Dominick Calsolaro

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Published on 8/21/2008 by Metroland written by David King

Albany’s gun violence task force public forum sparks passionate commentary and calls for unity

With a November deadline looming to present their recommendations to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, the Albany Gun Violence Task Force met at the Philip Schuyler Achievement Academy on Clinton Avenue Tuesday to receive input from the public.

A consensus seemed to build among a number of public commenters that violence will solve violence. Speaker after speaker complained that, as parents, they are limited because they are quickly accused of abuse if they employ corporal punishment.

That message was just the highlight of a public-comment period that was a mix of self-promotion, performance art, finger pointing, and genuine concern that highlighted the confusion, anger, and hopelessness that surrounds the issue of gun violence in Albany.

A number of task force members were not present for the public-comment period. Around 80 people attended the forum.

The members of the community who did not focus on the usefulness of corporal punishment made some stark points.

Shawntell Mills, who works in the field of child welfare, told the audience that “child welfare is not your enemy.” Mills told the crowd that the workers who ensure that children are not being abused also make sure parents do not do drugs around the children and try to keep the children from winding up on the street.

Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4), who serves as the liaison between the task force and the council, told Metroland, “I know that there is a widely held belief in the black community that restrictions on corporal punishment have affected the capacity of families to establish disciplinary boundaries for their children. My perspective is that it is absolutely not necessary to rely upon physical discipline to get children on the right path.”

Yusuf Burgess and Ron “Cook” Barrett, who run youth activities in the city designed to keep children out of gangs, seemed almost lost in a sea of discontentment spilling from the rest of the commenters. Barrett clearly was exasperated that so many people have found the time to speak out about the issue, but do not come out and volunteer to help at his programs. He called them “spectators” and challenged instead of “writing editorials” that people volunteer.

Another speaker, who said he worked with Barrett, said the meeting should be called “getting funny with the money” because he felt spending money on gun-buyback programs is a waste. He said real gang members would not turn in their weapons and that programs like Barrett’s who help give kids a place to go need more funding. He then told the crowd that he needed to be paid to “volunteer” his time.

Burgess commented that he found it troubling that a representative from the school district was not on the task force. He added that Albany children are left to their own devices after school gets out.

Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris agreed with Burgess and called the lack of a school board member on the task force an “oversight” on the part of the council. Morris also pointed out that she and other members of the council and the community are working with a technical-assistance grant from the National League of Cities to compile a functioning list of after-school and off-time activities that currently exist in Albany, and to make those activities more available.

Smith said that although community members and task-force members all have separate ideas about how to approach Albany’s gun-violence problem, she is confident that the task force will present a coherent and thorough recommendation to the mayor. And with only six task-force meetings left, it has yet to be decided if there will be another public forum.

If Smith gets her way there would be plenty of chance for the public to speak on the issue in the future. “One thing I hope will come out of the final report;” said Smith, “is that there will be an ongoing entity. A city-sponsored entity that continues to focus on the ongoing issue of gun violence. I think there should be an exploration of making it regional.”

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who originally championed the idea of a gun- violence task force, said that he has been approached by some members of the task force who inquired about extending the time they had to make a recommendation. “I think if they feel they need some more time, I wouldn’t mind extending it,” said Calsolaro. “Hopefully they can finish the task by November, but I don’t think the task force should be permanent. However, I did ask that one of the recommendations be that we create a regional gun-violence task force.”

—David King