A community member draws at a Juneteenth celebration put on by the Black Artist Collective and Black Cuse Pride earlier this year. Organizers accused the city of having a subjective permitting process that violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights after the 2021 event.

Two local groups are hoping that a recent settlement with the city of Syracuse will lead to fewer police at events and a better permitting process.

The Black Artist Collective and Black Cuse Pride sued the city last year after Syracuse required the groups to staff and pay for police officers at their event. The groups argued the permit process was not objective, and could lead to bias against applicants. 

Under the settlement, the city is required for the next five years to provide all permit applications to the groups’ lawyers, Andrew Croom and Josh Cotter, both of Legal Services of Central New York. While they are not tasked with approving or denying the permits, they will be monitoring the outcomes of the applications to ensure fairness. Croom said the results of their monitoring will be made public. 

The settlement also created a new permit process with objective criteria for when a Syracuse police patrol is required and allows event holders to hire private security rather than police for events. 

Cjala Surratt, co-founder of the Black Artist Collective, said the group set out to change the permitting process to prevent others from having similar experiences.

While the groups sued the city, they heard of other organizations who had similar experiences, according to Martikah Williams, another member of the Black Artist Collective. 

“We work with a lot of vulnerable populations that would’ve just taken it. They would’ve just spent the money or they wouldn’t have their events. They wouldn’t gather in the spaces they pay taxes for,” Surratt said. “So, ultimately, it was about having something that was codified, written down, to which the city would be accountable for.”

The two groups filed the lawsuit in July 2021 after they planned to hold a Juneteenth event, including a film festival and pop-up market on public land in the Inner Harbor. 

Syracuse police and a city clerk informed the group that by signing and submitting permits, they had agreed to have a uniformed police presence at the event, to allow Syracuse police to search attendees and to pay five Syracuse police officers a rate of $55 per hour. 

Williams said she felt the permitting process and the city’s decision to require SPD patrol the event was subjective. The city told organizers a patrol was required because music was going to be played at the event.  

“A lot of the things we were getting dinged on by SPD, it felt almost like microaggressions,” said Williams.

The group ultimately decided to hold its event. The organizers asked that officers not enter the event and instead patrol the perimeter. Williams and Surratt said officers responded to other calls while they patrolled the event and at least one showed up late. 

“Regardless of how SPD felt,” Surratt said, “it was an antagonistic presence at a community event.” 

While the two groups were suing the city, other groups came to them and shared similar experiences. 

Neither of the groups have held events in public spaces that are subject to the city’s permitting process since the lawsuit was filed. They moved their 2022 Juneteenth event to a space managed by Iron Pier in the Inner Harbor. 

Black Artist Collective and Jaleel Campbell are holding a “Paint in the Park” event on Saturday. That will be held at Performance Park on Wyoming Street, a space managed by the Near West Side Initiative.   

The city’s new permitting process went into effect on Aug. 28 of this year. 

While the organizers themselves haven’t held any events in public spaces, Surratt said she has already seen the results of their work.

Surratt attended a recent community event in downtown Syracuse. The person holding the event hired private security and was able to forgo police. It went off without a hitch, she said. 

“People can recognize now there are other ways to enact change in our community besides — and not that the ways that we’ve been doing it, protesting and lobbying, not that that’s not powerful or impactful — but we can also go this route too,” Williams said. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Black Artist Collective and Black Cuse Pride paid the police department for security at its 2021 Juneteenth event. It did seek funding to pay the fee but the city ultimately covered the cost.

A previous version of this article also stated that Black Cuse Pride was hosting a “Paint in the Park” event on Saturday. Black Artist Collective is hosting the event in conjunction with Jaleel Campbell.

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.