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City Council president to people of color: 'The conversation will continue'

By Mike Pettinella
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Batavia City Council President Eugene Jankowski said he plans to continue the conversation started by speakers at Sunday’s Downtown “March for Justice,” assuring people of color in the community that city leaders will be open to their concerns.

“What I can say is ‘get your council person involved; we’ll help you,’ ” Jankowski said today as he prepares comments to be shared with other council members at tonight’s Business Meeting.

Council members will gather at City Hall for the first time since early March, but the public and media will not be allowed to attend – instead having to view it via Zoom videoconferencing or Facebook Live.

Jankowski said he wasn’t aware of the hesitancy among African Americans and other minorities to contact City Council.

“There are certain members of the community that apparently didn’t feel comfortable calling us, and they didn’t know why they didn’t feel comfortable calling us,” he said. “So, they want to call us now and I say, ‘Please do.’ ”

Jankowski said organizers of the protest, which drew hundreds of residents to gather in front of the City Centre and march on Main Street, invited him to attend. He and Police Chief Shawn Heubusch stood quietly by as speakers with megaphones addressed the crowd.

What the two men heard were impassioned pleas for city officials to “hear our cries … this is my community … we are uncomfortable … Black Lives Matter.”

They also heard from speakers who said they have been harassed by police, don’t feel welcome in restaurants and other public places and are fearful for their children’s safety.

“This is very emotional. I didn’t realize some of the pain that the members of our community were feeling. It definitely sparks me to work a little harder to try to drill down and find out what we can do to make everyone who lives here feel that they’re included and welcome here,” Jankowski said when interviewed by The Batavian during the event.

Victor Thomas, the protest’s key speaker, said he believes the peaceful protest was a good beginning.

“We got our message across," Thomas said. "You can see that Batavia is standing with us today – and that’s a beautiful thing. But it doesn’t stop today. Today is just a start. We’ve got to continue the conversation." 

He issued a call to “push this agenda to prove that this is our community.”

“It’s not what they said. Not with these boards on these windows. Not this negative vibe that they were sending around town about buses coming in here. This is Batavia. This has always been Batavia,” he said. “We thank you for listening to us, but we need to see some action. We will continue to march for justice.”

Jankowski said he plans to stay in touch with organizers and bring their issues to City Council.

“My belief, from what I’ve been told by the organizers, is that they are reaching out to all members of Council to create a path of communication going forward,” said Jankowski, who apparently was the only council member to attend the protest.

Heubusch acknowledged that “this is a conversation that is long overdue for all of us, I think.”

“We’re certainly going to start that conversation,” he said, calling the protesters “a bunch of good guys here and a bunch of great women that want to do the right thing. So, we’re here to help in any way we can. We want to help keep the peace and move this community forward.”

Batavia City School District Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr., a person of color, also spoke on Sunday.

Afterward, he pointed to the “pain and hurt” across the nation.

“It’s no different here in Batavia. There’s been lack of visibility of people of color in various positions,” he said, noting that 22 percent of Batavia students are either African American or Latino. “But it is important to be unified – just to let them know we’re in this together. This we have to address, and the best way to solve this is to get engaged and get involved.”

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