Three leaders of Buffalo's African-American community and a local attorney Monday announced plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the Town of Cheektowaga and its Police Department, based on allegations of harassment, discrimination and racial profiling against African-Americans and other minorities.
The Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, called on African-Americans and others to join together in holding Cheektowaga police and Walden Galleria security officers accountable for alleged acts of racism.
"A few years ago, the African-American community lost a queen by the name of Cynthia Wiggins because of covert efforts to keep the inner-city residents out of a mall," Pridgen said. "Now, years later, there has been absolutely no known move to change the atmosphere nor the fear that inner-city residents experience when shopping or driving through Cheektowaga."
Pridgen has joined with local NAACP leader Frank Mesiah; the Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church; and Buffalo attorney Roland Cercone to form a coalition to collect accounts of racial profiling and discrimination by Cheektowaga police and mall security officers, and to file a class-action lawsuit.
The group has set up a hotline at 895-0622 to collect allegations of discrimination at the hands of the Cheektowaga police or mall security. The NAACP also will field calls at 884-7242 from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Cercone said.
Pridgen led a contingent of more than 100 African-Americans from Buffalo to a meeting of the Cheektowaga Town Board Monday night..
Although Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak urged people not to recount personal stories at the meeting, several speakers elicited emotional reactions from the audience when they recalled incidents.
Anita Howton, cradling her baby in her arms, told about a visit to the mall to buy sneakers for her son. She said her mother, a cancer patient, sent her to the mall with her credit card and asked her to buy the sneakers.
When Howton tried to use the credit card at the Finish Line, the cashier refused the card as stolen, Howton said.
Howton said that when she returned with cash to buy the sneakers, she was met by six security officers who accused her of having a stolen credit card.
"They surrounded me and my minor children," she said.
Shortly after, six Cheektowaga police officers arrived, Howton said. One asked her what was going on.
"I said, 'This is a good old case of discrimination at the Galleria mall,' " she said. "He told me, 'I don't want to hear that (expletive).' "
The officers and guards pulled her into the store and arrested her, she said. Since then, she said she has been banned from the mall.
"It's not just you," Billy Howard, a Buffalo resident, told the Town Board. "It's Kenmore, Lancaster -- all the outlying areas me and my people fear going to."
Not everybody accused town police of being racist. A few Cheektowaga residents, including one black and one Latino, defended the police, as well as mall security guards.
One resident, Joseph Hajduk, related a recent visit to the mall, where he he encountered a group of young African-American men.
"What did we see approaching us? A line. A black wall. Very intimidating. They refused to move," Hajduk said.
His comments were met with the disapproval of many in the crowd. After Hajduk addressed the Town Board, he stepped aside and engaged in a brief, heated exchange with Howard, with each man hurling insults at the other.
Gabryszak pledged to organize a panel to review allegations of discrimination and harassment.
"I would call upon you, sir, Rev. Pridgen, to meet with me . . . and to start to build some bridges," said Police Chief Bruce Chamberlin, who defended his record and said his department thoroughly investigates all citizen complaints.
In turn, Pridgen appealed to the board to end racial profiling; to hold a public hearing to give people a chance to tell their stories, and to deny the mall's request for an expansion until racist incidents end there.
The Rev. Jeff Carter of Prince of Peace Church of God in Christ Church called on the Town Board to take cultural diversity training.
"Now is a marvelous opportunity for you as a town council to say we will take cultural diversity training, and we will offer it to all employees of our town," Carter said.