Solidarity has strengthened across the country and the world in response to the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. Protests have hit many of the major cities, including New York, with some signs of impact becoming apparent, not only by the arrest of the officers involved in Floyd’s death, but many municipalities taking a hard look at how the law is enforced in their communities.
Change is being demanded at the micro level as well, with some Manhattan College students and alumni leading a movement to remove the name of a former New York Police Department commissioner from one of its buildings — one of the architects of what would become known as “stop-and-frisk,” Raymond Kelly.
The practice was common under mayors David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg, allowing patrol officers to search generally anyone they wanted on city streets. The problem, according to later investigations into the practice, is such searches disproportionately targeted black and Latino communities, and were significantly reduced under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Kelly was first appointed commissioner in 1992 under Dinkins, continuing in his role until fellow Manhattan College alum Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1994. He returned under Bloomberg in 2002 after serving as President Bill Clinton’s U.S. Customs Service commissioner.
Manhattan College named its new conference building Kelly Commons after the commissioner in 2014 not long after he stepped down as commissioner for a second time. The honor was bestowed thanks to one of many donations to the school by Thomas O’Malley, a petroleum company executive who graduated with Kelly.
The dedication at the time was attended by a number of dignitaries, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said people from the city and state owed Kelly a “tremendous debt of gratitude.”
“His life is a testament to the virtue of service taught by the Christian brothers, and a commitment to excellence,” Cuomo said, according to a release at the time. “Manhattan College could not have chosen a better name than Raymond Kelly.”
Yet that sentiment — at least with one recent master’s degree graduate from the school — has changed recently.
“It made me think about how Commissioner Kelly was linked to our school,” said Daniel Aguirre. The Floyd killing convinced him to dive deeper into research on police brutality, eventually leading him to stop and frisk. Reading Kelly’s support for the controversial policies and still earning the honor of having a building named after him prompted Aguirre to reach out to old classmates, pushing for a change, eventually submitting a resolution to the Manhattan College student government.
The resolution has since been posted online, which has since drawn the support of hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni.
“I think it has been monumental considering the fact that we are not all on campus,” said Rabea Ali, who helped draft the resolution.
Then again, controversy over Kelly Commons is not new. Conversations over the name have brewed ever since initial construction efforts began. It even led to a protest when the building opened. Ali said she and another classmate, Ireland Twiggs, had been aware of the murmurs over the naming since they started at the school.
“We really wanted to highlight change for both our students of color and in creating a more inclusive community on campus,” Twiggs said.
With the school’s student government in recess until the fall, it has yet to take up the resolution. But another of its authors, Liam Moran, believes the resolution will lead to a campus-wide discussion — one that could reach the ears of the college administration and potentially sway their decision.
“Which is really what I think will be most beneficial and helpful in growing through these tough periods of confronting the actions of one of our alumni and the merit of having a building on campus,” Moran said.
Ashley Cross, a Manhattan College professor and co-director of the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center, called Kelly’s naming an affront to students of color and the values of the college.
She hopes administrators will listen to the students’ concerns, keeping the current social climate in mind.
Manhattan’s Critical Race and Ethnicity Studies committee called the Kelly Commons a symbol of “white supremacy” citing the former police commissioner’s role in what they described as “state violence” against the black community. It should be renamed under their guidance, they added, using a subcommittee that also could be consulted on any future campus namings.
David Witzling, the ethnicity studies program director, says it’s essential in this age to understand the perspective of people who have been racially profiled.
Manhattan College administrators are aware of the concerns raised over Kelly Commons, spokesman Peter McHugh said. They are actively addressing any underlying conflicts due to racism.
“Our goal is to hear and support all members of our community,” McHugh said, in a statement, “especially those who have suffered injustice as we continue to work to be an inclusive community.”
Priya Varanasi has been actively researching the Kelly Commons name for a school assignment. In her paper, she explores the origins and potential motives of the naming, and the detriments of choosing it. She argues the naming whitewashes Kelly’s legacy, leaving certain students ignorant or under-valued in the college’s identity.
“Names highlight certain lived experiences and declare who belongs in — and thus owns — a space,” Varanasi wrote. “Even if spaces made within that building contrast the message sent to the outside world, this way of operating is indicative of institutional behavior and attitudes — namely, the act of compromising a message of social justice as the institution tries to internally operate spaces for the marginalized.”