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NPR Project: How Can Americans Make Democracy Work For Them?


NPR News is 50 years old today, 50 years of covering American democracy. And today, we launch a project that poses a question - how can Americans make democracy work for them? In stories to come, we report on tools Americans can use to influence a system many see as failing. MORNING EDITION is capturing local debates of people seeking change, beginning in Rochester, N.Y. It's a fitting place to start, the home of a past fighter for democratic progress.


INSKEEP: Just came around the corner here. Look through the alley, and there's Frederick Douglass...


INSKEEP: ...Standing by an ivy-covered tree.

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery then made Rochester his base as he worked to end it. The city has put up more than a dozen statues of Douglass all around town. He lived here when Rochester was a mill town on the Genesee River. Later, it was home to 20th-century tech firms like Kodak and Xerox. Today, this proudly progressive city is the scene of a bitter debate over its police.


INSKEEP: At bus stops and on sidewalks near the Douglass statue, we interviewed 10 people, and almost all were concerned. Strolling a bridge over the Genesee, Mary Myers recalled a girl pepper-sprayed by police in January.

MARY MYERS: As a teacher, that 9-year-old (crying), just breaks my heart that nobody put their arm around her and said, how can I help you?

INSKEEP: She also knows of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill man. Police found him wandering naked on a street last year, and he died after they took him into custody.

MYERS: And for me, it's about training. It's about training. It's about training.

INSKEEP: A heavily armed police response to last year's protests added more pressure for change. Policing is sure to be an issue in city elections in June. And that is where our story really begins. A protester who pushed for radical change from the outside is now running for city council, seeking radical change from the inside.


INSKEEP: We followed Stanley Martin as she campaigned door to door.



STANLEY MARTIN: Hello. I'm looking for Paola.


INSKEEP: Martin wore a face mask against COVID and a yellow coat against the spring chill.

MARTIN: So I'm running for city council. This is my second time running. And through the summer, I worked a lot as an organizer with the current Black Lives Matter movement. And we're really focusing on reimagining public safety.

INSKEEP: Reimagining public safety - that's the pitch she made in the doorway of Paola Betchart.

BETCHART: Yeah, definitely, rethinking public safety is a priority issue for me.

INSKEEP: Candidate Stanley Martin favors a change so big that as we walked from house to house, she explained that she has to speak of it carefully.

MARTIN: So in our platform, we chose to focus on reimagining public safety using language that we feel people can grasp more versus using language people may not understand right away.

INSKEEP: What this candidate would like to do is gradually abolish the police and replace them with other kinds of services.

MARTIN: You know, abolition, it's not this wild idea. In fact, it's responding to something that's not working for anyone.

INSKEEP: When we sat down to talk, Martin said she arrived at this view gradually. She used to run a nonprofit that worked with people emerging from prison.

MARTIN: So initially I was of the mindset that, you know, police could be reformed. And so I joined the fight to create a police accountability board here in Rochester. We helped write legislation that would eventually be passed through a referendum where over 75% of voters who turned out to that election voted in support of.

INSKEEP: You won.

MARTIN: We won.

INSKEEP: But then lost - a police union lawsuit has, so far, blocked key powers of that outside civilian board. The police resistance provoked Martin to push harder.

MARTIN: That allowed me to start thinking about, you know, the role of police officers and why we even have police officers.

INSKEEP: She decided if Rochester's own Frederick Douglass could be an abolitionist, she can imagine abolishing police.

MARTIN: A lot of the lived experience of members of this community really informed my position as finally saying, you know what? I am an abolitionist, and I do not believe that we need prisons or police to solve the problems we have.

INSKEEP: If you call 911 for an episode like Daniel Prude's, she'd rather mental health counselors come. If there's truly a need for force, like a mass shooting, there might be some new kind of security team - though this brings us to the political challenge of her idea.

Somebody pointed out to me there's been a certain number of murders in Rochester so far this year. It's been not a great year, I guess.

MARTIN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: So who investigates those murders?

MARTIN: I want to point out that with all these murders in Rochester, there is a police department, once again, who are, one, not solving these murders and not preventing it.

INSKEEP: This issue came up when Stanley Martin knocked on the door of voter Joyce Newton.

JOYCE NEWTON: I'm concerned about our neighborhood because of the crime. Everywhere you look, you see little memorials. And especially when you can remember the people that died in those memorials, that is traumatic.

INSKEEP: Martin answered that the city should spend on crime prevention.

MARTIN: Violence prevention programs, you know, interrupt before it gets to this point.

INSKEEP: In the city council primary, Martin is one of close to 20 candidates for five at-large seats. She's part of a progressive slate of candidates, and not even all of them favor abolition. Yet it would be wrong to assume she has no chance to bring change. She has already influenced the life of another Rochester resident, La'Ron Singletary. We met him near a sculpture honoring two of Rochester's past Democratic activists.

