Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Northern Westchester Bureau Chief
Catherine Wilson

Peekskill/Cortlandt Community Deals With Issues of Race

Recently, in the Presidential campaign, the rhetoric from the Democratic candidates has revolved around the issue of race. As allegations
have flown, questions have been raised: Is race still an issue in our society and how far has America come since the Civil Rights Era?

No communities in Northern Westchester are more sensitive to this issue lately than the neighboring towns of Cortlandt and Peekskill, recent sites of two of the most prevalent kinds of racial attacks: hate crimes, and “Black-on-Black” violence. Last Thanksgiving eve, a cross was burned in the front yard of an African-American family in Cortlandt. And this past month, a young African-American man was allegedly killed by his girlfriend. As reported in The Westchester Guardian on December 13, 2007, the Town of Cortlandt held a public forum to
address the issues and concerns raised by the community. In response to the community’s needs, the Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association (PAPA) recently hosted a “Day of Celebration” appropriately scheduled for January 21, 2008, Martin Luther King Day, at the Peekskill High School Auditorium.

The event was filled to standing-room-only capacity in the 640 seat forum with community members of all races, ages, religions, towns, and political persuasion. After an interfaith prayer service led by the local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian representatives, several local community leaders offered their perspectives of what Dr. King’s dream meant to them and to the community. Dr. Judith Johnson, the Superintendent of the Peekskill School District and recently appointed New York State’s 2008 Superintendent of the Year, reminded the community that “today cannot be the only time we pause to remember Dr. King’s message of non-violence. The response to injustice must be accomplished with words, not weapons”. Dr. Johnson noted, “Every young person in our midst must dream, and their access to education
to achieve those dreams is a civil right”.

Note: Dr. Johnson’s record in the Peekskill schools attests to her beliefs – as the State Council of School Superintendents noted in their
announcement of her appointment: “Judith Johnson was chosen as New York’s Superintendent Of The Year because her colleagues admire her as a champion for children in Peekskill. The graduation rate, which was below 60% in 2001, is now at 78%. Peekskill students have
achieved double-digit gains in performance on many state tests. Participation in Advanced Placement courses has doubled since 2002.

Following Dr. Johnson’s opening remarks, John Hall, the US Congressional Democrat representative for the 19th District, and the founder
of the band Orleans, spoke of his experiences with segregation while traveling as a young jazz musician with African-American band members. Hall noted that “despite the progress we have made, we still face struggles” in realizing Dr. King’s dream of racial equality. But Congressman Hall reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Day was not established on the date of Dr. King’s assassination (April 4, 1968), but rather near his birthday (January 15, 1929) “as a sign of hope”.

Ms. Mary Foster, the Mayor of Peekskill, reminded the community that Dr. King also fought against poverty, war, as well as for civil rights.
Mayor Foster remarked that “when we honor someone and the path they set us on, we also need to consider if that path is complete. In
Martin Luther King’s path, we have not gone very far. We have, in fact, gone in a circle”. Mayor Foster spoke of the need for economic opportunities for all through equal education, employment, and housing and asked local officials in the city to seek the citizens’ input
to achieve those goals. She called on each board member to stand and identify themselves for the audience “so the community can see who will be addressing these issues”.

The Supervisor of the Town of Cortlandt, Linda Puglisi, drew a laugh when she referenced the Giants’ recent victory: “when interviewed in the locker room, they spoke of themselves as a team, not as individuals or by race. And that’s what we are, one team”. Puglisi thanked Reverend Lacey and P.A.P.A. for their support “with the recent crime in our community” and vowed that “we have pledged to continue the dialogue so that something like this (cross-burning) can never happen again”. Puglisi quoted Dr. King’s comments that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

But the highlight of the event was clearly when the community children took the stage. Brought together in under two weeks to form the
“MLK Youth Mass Choir”, over sixty area children of all races, ages, and religions performed “We Are the World” as the audience cheered. The group then performed a song written especially for the event by their choir director, Mrs. Tuesday Paige McDonald. The song, entitled “Dr. King’s Melody” was an upbeat jazz tune with a spirited rap routine that had the audience clapping along. It came as a surprise to the audience to learn that the performance they had witnessed from the children was achieved with only three rehearsals.

No celebration of Dr. King’s birthday would be complete without a reading of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But the organizers of
the event did not subject the audience to a lifeless reiteration from an elder statesman. Rather, five young boys and girls from the Peekskill
Youth Bureau, representing White, Hispanic, and African-Americans, recited segments of this speech in turn. Their stirring renditions, accompanied by pumping fists and impassioned vocal inflections, brought the audience to its feet for a lengthy heart-felt ovation.

Ending the event was the Reverend Eboni Marshall of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Reverend Marshall asked the community “what does
one say of the dream of Martin Luther King when forty years later the violence of war continues to be legislated from Capitol Hill and Black on-Black violence prevails? Where is the dream when children see no solution but violence?” Reverend Marshall reminded the audience of
Dr. King’s non-violent approach to issues and that “we cannot train our children that when someone hits you, you hit back”. She quoted Dr.
King when noting that “en eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind”. Marshall challenged the community to “love those who hate us.

We cannot judge our neighbors by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. She reminded the listeners that “King’s dream
was for hearts to be changed”. To continue Dr. King’s message and the dialogue for racial tolerance and equal opportunity, P.A.P.A. and other religious organizations are hosting further events in the community. The City of Peekskill is also actively seeking residents to serve on local boards and committees including the newly formed Diversity Committee and is asking interested parties to contact the City Manager at 914-734-4245.

Northern Westchester Round-Up

Bedford: Tape recordings from the Bedford Police Department reveal officers joking about the death of Rene Javier Perez, a homeless man found at the side of a road. The Town Board met with the Bedford police chief on January 22 to discuss the tapes. A Mount Kisco police officer has been charged with killing Perez.

Ossining: Sandy Galef, New York State Assemblywoman, 90th District, will host a town meeting on Governor Spitzer’s proposed 2008 budget at the Ossining Public Library on January 31, from 7 to 9 p.m.

Peekskill: Mayor Mary Foster has called for a public hearing on January 28 to review the 2008 adopted budget. The budget uses $1 million
of city reserves to subsidize a 0% tax increase. Mayor Foster wants the public’s input on removing this money from the town’s fund balances.

Pocantico Hills: The Pocantico District School Board approved an $18 million bond for improvements to the local district’s school building. The bond is to be put to the community for a vote.

– Catherine Wilson

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