Mayor Myrick introducing hip-hop star Talib Kweli on the Ithaca Commons last night. (Josh Lower/Ithaca Voice)

Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.

To submit an alternative or dissenting viewpoint, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Hip-hop legend and Black Lives Matter activist Talib Kweli praised Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick after Kweli’s free Commons show last night, saying that Myrick is “the rare type of politician I would support.”

Does Myrick’s record as mayor align with Kweli’s activism as part of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Hip-hop star Talib Kweli embraced Ithaca’s mayor in a Tweet after his show in Ithaca.
Hip-hop star Talib Kweli embraced Ithaca’s mayor in a Tweet after his show in Ithaca.

The record is mixed. On some issues, Myrick has implemented and spearheaded reforms of the Ithaca Police Department that reflect left-wing priorities; on others, he’s made decisions that appear to put distance between him and the principles of the movement Kweli enthusiastically and repeatedly endorsed as central to his art last night.

Here are three actions Myrick has taken that appear to fit with Kweli’s politics:

1 — Myrick is leading an effort to bring the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to Ithaca.

Started in Seattle, the LEAD program takes specific kinds of low-level offenders and instead of arresting, booking and sending them to jail, instead gives them help — a hot meal, clothing, a place to sleep.

The effort is widely lauded by activists around the country who want to see America’s drug policing reformed.

2 — Myrick introduced a series of controversial policing reforms — some of which have since been approved, some of which haven’t — last year.

Among the reforms proposed: Forcing all Ithaca police officers to live within city limits; placing body cameras on all officers; and committing officers to be more immersed during community events.

At the time, the Ithaca Voice wrote an editorial praising the mayor’s efforts as a meaningful attempt to improve police interactions with minorities in Ithaca.

Mayor Myrick introducing hip-hop star Talib Kweli on the Ithaca Commons last night. (Josh Lower/Ithaca Voice)

3 — Myrick has worked in other ways to try bridging the gap between Ithaca’s minority population and its police department.

Those efforts have included attending talks at Dunkin’ Donuts with the police chief and community residents; backing a “Citizens’ Police Academy”; and bringing in a federal official with the Department of Justice as a mediator.

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Kweli on the Commons Thursday night. Jeff Lower/Ithaca Voice

Myrick has also made decisions that appear at odds with fierce police critics.

Here are three:

1 — In August, Myrick dismissed the allegation that race was a factor in an Ithaca police sergeant’s decision to stop and pull a weapon on two unarmed black teenagers biking home.

The controversial stop of the teens provoked massive protests on Ithaca’s City Hall; hundreds of protesters alleged that the stop was racially motivated.

Myrick disagreed. “The stop was legal, justified, and entirely race-neutral,” Myrick and police Chief John Barber said in a recent statement.

2 — In June, Myrick denied the request of a local prisoner to learn the Ithaca Police Department’s policy for using tasers or lethal force.

The prisoner, Karseen Atkinson, was arrested on drug charges and twice hit by a taser used by Ithaca police.

The New York Civil Liberties Union criticized Myrick’s stance, telling the Ithaca Voice that it was “completely inconsistent with the law and with principles of transparency and government accountability.”

Judge Robert Mulvey ultimately ruled in favor of the city’s position that revealing the policies would “present a significant likelihood” that criminals could use the officers’ techniques to harm either police or the public.

3 — In September 2014, Myrick supported the Ithaca police request for $100,000 in federally-funded SWAT gear for cops.

“The vote came at the end of a long evening for city politics that saw over 250 people surround the City Hall to raise awareness of what they called police militarization and, some said, the racial prejudice of law enforcement,”  the Ithaca Voice’s Nathan Tailleur reported at the time. Some activists in Ithaca wanted the city to reject the new equipment, which they said would contribute to this “militarization” of the police.

The Ithaca Common Council voted to accept the additional SWAT gear in an 8-1 vote.

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One important footnote: The above conversation is about Myrick’s record on policing, which doesn’t encompass the full range of issues tackled by Black Lives Matter.

See here and here for Myrick’s record on affordable housing and city planning, among other issues.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.