Perhaps you’ve seen George Floyd protest videos coming out of Rochester, New York? Perhaps you’ve been confused by these eruptions of violence in a city you’ve likely only heard of, and have probably never visited? One video to attract national attention was of young men in Rochester gang-beating a woman with their fists and then trading between using fists and two-by-fours. A second video to make the rounds was of protestors overrunning, and chasing away, diners seated at a restaurant’s curbside tables in a tiny section of Rochester.
As I live in Rochester and have my entire life, I imagine people outside the area watch these videos and have little sense for the many pins set up to make possible the almost inexplicable actions displayed in the videos. I’ll try to describe things commonly understood by locals, some things that may have helped precipitate the current violence.
First, a little background to life in Rochester. I went to a public high school, a local trade school, and I can speak to the fact that children raised in the city are at a disadvantage if they don’t have parents who frequent libraries or can afford catholic schools for their children. I’m not just saying that biased by my being a public librarian, or my having gone to a catholic grammar school. I’m saying that in recognition that the city school system is certifiably crap. Our city school system has gotten some lousy rankings – graduation rates of roughly 57% place the school district near the bottom of New York State school districts — but then there is also the financial trouble it currently finds itself in.
Recently, in June 2019, a new superintendent for Rochester schools was celebrated in a multi-page photo-spread interview in our local alternative newspaper.4 The welcome-to-Rochester article about incoming superintendent Terry Dade should probably have been held off. Less than a year later, in April 2020, news articles announced that Dade was seeking to break his contract with the Rochester City School District and move on to greener pastures. Dade, apparently, had “spent most of his roughly ten months on the job attempting to plug budget deficits that stemmed from the district overspending in excess of $27 million last year prior to his arrival. Consequently, he has laid off scores of teachers, and recently proposed $87 million in budget cuts that include more layoffs and reductions in cherished programs that have met with resistance from the board and the community at large.”
However lousy our city school system has been, things don’t look like they’ll improve anytime soon.
Beyond our distressed public school system, Rochester has a unique mayor, named Lovely Warren, who will seemingly throw any political ally, political rival, or citizen noncombatant, under the bus, and then make a public show of grandstanding on the grave. In the most recent example of such, in one of Mayor Warren’s press conferences, she explained that Daniel Prude, a man who died days after being taken into custody by Rochester Police, deserved better, but that no blame could be laid at the mayor’s feet. None at all.
Warren explained that she had been told in March, months before the press conference, only that Prude had died from a drug overdose. Warren blamed her incomplete briefing on police chief La’Ron Singletary. From the mayor’s statement:
“Chief Singletary never informed me of the actions of his officers to forcibly restrain Mr. Prude. I only learned of those officers’ actions on August 4th when corporation counsel reviewed the video while fulfilling the FOIL request from Mr. Prude’s attorney. At no time, prior to August 4th, did Chief Singletary, or anyone, make me aware or show me the video of the actions of the RPD officers involved in Mr. Prude’s death.”
Chief Singletary was reprimanded, and the police officers who had dealt with Prude suspended. Hardly the end of the matter, the command staff of the Rochester Police Department, including Singletary, then resigned, it is assumed, in protest against the mayor’s public accusations.
Singletary’s resignation went somewhat like a romantic relationship ending with an impersonal phone call: Mayor Warren appeared in a virtual city council meeting with news that Singletary and his command staff were resigning, believing that Singletary would shortly join the meeting in progress. Singletary didn’t join, and the meeting was awkwardly cut short.
The police resignations took place at a time when there were ongoing, and sometimes violent, protests in the city. The pissing match between the mayor and police department left the city less defended than it should have been in a time of crisis.
You can imagine that the Rochester Police Department is now in as much turmoil as the Rochester School System, and, for that matter, in as much turmoil as city hall. The mayor’s inability to bring all sides together is at least partially responsible for that.
And then Rochester has a problem typical of many cities, that political charlatans (beyond Rochester’s mayor) are confoundingly elected and reelected, I can only imagine for their offering of bread and circuses. You can only blame the city residents themselves for their choices in the ballot box. Let me tell you about one politician who had been at the top of the local anthill for seemingly ever. He was our local Al Sharpton, named Adam McFadden. I say he reminds me of Sharpton because just as the national news media for decades went to either Sharpton or Jesse Jackson whenever they needed a black take on things, McFadden was seen locally on the news for years as much, or more, than the mayor herself. McFadden was, as far as I could tell, the voice of blacks living in the city, or very nearly. McFadden served as a member of the Rochester City Council beginning in 2003, and in 2018 was elevated to the position of the council’s vice president. His most recent claim to fame however was being convicted of re-imagining nonprofits as personal money fountains.
