Conflict Puts Newburgh Councilman’s Position
By Edie Johnson
When Newburgh City Councilman Omari Shakur, who carries years of heartache over a son killed in a shootout with Newburgh police, lost his temper last week when they stopped to speak with him over being illegally parked, it set off a tirade and a week of controversy in the City between those looking to “let it go” and those who felt he should have been arrested and forced to step down from his hard-won position on the Council, with a win by about 1,400 votes. That hard-won position is currently countered by 1,800 signatures in a petition to remove him from his office. Clearly the police showed extraordinary patience in the long encounter sprinkled with Shakur voicing obscenities while they repeatedly asked for his license, and actually a ‘shove’ at one point. Few have argued that his actions were OK. In fact, Shakur spoke his apology appearing to be extremely downtrodden, and wondering after a troubled past how this might affect his relatively new position, and whether the residents with whom he has spent 63 years would still count his efforts at bettering the City to his credit.
Shakur had been in and out of jail for first degree assault, disorderly conduct and drug-related charges. A flashpoint around which his narrative revolves occurred on a fateful night in 2006 when his son, Antonio Bryant, out on parole for manslaughter, was killed by police after having fired three shots himself. Shakur was left with a gaping hole in his life and hard questions to ponder. The trauma strained Shakur’s already shaky relationship with police.
But over the decades, Shakur made efforts at redemption with community work, and organizing. And so, at Monday night’s Newburgh City Council Meeting many were willing to give Shakur another chance, voicing the will to continue forward with their dreams for the City, which has made great progress on many fronts in recent years, especially with improving understanding and rapport by involving the black and brown community in decisions, developing a Police Cadet group, police force members undergoing community relations training in Texas, holding Summer barbecues, and taking young boys fishing. The Newburgh community at large was split, most wanting to continue the City’s healing, but with the caveat that disrespecting Police Officers, First Responders and Officials is never OK.
With the petition asking Shakur to step down from council, it is clear that while police showed great tolerance in the face of disrespect this time, both the police and the Newburgh community will not likely be as patient if there is a next time.
Monday’s Newburgh City Council Meeting
At Newburgh’s City Council meeting the following Monday, many citizens came to express their views.Among them was Michele Basch, a resident of and business owner in the city for over 2 decades. “The council has an opportunity to show young people that there is a way to get better. That there is a way to have a voice. There is an example here in this city of someone who has issues. He worked hard and got to a point where he could be an example for our kids, an example for people who are struggling.That has been shattered. That has been destroyed. It is despicable.”
A retired firefighter who lives on South Street, didn’t see it that way:
“That was very disparaging on the part of the officer. I do not condone Mr. Shakur’s behavior, but I do understand it. You do not understand what it is like to be a black man who is confronted by an officer in an aggressive manner. We don’t have the same privilege as white people. if that was any other councilman, they would have said “How yadoin’? You here on official business? Have a great day” (author’s note: one of the videos being circulated show an officer saying that, yet Mr.Shakur responds with the same words). “But they detained him. They harassed him. Asked him for his driver’s license, when they knew who he was. If we are going to continue to scrutinize someone for his past, scrutinize America for her past. Instead of telling us to forget about it, help us forget about it and stop doing this stuff.”
City councilmembersthen took their turns. Shakur apologized and asked for a second chance. He otherwise kept silent, citing a pending investigation. Councilmember Patty Sofokles replied: “Omari, I accept your apology. But I hope that it doesn’t happen again. Because it’s happened in the past. I took it personally because my son is a police officer. We have to teach our youth that they have to respect the police. Even when somebody says something to you, give them your drivers license, give them your ID,..”
At this point, someone in the audience shouted “WRONG!” “I’M RIGHT!” she snapped back.
Many of the multi-shaded people of Newburgh have had more than their fair share of tragedies and are inclined to forgive. But this was not one word, it was dozens.
Still, the City moved on. This was, after all, Black History Month, and Shakur organized a flag-raising on Broadway, a Pan-African flag to go up along with the American Flag and a POW flag, to raise pride in the black community.
The City of Newburgh’s struggles toward a peaceful and prosperous community hit another roadblock and planted a flag representing the need for respect on it, the need for respect for those hurting, but also respect for those who risk their lives to keep the peace.
Caption: Embattled councilman organizes Pan-African flag raising on Broadway in Newburgh in observation of Black History month. (Photo provided)