Dutchess County forum addresses racism within community, sparks calls for reform

[CW: This article contains racial slurs and discussions of racism.]

On Tuesday, July 7, Dutchess County held “A Listening Town Hall: People of Color Sharing Their Experiences in Dutchess County” via Zoom. It was hosted by County Executive Marc Molinaro, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the Commission on Human Rights and the NAACP and was moderated by professional voice actor Grace Angela Henry. The unique virtual assembly was intended to provide local community members of color an opportunity to speak directly to elected officials and share their stories as residents of Dutchess County.

On the main screen sat a panel of nine community leaders while over 300 Dutchess County residents tuned in. A total of 18 community members were called on to speak during the Town Hall for approximately three minutes each. The online forum marks the first Town Hall ever to have representatives—whether they be panelists, speakers or onlookers—from all 20 towns, eight villages and two cities in the county.

The first community member to speak was special guest former United States Head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Johnson recounted some of his memories as a Black child growing up in Wappingers Falls. 

“We were the first family, the first Black family, to move into the area of Cottam Hill,” he recalled. “But I still remember, one day, one of my friends, his sister, we were playing in the driveway and his sister came out and she said to my friend, ‘don’t you remember, Dad said we shouldn’t play with Negroes.”

Then, in sixth grade, Johnson remembered how a kid had called him the N-word.

Though these events happened close to over 50 years ago, they remain fresh in Johnson’s mind. He closed with, “That was my life growing up in Dutchess County in Wappingers Falls…There were painful memories about being in the minority—distinctly in the minority growing up in the 1960s in Dutchess County.” 

Following Johnson’s remarks, several other current and former Dutchess County residents of color expressed their thoughts. Some of the first to speak addressed the lack of opportunities for people of color.

Associate Dean of Bard College and Hyde Park resident Cammie Jones called on the community leaders to promote more diversity in political and social institutions and raise the voices of women and men of color.

Jones explained, “I come before you this evening asking that you hear us and that you create a sustainable pipeline of engagement where we are heard, we’re seen, we feel safe in our communities, and we also can be a part of rebuilding equity in our communities.” She continued, “Not only do we need a seat at the table, we need opportunities to create our own tables that are focused on equitable, inclusive and fair justice.”

Other speakers voiced their concern regarding policing in Dutchess County.

Resident Curtis Claire described the negative experiences he and his family have had with the police over his 27 years in Dutchess County. Initially, Claire had moved to Dutchess from Brooklyn because he perceived the county as more prosperous than his former neighborhood. Unfortunately, he has observed the same racial issues from Brooklyn in Dutchess.

“I have a 16-year-old who is 6’3”, 6’4”, 270 pounds and he wants to learn how to drive, but I’m afraid for him right now because I’ve been stopped by several police officers in the Town of Poughkeepsie and the City of Poughkeepsie, but I find the worst part is being stopped in the town,” Claire says. “They’re very verbally abusive towards me and, a lot of the times, even one incident where my wife was given a ticket, and the cop, the way he talked to her, the way he treated her, she called me crying on Route 9. I had to go comfort her to bring her back home.”

Claire urged both residents and officers to take the time to understand one another.

“I just think that with the police department here, you need a better diversity, they need to better understand us as Black people.” He continued, “[N]ot all Black people are bad, not all white people are bad but, when you are stopping a car or you’re pulling someone over, I know it’s a scary thing at night, but what that officer has to know is that individual in the car is scared, too.”

Dutchess County Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Response Ken Roman, formerly a member of the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department for 32 years, responded to Claire’s accounts. 

“It broke my heart to hear Mr. Claire’s comments,” Roman began. “I have been doing this kind of work, diversity training for law enforcement, for 22 years. I can tell you things are better. They are far from perfect. They need a lot of work, and I am very eager to work on this project here in Dutchess County.”

The diversity training that Roman referred to is a form of procedural justice training that encourages officers to address their own implicit biases against specific groups of people to improve police encounters and promote community trust.

Other residents demanded elected officials to take more action. Poughkeepsie resident and student Amelia Cabrera asserted this desire.

“We can sit here and talk again, but like everyone has been saying, I want to see some action. I want to see some change. Not just in the police department. Also in City Hall, also in the Courts.” She further expressed her frustration, “Many people have been talking about this [racial inequity] for years … It just gets me upset to just still be in a listening stage. How are we still in a listening stage?”

The final person to speak during the digital forum was Melissa Johnson.

Johnson is the mother of Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins, two Black girls whose arrests by City of Poughkeepsie police sparked outrage over the officers’ use of force last spring. Despite public outcry, the city concluded after a 200-hour long investigation that officer John Williams used appropriate force. Johnson filed a lawsuit on their behalf  last year alleging violation of their constitutional rights.

