Discrimination, prison closings hot topics at annual PEF Black Caucus reception
Story and Photos by SHERRY HALBROOK
Many PEF members and retirees enjoyed the annual reception held by the PEF Black Caucus at the Albany Garden Hilton February 15. The event was among the first being held at the legislative conference weekend sponsored every year at this time in Albany by an association of black and Puerto Rican state legislators.
The evening was highlighted by remarks from guest speaker, the Rev. Terry Melvin, and other guests including state Sen. Robert Jackson, who served on PEF staff for many years before serving on the New York City Council and then making his successful run for the state Legislature last year.
Melvin, who is secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO and is also executive vice president of the International Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, made an impassioned call for those present to “rise up” and take a forceful and unbending stand for equal rights and an end to discrimination against people based on race, gender, income, or any other reason.
“It’s not just about you. It’s about your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren. I call on you to fight for others: Rise up, stand up and act up to support the values of a strong progressive movement,” he said.
“Diversity is the pillar that made this nation great,” Melvin said. “We’re all in this game together and we’ve got to stop splitting up and start working as a team.”
PEF Black Caucus President Elizabeth Cheese reminded caucus members that the caucus was formed (40 years ago) to fight for diversity. “We must continue the fight to keep our caucus formed and keep it going,” she urged.
Jackson said it is crucially important to “keep your eyes on the prize,” and not be distracted. He pointed out the importance of coming political battles over reapportionment of voting districts that will take place throughout New York and the country following the national 2020 Census.
In his remarks about discrimination, Melvin shared his own recent experience with racial profiling, telling how just a few weeks earlier he was followed by a police car as he drove through his own neighborhood and pulled into his driveway. Clearly, the officer thought Melvin did not belong in that neighborhood and was surprised to learn that the home belonged to Melvin.
“He didn’t realize it was my house,” Melvin said. “No one should get stopped because of what you look like.”
PEF President Wayne Spence said Melvin’s experience was consistent with his own experiences of being frequently stopped or pulled over by law enforcement officers as he travels the state on PEF business. Spence said that white members of PEF staff traveling with him have said they were shocked by the rude way Spence was addressed by officers during such stops.
Spence also responded to a question from the audience about news breaking that day that the governor’s 30-day budget amendments included a proposal to close state prisons as a way to make up for the $2.3 billion revenue shortfall that was identified after the original Executive Budget was submitted in January.
Spence said he had spoken that morning to the state commissioner of corrections and community supervision about that budget amendment. He said he was told that up to three state corrections facilities could be closed by September 29, but there are no targeted facilities yet. The amendment calls for just 60-days prior notification of a closing, rather than the one-year of prior notice currently required.
Spence said he believes the state does not want to say which facilities will be targeted because it wants to delay any union resistance as long as possible. PEF, he said, will be able to see which facilities are the likely targets by closely monitoring the inmate population levels at all of the state prisons to see which ones are allowed to rapidly drop.
Many broader issues of criminal justice, bail, sentencing and parole are expected to come up during the current state legislative session and could affect state inmate and parolee population levels.