What are we looking at here? Can you just describe this for somebody who's never been here before?

LA'RON SINGLETARY: Yes. We're looking at a statue of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony having tea here in Madison Park.

INSKEEP: La'Ron Singletary grew up not far from here. His mom worked for Kodak and his dad for Xerox.

SINGLETARY: He bought me the police scanner, and I used to listen to the police scanner.

INSKEEP: As a kid, he loved the police. He rode his bike to crime scenes. Officers got to know him and became mentors when he later joined the force.

SINGLETARY: It was about helping people. It was about not working in an office every day. It was about doing something different. Each call is different.

INSKEEP: Singletary rose to become chief of police, even though some friends and family questioned his career choice. Singletary, like almost everyone in this story, is Black.

SINGLETARY: I'm an African American who grew up in the city of Rochester, so nobody can tell me how to be Black.

INSKEEP: He says Black police officers sometimes call themselves Black and blue.

Which is an interesting choice, since that can also mean you're bruised - is there something that's bruising about that experience?

SINGLETARY: I wouldn't say it's bruising, but I would say you're put in a position where you have to do a lot of thinking. When we saw the uprising, you know, when George Floyd happened, in Rochester, we had riots that happened here, as they did across the country. I would sit sometimes with officers of color, and we would talk about, what is going on? What can we do? Are we in the right profession?

INSKEEP: Singletary decided he was. Stanley Martin, the police abolitionist, decided he wasn't.


MARTIN: We will not rest until Daniel Prude and Black people across the diaspora receive justice for this murder and all Black lives lost to...


MARTIN: ...State-sanctioned violence.



INSKEEP: Martin, captured here in a documentary, was among the protesters who excoriated police for a delay in releasing the video of Daniel Prude's death. Though a grand jury charged no one, protesters demanded the chief and the mayor resign. The mayor didn't but announced the chief was retiring.

Did you have a moment of saying, wait a minute, I'm the guy who actually can help you here?

SINGLETARY: Absolutely. I think many African American chiefs across the country were feeling that way. I'm from the community that you're from. I understand the issues that you have, and I'm trying to fix that.

INSKEEP: What do you think about activists who go for abolish the police?

SINGLETARY: That'll never happen (laughter). That'll never happen. You will always have an element within society that will try to take advantage of people who cannot defend themselves.

INSKEEP: We invited La'Ron Singletary and Stanley Martin to meet and question each other. They did not. Rochester's debate is so bitter that she said it would be wrong to meet, and his lawyer advised against it. Yet as he talked of the future of policing, Singletary used the same word that Stanley Martin does.

SINGLETARY: I think now we're looking at, you know, possibly reimagining police.

INSKEEP: Reimagining police, by which Singletary means training them to be mental health counselors, teachers, lawyers.

SINGLETARY: So that way we can hopefully prevent incidents like what will happened with Mr. Prude.

INSKEEP: An independent probe found both the chief and the mayor withheld information about Daniel Prude's death. But as she faces reelection, Mayor Lovely Warren now says that death revealed a need for change. We met at Rochester City Hall.

How would you define the problem?

LOVELY WARREN: So I think that you have a organization that's a military organization that technically is supposed to answer to civilians. That doesn't mesh well.

INSKEEP: The city is now testing what it calls person-in-crisis teams who give a non-police response to people with drug or mental health issues.

WAREN: The way to deal with that is not - in my mind, wasn't humane. And it is treated as a criminal matter instead of as a mental health matter. You know, police officers need to be utilized not when they're dealing with situations where it's someone is in a tailspin and needs mental health.

INSKEEP: If Mayor Warren wins another term, she won't be abolishing police. Her allies on the city council include Willie Lightfoot.

WILLIE LIGHTFOOT: There are still a lot of our seniors and a lot of folks who want our police. And when they call 911, they are - expect a police officer to show up.

INSKEEP: Yet Lightfoot's office is down the street from where Daniel Prude died. And he, too, talks of reimagining policing.

LIGHTFOOT: I deal a lot with addicts. And the biggest step that's told us - when they come to acknowledgement that they have a problem. We in this city have acknowledged that we have a problem. And we're taking steps to fix it.

INSKEEP: Lightfoot was a member of a commission that called for reforms like ending traffic stops for minor offenses or making prison a last resort for crime. Rochester's dialogue is changing, which brings to mind Rochester's favorite citizen, Frederick Douglass, the man whose statues are all over town.

He's got his palms upraised as if he's speaking, making a point, which is appropriate. He was a great antislavery speaker and also antislavery writer.

Douglass' democratic achievement was never to win an election. He used his words for decades. He never got all he wanted, yet urged his fellow citizens to reimagine what America could be - on our 50th anniversary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.