McFadden billed Rochester Housing Charities, a non-profit funded by the Rochester Housing Authority, for services which he never provided, for which McFadden received $64,000. The complicated scheme had the funds paid by RHC go through a D.C. consulting firm, which then turned 75% of the received funds over to a company McFadden created specifically to receive the funds. McFadden also had a second scheme going which made use of his position as executive director for non-profit organization Quad A For Kids, an organization which, when operated as advertised, helps students in Rochester Schools. McFadden created more false bills for which he was paid $133,000.
A relevant video featuring McFadden is of him dancing in city hall to the Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy”. Imagine as McFadden was dancing, in the year 2016, that his pockets were stuffed with illegal cash. If you couldn’t imagine before the song “Happy” being a backdrop to soul corruption, here you go.
What I’ve described so far is a general dysfunction in our city’s governance and that brings me to end with what may seem at first to be a “News of The Weird” type story. It’s also, incidentally, the only anecdote I’ll tell involving a main character who is white, for those people who still believe white racism to be the only reason the machinery doesn’t function in Rochester.
In January 2019, months before the George Floyd protests, Jeremy Kappel, a WHEC News10NBC weatherman, was a newish, but regular fixture, on television in Rochester. Jeremy, near the end of a workweek, on a Friday broadcast, delivered a weather forecast in which he is believed to have been ad-libbing to some degree, which is usual for weather forecasts. When pronouncing the name of a local park (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Square Park) some viewers reported hearing Kappel pronounce the park’s name as “Dr. Luther C**n King Jr. Park”.
Kappel claimed that he never uttered the slur he was accused of saying and that the mispronunciation was the result of speaking too fast. Kappel recorded a widely-seen apology video in which he explained, in unscripted fashion, “I jumbled a couple of words. Now, in my mind, I knew I had mispronounced, but there was no malice. There was nothing that I could have … I had no idea the way it came across to many people.” His wife sat behind him in the apology video, holding back tears, as her husband tried to explain the flub.
Kappel’s contested WHEC broadcast occurred on Friday, January 4th, when no one in the WHEC studio took issue with what he’d said, and on Saturday, again no one at WHEC-TV took issue. On Sunday, however, an unlucky “6” for Kappel, the universe would shift off its axis. Kappel later charged in a suit against Mayor Lovely Warren that on Sunday the 6th:
“… it was alleged by members of the public and the Mayor of Rochester, Lovely A. Warren, that Kappel’s linguistic error was, in fact, a racial slur, seemingly impugning, without basis in fact, intent on Kappel to have actually uttered such a slur.
“As a result of Warren’s public condemnation and pressure upon WHEC, on January 6, 2019, prior to interviewing Kappel to question him about the incident, and prior to conducting any real investigation into the situation, Kappel’s employment with WHEC was terminated.”
Some essential viewing regarding the Kappel matter – Kappel’s apology video, and Mayor Lovely Warren’s public statement on the incident. If you watch the two videos back to back, I think you might find an aspect of the Rochester street conflicts reenacted in miniature.
In Kappel’s apology video, Kappel thanked his neighbors and church before attempting to explain how he could have misspoken the name of the local park. His wife, as mentioned, sits behind him holding back tears. Kappel name-checks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with reverence. His response is not scripted.
In the mayor’s statement on the Kappel matter, she also name-checks MLK, beginning and ending her address with a quote from King. Midway through her speech, however, is the unmistakable thesis sentence: “Sometimes the hurt isn’t intentional, but it is painful nonetheless. Sometimes the impact matters more than the intent.”
The mayor seemed to leave the door open to Kappel’s mispronunciation being nothing more than a verbal flub — “Sometimes the hurt isn’t intentional” — but then closed the door with “the impact matters more than the intent”. And the intent of the mayor’s speech is clear and very un-MLK-like: Whether an insult is real or imagined, someone’s head has to roll.
Rich Gagnier has been a public librarian for nearly 30 years. He has no particular interest in writing about politics, and will probably stop soon, so it would be a stupid waste of resources for any intelligence agency to “off him” for anything he might write. He also varies his route home from work daily and would not make things easy for you.