By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Activist Diandra Sangetti-Daniels was shocked when she received the letter from Police Chief Doug Brenner criticizing the planned “Black Lives Matter” memorial in downtown Oneonta.
“I read that letter,” she said during her remarks at the dedication of the “Say Their Names” photo display Sunday, July 26. “If they’re truly protecting every resident, you would support this. To have someone in a position of power write this letter upset me.”
Brenner drafted the letter on July 19, but Common Council went ahead regardless, voting unanimously Tuesday, July 21, to allow florist Elizabeth Patterson, Oneonta native and the daughter of Paul and Sarah Patterson, to install the display on the fence above the downtown Westcott Lot.
“We enjoy good neighbors, friendships,” he wrote, “and any display that disrupts the community feeling and positive energy of the community serves no purpose but to divide.
“Especially when the content of the display is in relation to incidents that did not occur locally and show all law enforcement, including members of the Oneonta Police Department, negatively.”
Interviewed this week, Brenner asked, “Why are we trying to bring a problem here? I understand they want to bring awareness, but it’s not a local issue.”
For his part, Mayor Gary Herzig disagreed with the chief.
“It’s an unfortunate choice that Chief Brenner felt the need to defend the police in this letter,” he said. “The memorial was not about us and it was not a referendum on Oneonta. A defensive reaction is an unfortunate reaction.”
At Sunday’s dedication, Sangetti-Daniels called Brenner “an example of white fragility. He sees this as an attack on his officers.”
The memorial, which used greenery donated by Wycoff’s Florist, featured 200 photographs of black men and women who were killed by “racism, racial injustice and police brutality.”
Among those on the wall is local Jason Walker, 22, who was stabbed by Frank Ricca in 2005, following a dispute at a house party. Ricca, who testified at trial that he acted in self-defense, was acquitted.
“Oneonta has racism,” said Sangetti-Daniels. “It’s important to continue talking about it. Most of the people on this wall aren’t from Oneonta, but all that could change.”
In the interview, Brenner said, “You know who isn’t up there? Brienn Leath. Julian Keen. John Arthur William Sr. Rasheen Phillipe McClain. They’re people of color, but they’re not allowed up there because they’re cops who were killed. Apparently, black police lives don’t matter.”
Herzig thinks otherwise. “This memorial is very meaningful,” he said. “It’s a powerful message when you see the faces of real people who lost their lives to racism. I’m proud that it’s on the streets of Oneonta.”
Following the local and national protests at the May 25 death of George Floyd while being taken into custody by Minneapolis police officers, Herzig proposed a Community Advisory Board to review OPD policies and procedures.
Since then, Governor Cuomo has issued an executive order directing all 500 communities with police departments to do so, and report to Albany by April 1.
Oneonta’s community board will be announced during the Common Council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Half of the members, Herzig said, will be people of color.
Brenner, he said, will not face discipline or censure for his letter. “He expressed himself in defending the Oneonta Police Department,” said Herzig. “We’ll move on from here.”