Statement following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore

by Reverend Lewis W. Stewart,
United Christian Leadership Ministry
Presented during a press conference on May 4, 2015

The Baltimore Uprising revealed and underscored the issue of not just police oppression but structural injustice in the nation’s urban cities and the impact of injustice upon people of color.

The United States is in the midst of a national crisis.  Ferguson and Baltimore is a reminder of the racial oppression and economic disparity which exists in our cities.  I desire to pinpoint several areas we need to address which is a call to action.

First, the promise of equality for all is an unrealized dream.  Many cannot escape poverty because poverty tends to be generational, structural and systemic.  Poverty is an outgrowth of the inequities inherent within the American economic system. Rochester ranks first among cities its size in extreme poverty.  Many live below 50% of the federal poverty level that translates to less than $12,000 per year for a family of four.  The federal poverty guidelines for a family of for is $24,250.

In Rochester, slightly more than one-half of children live in poverty and Rochester is the 5th poorest city in the United States.  The newly appointed Rochester-Monroe Anti-poverty Initiative is about window dressing.  It proposes a band-aide solution.  It does not include individuals who are impacted by poverty on the Steering Committee.

What are the goals of this initiative?

How are they going to pull people out of poverty in one year since the funding commitment is only for one year?  What percentage of poor people does the Initiative and the Steering Committee plan to pull out of poverty?

How can you hope to effectively address the systemic issues of poverty with $500,000 dollars when one half of that money is to be used for salaries and administrative costs?

The funding for one year to rectify entrenched poverty and economic injustice is delusional.  It takes years to combat systemic poverty.

The United Way is the lead organization in this unrealistic plan.  The United Way has been in existence for decades and never addressed structural poverty while conditions grew worse in the community. What makes people think the United Way will effectively address poverty now?

What needs to be addressed is providing a living wage for all and raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour.  We need to address job training programs and jobs leading to a living wage.  We need to provide summer jobs for young people and employers need to come together with a plan of action.

The Rochester-Monroe Anti-poverty Initiative is nothing but a political stunt by the Governor and his minions to make it appear that they are going to redress economic disparity; and then after 1 year the money will run out and poverty will still be entrenched and rampant.

Secondly, Ferguson and Baltimore highlight the need for police reform.  “Good Community Policing” is not going to be effective by itself.  We need a tool kit of effective tools to supplement and compliment community policing.  Again, let me strongly emphasize the Community Safety Agenda.

  • Body Worn Cameras for not only the Rochester Police Department but for every police department and agency within Monroe County with effective policies and protocols.   UCLM, Enough Is Enough, Genesee Valley Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Team, Greater Rochester Community of Churches have been in the forefront of developing these policies and sending them to the Mayor, City Council and the RPD.  The Coalition for Police Reform has worked hard on these policies and we have been in the forefront in calling for police reform in Rochester.
  • A Civilian Review Board Process with subpoena Power and Investigative Authority with civilian oversight.  We are presently researching various models across the nation and looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the present process.  The final outcome of any investigation should not rest with the chief of police.
  • An end to racial profiling, that is, Stop and Frisk.
  • The Right to Consent to Search.
  • Anti-Racism Training for the police.

In addition, UCLM is calling for a special independent prosecutor to handle all cases dealing with the police use of excessive force and police shootings.  Letters will be sent to the N.Y. State Legislative delegation advocating the need for an independent special prosecutor.  We do not believe that the District Attorney’s office can remain neutral since their role is to collaborate with the police.  The public needs a mechanism which will dispel suspicion and any cover up.

The Community Safety Agenda is about Accountability and Transparency.

Third, it would be remiss to me not to address the horrendous murders in our city by black criminals who are killing other blacks.  These vicious acts of murder must be addressed by the people.  The community can no longer tolerate the loss of human life for it is irreplaceable.

Murderous criminals must be exiled from our community.

Parents must engage their children and teach them nonviolence and to respect the rights of others to co-exist.  A former member of my church, an eighty-three year old woman was physically assaulted by a group of teenage girls on Flanders Street and Thurston Road.  There is a lack of respect and character.

Just as we are outraged by murderous and racist police, we must also be outraged by criminals who kill or prey upon black victims.  We have to engage our youths and offer them hope and a better way of life.  If we don’t do this, no one else will.  This needs to be our mission, this needs to be our evangelistic goal; our mission is to save our neighborhoods and communities.  The conditions which produced the rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore exist in our city today.

Do we have the honesty, integrity, compassion, passion, the political will and abundant resources to really redress the racial injustice and economic disparity which presently exists in Rochester, or will we continue to ignore these festering conditions by applying a band aid to a cancer?

Therefore:

  • We call upon the community to engage in the fight for a better community by ridding it of crime and violence.
  • We call upon the community to engage the Rochester City School District and the Board of Education to ensure quality education for all of our children.
  • We call upon church and community leaders to give our children hope and a more excellent alternative.
  • We call upon the city leaders to support and implement the Community Safety Agenda to provide Transparency and Accountability by the Rochester Police Department.
  • We call upon the County leaders and Town and County Police Departments to adopt the Community Safety Agenda.
  • We call upon the Rochester-Monroe Anti-poverty Steering Committee to effectively combat systemic poverty by including the poor in developing effective strategies and solutions.

Together let us build the “Beloved Community.”

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