By Renée Roden
A town hall unlike anything seen on the Upper West Side in recent years took place on West End Avenue on Tuesday night, with politicians and energized citizens calling out concerns and possible solutions.
From 5:30 to 7 p.m., the group gathered outside St. Paul and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church on West End Avenue from 86th Street to 87th Street for a socially-distant outdoor town hall. A steady stream of engaged community members, some activists with signs, and curious passersby kept the block filled throughout the event.
The Town Hall was organized and held by Rev. Lea Matthews, associate pastor of the church. She said that their community of 600 is “an activist congregation that has faith of the feet.” Their community has been staying actively involved in the movement for racial justice with an “Action a Day” program.
Edafe Okporo, Director of RDJ Refugee Shelter, opened with an impassioned speech on the plight of African and Black refugees in the United States. Okporo stated that immigrants often lived in “over-policed communities…and face deportation for even the most minor of offenses.”
After Okporo, Anthony Perez, a community organizer from Faith in New York spoke about taking advantage of this moment and not losing momentum in the community to seek change. “This time may not come again unless we keep it going,” he said.
State Senator Robert Jackson spoke next about initiatives in Albany to transform and reform the NYPD. He also spoke about the budget reforms that would move one billion of the police’s budget dollars to programs for housing, education, and youth development.
Jackson answered several questions. Members of their crowds raised their hands to ask questions and tried to make themselves heard through their masks.
Following Senator Jackson, Council Member Helen Rosenthal spoke about de-militarizing the police, “Why do we need people with guns to keep us safe?” She highlighted six resolutions currently scheduled to be discussed in the City Council Committee on Public Safety, which include a chokehold ban and the right of citizens to record the police.
Members of the crowd voiced their concerns and questions at Council Member Rosenthal after her prepared remarks. One community member, a self-identified 40-year-old Black man, repeated his distress at the state of affairs: “I don’t wanna die. I’m scared every day I’m gonna die, I’m gonna get shot.”
Rabbi Lauren Herrmann led a closing prayer, offering up the names of the slain Black men and women that the protestors have been chanting: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor.
Finally, the crowd burst into the spring tradition of Upper West Side solidarity: the customary Upper West Side 7 PM cheer for essential workers.
The town hall participants had clearly prepared for this moment, equipped with bells, a vuvuzela and even a bagpiper. Rev. K Harlan had invited the local bagpiper, who closed the town hall with Amazing Grace.
Photos by Renée Roden.