In theory, Lockport High School should be the most integrated place in town. Whether you are rich or poor, white, Latino, black or something else, you head each morning to the same building at the corner of Lincoln and Locust. But the experiences that students have inside that building are not the same.
Jayde McDonald, who graduated in 2015: “I was friends with a lot of the rich white people but we never hung out outside of school. It was only like in-school friendships. And the people I met with outside the school were my black best friends. I had one white best friend but he was gay and he knew what it was like. That’s the only place we talked, hung out, in the high school. I don’t know if it has to do with money or with color.”
Kandyce Cauley, who graduated a decade ago: “I was a student athlete. I was like a chameleon, you know, jumping into the skin that you need to when you are around certain people. It was still exhausting for me. It’s the feeling of not being 100% you 98% of the time. I may have been the only black girl on my basketball team most of the time. I wouldn’t hang out with any of those girls if I wasn’t on the team with them.”
Will King, the fitness trainer: “You have teachers who automatically assume. Let’s say Jamal acts up in school and no one asks why Jamal is acting up in school, he just gets suspended. But if John acts up the same way we’re going to have a teachers’ meeting and get to the bottom of it. There are two different avenues always.” [Note: According to reporting by the Union-Sun and Journal, black students are more than twice as likely to be suspended from Lockport High School than white students.].
Mark Sanders, who does workshops with students at the high school: “You have kids who have yachts and you have kids that have never seen the water. You have poor kids who can’t relate to, ‘We’re going to Disney World for vacation.’ You also have kids who can’t relate to, ‘My mother was locked up and we were here for five days by ourselves.’ The administration and teachers sometimes can’t relate to these kids. What they call behavioral issues is just a frustrated child. I’m not making excuses for it but there is such a wide divide of understanding.”
The issue of police treatment of black citizens has been an explosive one across the country. The June death of Troy Hodge in a struggle with Lockport police officers brought that issue into the center of Lockport as well [the case is being investigated by the New York Attorney General] and all four residents who took part in this series spoke about it.
Jayde McDonald: “The first time I was pulled over I started crying because I did not know what to do. I don’t want them to hurt me. I don’t want anything bad to happen. I remember being terrified and that is always on my mind.” She called the death of Troy Hodge “heartbreaking,” adding, “Imagine you being a mother, calling the police to help your son and he dies in front of you. It makes me scared for my family, my brother especially who is my best friend.”
Will King: “We all know that if that was a blond-haired 15-year-old kid who got killed who had mental problems the whole town would be in an uproar, not just in isolated parts. Rather than this being a whole community thing it was basically, ‘This is just a Lockport black thing.’ That lets me know, ‘we all know about it but it’s not our problem.’”
“When I was a kid the police actually took the time to build a rapport with us in the community. They would take us to the park, we would play basketball with them, football with them, they would turn on the fire hydrant on for us to get wet. When I was a kid it might be, if I get in trouble Sergeant John over here is going to get pissed and I like Sergeant John so I’m not going to do that.”
Kandyce Cauley: “I still feel uncomfortable being pulled over. I still feel like I have to put on that different skin. Look, I’m different than what you think black people are like. Be calm, be as well-spoken as I can, be as conforming as I can. I knew Troy personally. I’m surprised that it was him but I’m not surprised that happened. His mother is a staple in this community and the church community. I think if those officers knew them personally they would have handled it differently. But they don’t take the time as a police department to know the people that they’re working with.”
And Mark Sanders, who’s the community liaison to LPD: “One of the things that a lot of police officers don’t understand is the fear factor.” He also spoke of what he called the ceremony of degradation: “When you get cuffed and those lights come on, those things you have to do, get down on the ground. I don’t care who you are. If I see lights behind me, I panic.”
Mark added, “I also want people also to see the human side of them [Lockport police]. They are not every YouTube video you’ve watched. Just like as an African American I don’t want to be stereotyped, let’s give them the same regard, to know them as individuals.”
Racial injustice was embedded in our country at its birth – when slavery was legal and black people were considered property, not citizens. It has never left us. Each generation of Americans has to grapple with its current form. Here in Lockport, that conversation is no less urgent.
“Diversity of people is the power that made this nation. I enjoy a salad but I never want to sit down and just eat a bowl of lettuce,” Mark observed. “A lot of people think they know what black African Americans want but they don’t. We came here working. We have always worked. We take care of our children. We love our families. We just want the same things in life that everybody else has.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last article in a three-part series by columnist and community activist Jim Shultz. Readers are invited to help keep the conversation going in the Union-Sun & Journal. Send letters, up to 500 words in length, to the US&J Mailbag, 135 Main St., Lockport, NY 14094, or email@example.com. Letters must be signed and include the writer’s complete name, address and phone number for verification purposes.