There was palpable tension in the room Monday as Cornell police officers and district attorney candidate Edward Kopko sought to offer students pragmatic advice on dealing with law enforcement, while audience members countered that conflicts result from systemic racism.
Over 60 students attended the discussion, hosted by the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the ALANA Intercultural Board and Black Students United on Monday. Called “Know Your Rights,” the event aimed to begin a dialogue on “the history of mistrust between police departments and communities of color,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
Kopko, who acknowledged the role of “an insidious, sneaky racism” in the judicial and law enforcement system, emphasized that the main message he wanted students to walk away with was an acknowledgement of their rights and responsibilities when confronted by law enforcement.
“You have your own responsibilities to be calm,” he told the crowd, which mostly consisted of students of color. “If you walk out of here tonight learning one thing from this stuff, keep your mouth shut. Don’t talk. You can get yourself in trouble.”
For Hendryck Gellineau ’19, Kopko’s advice was not enough.
“The problem is not that I’m not exercising my rights, it’s that they’re not being respected,” Gellineau said. “And if that is the case, this room shouldn’t be filled with us right now, it should be filled with police officers.”
Kopko and the two CUPD officers fielded questions from the crowd. When asked about how he reconciles recent violent events against people of color in his line of work, Anthony Bellamy — an African American CUPD officer — spoke on a personal level.
“I want to help people, number one,” Bellamy said. “Number two, I got told I couldn’t do it. I got told I couldn’t do it. A black man can’t be a cop.”
Bellamy claimed that a turning point was when his son questioned him about a shooting earlier this year.
“I fumbled around with my emotions, trying to figure out what to tell my son,” he said. “My son is asking every time there’s been a shooting why groups are protesting. … That’s real for me. Every day. But I do this job because I want to help people.”
Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and BSU advisor, said she thought the event was successful at promoting conversations about what constitutes a complicated and widespread problem.
“A black man talking about what he tells his son, that’s real,” she said. “This is a very complicated conversation, because the issue is systemic. And you won’t clearly resolve any major problems here. But you can know more about how to conduct yourself with law enforcement.”
Kopko also acknowledged what he called the heart of the problem, saying that knowing one’s rights in a law enforcement encounter is helpful, but “in the exact moment, it does nothing for you.”
“It’s a systemic problem,” he said, to the crowd’s applause and murmurs of approval. “There is a racial bias in the American criminal justice system.”
Although Gellineau acknowledged the tense atmosphere and current lack of a solution to these issues, he said he felt no “animosity” in the room.
“There are a lot of things that we understand being at the point and position that we are in, and a lot of things that they understand, and those things clashed today,” he said. “But what came of it was mutual understanding, and that in the end was mutually beneficial.”