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Buffalo councilman raises fist in silent protest during Pledge of Allegiance

Buffalo Common Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. raised his fist in silent protest during the Pledge of Allegiance before Tuesday’s meeting of the Council and altered the words of the pledge as a separate prayer he said to himself.

“I opted to pray during the pledge,” said Wingo, who represents the Masten District, “and my allegiance is to God.”

When Council members stood to honor those who had died, Wingo noted the death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed African-American man who was shot to death Friday by police in Tulsa, Okla.

A video released by police showed Crutcher walking toward his stalled vehicle with his hands up, then falling to the ground after reaching his car. No weapon was found on his body or in his vehicle.

“That could have been me,” Wingo said. “Enough is enough. I’m tired. This country is tired. My people are tired. When is it going to stop? And it needs to stop now!”

Wingo, 36, said later that the Pledge of Allegiance phrase “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” does not reflect the reality for many African-American citizens whom he said routinely face discrimination, racism and segregation in big and small ways.

“Clearly, the flag doesn’t mean the same thing to all people,” he said. “This is in response to every black person who has died without a weapon in their hand.”

Instead of reciting the pledge, Wingo said, he took the opportunity to say the following prayer, which he posted on Facebook: “I pledge allegiance, to My God of the United States of America, and to His providence, on which we stand, one God, one Faith, and one Baptism, in his name, and salvation to all. Amen.”

Wingo also said he isn’t sure how long he will raise his fist in protest during Council meetings, but would probably repeat his actions before future sessions until he sees some change in police culture.

“There has to be acknowledgment that something is wrong,” he said. “And when there is acknowledgment that something is wrong, then we can move forward with liberty and justice for all.”

Wingo’s actions went unnoticed by a number of his fellow Council members. But Wingo did pull Council President Darius G. Pridgen aside just before the meeting to alert him about what he planned to do. Pridgen raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

After the meeting, Pridgen similarly chose to offer no comment beyond stating that it was not his role to police how Council members observe the pledge and that he wished to speak with Wingo further to “hear where his heart is on the issue.”

Pridgen said that while Wingo gave him a brief alert about the silent protest, he offered no explanation in Council Chambers.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda declined to comment, saying he was not at the Council session.

Wingo said his comments are not a criticism of Buffalo police, with whom he enjoys a positive working relationship.

“I’m not protesting police,” he said. “I need for people to acknowledge that we have problems about valuing black lives.”

Michael J. DeGeorge, spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, said Buffalo has not had incidents similar to those in place such as Tulsa because police participate in updated cultural diversity training, enhanced community policing and various outreach programs.

“Many of these initiatives have been in place for years,” DeGeorge said in a statement late Tuesday.

South Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, who often speaks in support of the Buffalo police union, said city police welcome additional training and often wish they received more of it. He also said that the high-profile police shooting deaths of unarmed African-American men in other parts of the country have not happened here, although less-serious incidents still need more attention.

Wingo agreed.

Fatal shootings of African-Americans by Buffalo police are rare.

In 2007, a black officer shot 17-year-old Buffalo high school student Deandre Baldon. The teen was shot after a car chase involving him and several accomplices linked to an apparent attempt to silence the victim of a Buffalo home invasion earlier that year.

In 2012, Isaac Parker, 48, was fatally shot by a black police officer. Parker, who was intoxicated, attempted to flee while dragging another officer who was partially in the vehicle.

There have been at least four incidents in which off-duty or retired officers, all African-American, have fatally shot an African-American in self-defense in recent years, said attorney Thomas H. Burton, who frequently represents area police officers involved in cases where deadly force has been used.

And there have been instances where blacks have inflicted gunshot wounds on Buffalo police officers that caused their deaths.

Officer Patricia A. Parete was shot and paralyzed in 2006 while investigating a reported fight at the corner of Chippewa Street and Elmwood Avenue. She died in 2013 at age 48 of complications from the shooting.

Officer Charles E. “Skip” McDougald, a 36-year-old black patrolman, was shot to death in 1997 by a young black man he attempted to stop on Northampton Street to ask about a car that was reportedly stripped and abandoned a block away.

Burton added that police are “schooled extensively on the law of when they can use their weapon and also how to use that weapon with tactical training.”

Scanlon said that while he respects the need for more police training and recognizes the seriousness of the issues that Wingo raised, he also said that it was not appropriate to use the Pledge of Allegiance as a means of getting his message out.

“I don’t believe that’s the time and place for that,” he said.

“Whether they are NFL players or Council members, these people have pretty large platforms. It’s not like this is the only time when they can get the word out.”

Sitting, kneeling or offering other forms of silent protest during the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem has attracted considerable public attention in recent weeks.

Last month, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made news when he sat during the national anthem to protest black oppression. Others in the league have joined him in solidarity, as have at least one New York City councilman and state senators who have refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

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