This article is the first contribution to Beyond Broken Windows, a new Weave News project that explores the impacts of the “broken windows” style of policing, which encourages police officers to use arrests and citations to regulate outward signs of disorder (like broken windows). The project will also examine reform initiatives and issue campaigns nationwide that seek to implement alternative styles of policing.     

On September 20, 2016, Buffalo City Councilmember Ulysees O. Wingo, Sr., protested the Pledge of Allegiance before a meeting of the City’s Common Council. Rather than place his hand over his heart and recite the pledge, Councilmember Wingo raised his right fist and said a prayer.

Wingo, who represents the Masten District, a predominantly black section of Buffalo’s East Side, said his silent protest was intended to honor the unarmed black Americans killed by law enforcement agents nationwide. “This is in response to every black person who has died without a weapon in their hand,” Wingo said to the Buffalo News. Wingo’s protest followed the killing of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black American, by police officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Days after his gesture, in a letter to the Buffalo News, Wingo further explained why he chose to protest: “An element of society demands that we respect the military, respect the police, respect the flag and respect the national anthem, but is alarmingly silent when it comes to the respect and worth of a black life.” He also clarified that his protest was “not about the police” but, rather, about individual police officers “who disregard their training and kill innocent citizens.”

Hundreds of Buffalo residents have shown support for Wingo. On social media, many praised him for having the courage to speak out against police brutality. One group, “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women for Intersectionality” organized a direct action to show solidarity with the councilmember. Wearing “I Stand with Wingo” stickers, dozens of supporters filed into the Common Council meeting on October 4th, stood behind Councilmember Wingo, and collectively raised their fists in peaceful protest during the Pledge of Allegiance. Even the national media noticed Wingo’s grassroots following.  

Not all Buffalo residents, however, have embraced Wingo’s protest. In fact, the councilmember has received hate mail and death threats since his protest began. On October 6th, Wingo published an anonymous letter containing racial epithets and complaining that affirmative action programs were limiting employment opportunities for white Americans. The letter writer claimed to be a Buffalo police officer.

In an editorial for The Daily Public, Alan Bedenko pointed to the problem inherent to racism in the police force: “This person purports to be a cop and walks [sic] drives around a town with a large minority population with an attitude like this against the people he’s sworn to protect.” If Wingo’s point is that individual police officers disrespect people of color, especially black Americans, Bedenko said, then “point proven.”

Wingo’s protest comes on the heels of a controversial summer in police-community relations in Buffalo. In July, Open Buffalo, an organization fighting for social justice, published findings from a community policing survey of Buffalo residents, showing that a majority of respondents believed that the police disrespected young people, women, and people of color. Though criticized by local newspapers and pollsters, the survey began the citywide conversation about policing that Councilmember Wingo is now reigniting.

Throughout the summer, The Daily Public has also run a series of investigative reports on questionable policing practices, such as unconstitutional traffic stops, the harassment of public housing residents, and “zero tolerance” policies that have increased arrests but done little to prevent major crimes or solve murders.

The Buffalo Police Department has maintained that the violence and corruption that troubles other law enforcement agencies do not exist in Buffalo. Citing extensive diversity training and community policing tactics, BPD officials emphasize that Buffalo police have not killed an unarmed black American in the City because of the proactive measures in place. 

Yet the BPD embraces a “broken windows” style of policing that uses arrests to regulate quality of life crimes. The BPD, for example, uses strike forces to conduct searches and seizures. These raids quickly turn violent. BPD strike forces also issue citations for high grass and improper garbage disposal. Buffalo residents view the strike force as an occupying army rather than a guardian of public safety.

Furthermore, BPD officials are considering arming its patrols officers with military grade AR-15s. The Police Benevolent Association has advocated greater militarization of the force in light of national police protests and recent killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Councilmember Wingo’s protest comes at a critical moment when elected officials and social justice advocates locally and nationally are looking for viable alternatives to broken windows policing. For Wingo, police reform in the U.S. must begin by honoring the sanctity of black Americans’ lives.