (CPARC). The group was organized by CPARC's Tracy Breneman, of Cortlandt, and Committee for Justice's Darrell Davis, of Mount Vernon, following Davis's public remarks about a during a customer service training session in early May.
The two groups have been attending Common Council meetings for about 10 months withwithin city government and staff, criticisms of the nd other complaints they say the council has not substantially addressed.
After several activists harangued the council and led the room in the "shame" chant, the council took a 15-minute recess. Shortly after the recess, Councilwoman Marybeth McGowan and Davis agreed to "move past this roadblock," together.
"If you are willing to come up together and move past this roadblock, we are willing to do that," McGowan told Davis, who said he'd talk to the community and get back to the council with an agenda. “The doors are open,” McGowan said.
Mayor Mary Foster then invited Davis to their work session next week.
Before and after this agreement was reached, emotions ran high in the meeting.
Prior to the agreement, during the recess, a woman from Eastchester went on a tirade against the mayor, yelling "coward" and "shame," at the elected official, who remained in the room while the council left for the recess. The crowd met the woman’s comments with enthusiastic applause.
After McGowan and Davis reached an agreement, several people lined up at the podium to speak on structural racism and provide suggestions on how the council should view and handle the alleged racism in the city government.
Waiting in line for the podium was T.J. McGowan, Councilwoman McGowan’s nephew.
T.J. said he saw the crowd yelling at his aunt on television and felt compelled to come down and speak, although he wasn't sure what to say.
"I'm only defending my family," he told a crowd that had begun to speak out against his comments. Davis and others quieted the crowd, telling them that T.J. deserved his chance to speak.
"My aunt 1,000 percent loves this community," T.J. said. Tears came to Councilwoman McGowan and T.J.’s eyes. She went to the podium and gave her nephew a hug. "I just ask people to try to take a breather before things start feeling so personal,” T.J. said.
Following T.J. was an African-American Peekskill man who told the council he left his dinner at home to drive to City Hall and tell the council they are not racist. He said that what he had seen earlier in the night at the meeting was "an abuse of the process and of the people of the city." He defended himself to a crowd that chastised him as he walked away from the podium.
A Peekskill woman told the council that she was glad to see some common ground moving forward, in reference to Davis and McGowan’s conversation, but that the presence of armed policemen in the room made her feel unsafe and was detrimental to a positive conversation.
Others offered suggestions on how the council should deal with the kinds of complaints they receive at the council meeting and some volunteered their professional expertise.
Peekskill resident Leslie Lawler told the council she would like to volunteer her time and experience as a human resources professional. While the council continues its search for an HR consultant, Lawler offered to help them work through problems in that area that have been mentioned during past meetings.
The mayor ended the meeting on a hopeful note saying she believes there was some positive dialogue that broke through during the meeting that she is hopeful will turn into concrete actions and solutions.
Watch a summary of the march and meeting in the video above.
Watch the full video of the meeting on the City of Peekskill website here.