Working Group advocates against past police violence
Three years ago, 29-year-old Ithaca resident Shawn M. Greenwood was fatally shot by Sergeant Bryan Bangs of the Ithaca Police Department on Feb. 23, 2010. According to the District Attorney’s report presented in July 2010, “Sgt. Bangs was part of a multi-agency search warrant detail attempting to secure Mr. Greenwood for purposes of searching him pursuant to a warrant issued by a city Court Judge on Feb 17, 2010. Mr. Greenwood was shot after striking a Dryden police officer with his vehicle while attempting to evade the search warrant detail.” Although EMTs arrived immediately after the incident, Greenwood could not be resuscitated after being shot.
The larger Ithaca community was angry. Many expressed that it was an action of police racism; Bangs is white and Greenwood was an African-American.
Was this incident symbolic of police racism in the Ithaca community? And if so, has anything changed since then?
“We disagree that Bryan Bangs acted on race, but we respect the other viewpoints,” Jamie Williamson, public information officer for the Ithaca Police Department, said.
The Shawn Greenwood Working Group (SGWG), an activist group that has been created in Greenwood’s honor to educate the Ithaca community about racism, is the primary proponent for that “other viewpoint.”
“Usually, and disproportionately, the ‘justifiably’ killed are black, brown or poor, or some combination of these three,” James Ricks, SGWG member, wrote in a piece entitled We Have Questions: The Shawn Greenwood Case. “Police have a long history of justifying the abuse and killing the marginalized in our society.”
According to Williamson, diversity training is a major focus of IPD Chief Barber. “Each officer here goes through training to treat people fairly, respectfully and equally” in regards to all facets of their identities. If an IPD officer sees racist activity occurring inside or outside of the department, “he will act immediately and appropriately.”
SGWG members still find that training to be lacking. “That diversity training is very helpful,” Shawn Greenwood Working Group member Clare Grady said. “All that we do is helpful, but we should understand that it’s systemic. Learning how to be more conscious of how you act towards different people still doesn’t even address the double standard and policies that the police are asked to enforce.”
Williamson did not deny that racism still exists in the Ithaca community, stating that he and other officers do notice racism while on the job: “White against black does exist here, unfortunate as it is. Racism is something that exists here in Ithaca despite our efforts in the police department and in City Hall.”
What could the IPD do, then, to be seen in a more positive light by the working group? Grady said that may not be possible. “I seek the abolition of prisons and polices. I think that is a really good and challenging quest — it means I have to live as if we are the solution,” she said. Because of this rejection of the concept of police, Grady said, “it’s not like I’m trying to make a better police force.”
The SGWG’s goal lies in eliminating the police completely; therefore, the working group and IPD do have some irreconcilable differences.
Both the IPD and the SGWG recognize the negativity of racism in Ithaca and beyond. Williamson said, “It’s unfortunate that racism exists in our society. It’s absolute insanity that it exists in our society — that a person would base their decisions on their preferences of race or anything like that.”
To the working group, this insanity isn’t as much of a mystery; they provide an explanation. “I don’t like to single it out to any one person being racist,” Grady said. “I think that white people living in this culture have the racism of the culture and it takes a lot of vigilance to not accept that double standard as it plays out in our daily lives.”
For that reason, the SGWG finds educating the community on these issues to be vital. The group holds teach-ins about events of civil rights on both local and national issues for free in the Ithaca community, featuring faculty from IC and Cornell and activists in the community. One IC student, Kayla Young, is also a part of the working group.
Events like these have the ability to teach people about the history behind the senseless prejudice they experience every day.
Racial tension is not going to disappear anytime soon. Yet with concerted efforts from a united community to increase consciousness and respect others, progress toward social change could be on the way.
Alexa Salvato is a freshman journalism major. Email her at asalvat1[at]ithaca.edu.