Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson suggested the community seek an impartial mediator to calm tensions that have led to a week of marches and confrontations between protesters and police over the death of Daniel Prude.
“I believe right now is the time for us to cool down the passions,” Johnson said during a news conference Sept. 9 in front of the Frederick Douglass statue on South Avenue.
“I’m not telling people to forgo their heartfelt passionate beliefs,” he said of the seven nights of demonstrations that have called for justice, equity and for holding the those involved accountable for actions that led to the death. “I’m saying, you’ve been heard. Let’s bring you together.”
He talked about bringing leaders of organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the United Christian Leadership Ministry together with the mayor, the county executive and the police department under the direction of a neutral party and that can encourage a conversation.
“If I were the mayor, I would utilize such a resource,” he said. “We’ve seen what’s happened here. It is very sad.”
Johnson is one of three chairpersons of the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity. He put the past week in context of the RASE commission’s work, then said he was speaking for himself.
Johnson, who talked about his own experiences as a mediator, said that the search for common ground eventually leads to conversation.
“They can’t do it if they’re standing out in the night with police dogs, with armored policeman, people are throwing things. That’s not the environment in which to have this kind of conversation.”
Johnson spoke the day after Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary announced his retirement and other members of the command staff either announced their retirement or returned to previously held positions.
He said he picked the Frederick Douglass statue as the setting for his news conference because of the challenges Douglass faced in pushing for abolition is country not ready to hear the message.
“Think about how he continued to persist. I think we need to be reminded of that imagery. … This is a city that is supposed at the top of the social justice movement. We proudly the lives of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and others. Why not tap into that legacy and utilize some of the skills they showed us over a century ago? That’s what I’m saying here today.”
The RASE commission was started in June by Mayor Lovely Warren and County Executive Adam Bello after the death of George Floyd. The commission was charged with recommending changes to local laws and policies.
The commission has 21 members, eight of whom were selected by the mayor and county executive. Singletary initially was a member, although the mayor removed him after the death of Prude came to light. Police union president Mike Mazzeo also was removed. Johnson said he expected the vacancies to be filled shortly. More than 200 county residents are part of RASE work groups looking at nine topics.
Johnson said the mayor did not inform the RASE chairpersons of Prude’s death, although he said she later acknowledged she should have even if she could not share details. “We have our own George Floyd and nobody says anything about it.”
Asked whether the mayor still could lead the city, Johnson said, “We are a nation of second chances. I think there has to be an honest acknowledgment that some flawed decisions were made. … What has to happen now is there has to be a recognition that this situation has led to a tremendous loss of faith and you have to work to rebuild it. You can’t just say forgive me. You have to do very tangible things to restore trust.”
He called for protesters to call a halt to demonstrations for a few nights, and reiterated his theme of inviting people to sit down at 1 p.m. rather than confront them at 1 a.m.
He acknowledged that it may not work, but it hasn’t been tried so no one will know until the invitation is issued.