About midway through the town hall, the Zoom chat section flooded with comments from viewers demanding that Johnson speak. Most of the comments were from Vassar students who were participating in a sit-in organized by Vassar College’s Black Student Union (BSU).  

According to BSU’s Co-chair of Political Education Chelsea Quayenortey ’22, the sit-in was inspired by Barnetts’ and Dawkins’ attorney, William O. Wagstaff III. He had contacted former Vassar postdoctoral research fellow Toivo Asheeke to mobilize members of the College’s BSU and raise awareness about Barnett’s and Dawkins’ case.

The town hall was particularly significant because of Molinaro’s presence. As stated by Quayenortey, “He [Molinaro]…has the power to drop the charges and tell his county cttorney to stop prosecuting the girls.” For her and the other sit-in participants, the Zoom meeting was a chance to elevate this call to action.

Although the rush of comments from sit-in participants inspired some speakers, such as Micah Fedenko, to yield their time, Johnson was still made to speak last.

Despite being last, Johnson, who sported a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” cap, used her time to articulate her feelings of disappointment with the county. At one point, Johnson directed her frustration towards Molinaro.

“Mr. Molinaro, you should be ashamed of yourself for hosting this forum while the county attorney is falsely charging my daughter with crimes when they were victims,” she said. “I feel like the system failed me and my children.” 

Immediately after Johnson’s statement, Henry offered closing remarks: “This is not the end. Marc Molinaro wanted this to be a first step, and some of you have asked, why haven’t we heard from him? Because he’s here to listen along with the other elected officials,” said Henry. “So they’ve heard you, and now let’s see what will happen next.”

As Henry delivered her final words, several viewers expressed in the comments section their outraged that Molinaro did not respond directly to Johnson after her presentation. Many expressed their frustration in the comment section:

One user by the name of Melissa Hoffmann posted, “shame on the du[t]chess county government.” Another user identified as Asho Ashittey typed, “Keep note of who has done nothing and VOTE THE[M] OUT during elections.”

In a phone interview with The Miscellany News, Molinaro disclosed that it was not his decision to not respond. He also clarified that Barnett and Dawkins’ case is not under his jurisdiction: “I do not have the capacity to influence that any more so than I would in any other case.” Molinaro explained that in accordance with state law, alleged criminal juvenile cases are tried by an independent county attorney in a family court setting.

Nonetheless, he did appreciate Johnson’s willingness to share her thoughts and for directly addressing him: “Every one of her [Johnson’s] points are valid. Her anger, her angst, her sadness—all valid…I am hopeful that a resolution can be reached as soon as possible.”

His co-host Maloney released his own written statement regarding Johnson’s accounts and her daughters’ case.

“This is a case that I have not followed closely enough…For that, I owe Melissa and her daughters an apology.” He asserted, “[a]t a minimum, Dutchess County should immediately drop the charges against Jamelia Barnett and Julissa Dawkins and demand accountability for what this family has experienced … I am communicating directly with the County Executive and Mayor to achieve this goal.”

Johnson and her daughters continue to fight in court for their justice.

Molinaro provided a future plan of action in a Facebook Live that was streamed this past Wednesday, Jul. 8. Inspired by the public dialogue that occurred during the Town Hall, Molinaro gave three points of concentration for future endeavors. They can be summarized as the following:

  •  Hiring Diversity and Equal Opportunity Officer

Despite the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Dutchess County is moving forward to hire a Diversity and Equal Opportunity Officer. They are releasing advertisements to have the position filled. The officer’s job is to perform community outreach and expand the Dutchess government’s network to ensure they are reaching out to communities all throughout the county to efficiently attain socioeconomic equity.

  • Law Enforcement Collaboration

Due to Governor Cuomo’s recent executive order, the Dutchess County government is working with municipal, state and federal law enforcement agencies to evaluate, revise and update policing practices. Additionally, all town, village and city police agencies are required to host public forums similar to the Listening Town Hall.

  • Path to Promise and Youth Center

In collaboration with Assistant Commissioner for Youth Services Karmen Smallwood, the county will attempt greater investment in the Path to Promise Initiative to accelerate its progress in supporting children of color from youth to job. The municipal government will also try to invest in the development of a youth center.

While the Town Hall has sparked immediate action and stimulated intense discussions surrounding race in Dutchess County, the conversation is far from over.

Molinaro proclaimed, “Last night’s conversation was exactly what I’d hoped it would be. It was a raw and gritty airing of individuals’ experience, concerns and hopes.” He continued, “For that, I think we achieved the first step, which is to have really listened…From that, we are not only going to continue the conversation, which is important, but we are going to engage in the action that is necessary to match that expectation.”


The full Town Hall has been uploaded onto the official Dutchess County YouTube channel.

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