BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Byron Brown says he’s been getting about five hours of sleep lately, on a good night, that is. At other times, he might lie sit quietly in his chair until well after midnight, reading texts and emails or quietly meditating.
“I’m working seven days a week, so it’s been pretty consistent,” Buffalo’s mayor said Tuesday at his City Hall office. “A never-ending grouping of meetings and conversations with people throughout the community.”
Brown, who turns 62 in September, was asked if he’s tired. “I don’t really have the time to get tired,” he said.
He looks a little fatigued these days, and it’s no wonder. This has been the most challenging year of Brown’s decade and a half as mayor. On Tuesday, it had been exactly 100 days since Gov. Cuomo closed down all non-essential business in New York State due to the coronavirus epidemic.
It seems like an eternity — and at the same time, the blink of an eye. Brown has been conducting regular briefings on COVID-19 since Cuomo ordered the lockdown. On May 25, a country in recovery was rocked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Brown, the first African-American mayor in Buffalo’s history, watched video of Floyd dying with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck in his home with his wife, Michele, and son, Byron III. Like many Americans, they wept at the sight.
“It was an emotional moment,” Brown said. “It was very painful to watch, seeing the pain it evoked in my wife and my son, and what that man went through that ended up being played over and over and over.”
“It was very painful to see another human being treated like that, and to know that was just a continuation of the story of unarmed black people being killed in this country, not only in recent times but down through the history of our country.”
The nation erupted in protest over the issue of police brutality. Protesters hit the streets of Buffalo, leading to violence and clashes with police. The city became a national focus of police misconduct when a 75-year-old man named Martin Gugino was shoved to the ground by two Buffalo cops.
If Brown was moved to tears by Floyd’s killing, he was outraged by what happened to Gugino, who was left lying on his back and bleeding from his head by police. The two cops, Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe, were suspended without pay and later charged with felony assault.
On June 6, all 57 members of the Emergency Response Unit of the Buffalo Police Department quit the unit at the behest of the police union. A week later, Brown appeared on “CBS This Morning” with Tonawanda native Jeff Glor and called the PBA’s action “unconscionable,” and he’s still seething.
“I think the police union has become an institution in and of itself,” he said. “If officers speak honestly, there are a lot of things about the union that they don’t like, that they don’t support. But there’s also a feeling that the union is a vehicle for the benefits that they have, the protections they need, and they’re fearful to speak out against their own union.”
Brown said the 57 members of the emergency response team were prepared to work, but received a text from the PBA saying they would lose union protection if they did so. He compared it to an insurance company telling a surgeon he was going into an operation without coverage.
“It was unconscionable,” he reiterated. “It was wrong. But that’s the kind of power the union wields, even over its own members.”
Such is the thankless job of an American mayor nowadays. The police union thinks Brown isn’t supportive enough. The public thinks he’s too soft on the police. On Monday, Brown announced he was rolling out the first phase of “sweeping” changes in the city’s police policies on Wednesday.
Police officers will issue appearance tickets for low-level offenses, rather than handcuffing suspects and transporting them to the station. This will limit the sort of “unnecessary or unwarranted” physical contact between police officers and residents that has set off protests around the nation.
There will be “stop receipts” issued for all traffic stops to provide a clear explanation for the stop. It’s the rare African-American who doesn’t have the story about being pulled over for “driving while black” in this country.
The question, of course, is why it took the Floyd death for Brown and the city to push out these reforms.
“This is happening in every community — urban, suburban and now rural across America,” Brown said. “It’s happening around the world. So this is a global reaction to systemic racial injustice that’s world-wide, and hundreds of years old.
“So yeah,” he said with a laugh, “a lot of things should have happened before. In Buffalo, we have been in a continuous cycle of reform. Even before the George Floyd situation, we were training every police officer to be a community police officer. We set up the neighborhood engagement team, a unit of our police department, to get into our communities and work with communities.”
Brown has broken racial barriers in his career. He was part of the first black majority on the Common Council. He was the first black state senator outside New York City in 2001. And of course, he was the first black mayor of Buffalo, and one of few African-American mayors in a white-majority U.S. city.
Along the way, he worked under such black leaders as George Arthur, Roger Blackwell, James Pitts and Arthur O. Eve. He also worked as an intern for former mayor Jimmy Griffin and county executive Dennis Gorski. Black and white, he took a little bit of leadership from all of them.
But race always matters, as a divided nation continues to discover to its dismay.
“I have tried to function as mayor of the City of Buffalo. But every room I walk into, it doesn’t escape anybody that I am black. There are a lot of rooms that I walk into that I’m the only black person in the room. Some members of the black community, and other communities, don’t see the years of advocacy I have made for those communities in those rooms when I’m the only person in the room.
“I have been talking about these issues to other people, trying to create equal opportunities for people, for a long period of time. Now, when we see all this unrest, people tend to forget that I’ve hired more black people than any mayor in the history of the City of Buffalo. More Latinos than any mayor in the city. In fact, more women than any other mayor.”
Brown has a mixed record as mayor, but he has presided over an economic recovery and downtown revitalization in the city. He’s been elected four times, so he’s doing something right. But you still hear people say he doesn’t do much for a city that remains one of the poorest and most segregated in the nation.
He’s famous for his equanimity, in his words “never getting too high or too low”, but he bristled at that criticism.
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars in development taking place on the East Side right now,” Brown said. “Our summer youth program, we’re spending the most money in the history of the city and hiring youth to be trained and mentored and earn money in the summer.
“My attitude was, if we hire more black people, more people that live on the East Side, they would be able to do more for themselves and their families and their neighborhoods. This shouldn’t be about what can one person do for me, but what can we do for each other. Every one of us, wherever we are, has a responsibility to do the most we can to promote progress and to advance ourselves, our family and our society.”
Brown, a Queens native, arrived at Buffalo State as a 17-year-old freshman (where he played a year of JV basketball) and never left. He saw both sides of the city he would adopt as his hometown, the good and the bad. Sure, he experienced racism in a highly segregated place.
“When I came here, I actually saw that,” he said. “But I also saw a different Buffalo. I saw a friendly Buffalo in many ways. I saw a warm Buffalo. Yeah, there were racist elements of Buffalo. I remember walking down Grant Street as a college student and being called an (he spelled out the N word).
“But I also remember just this past weekend, walking down the street in the city of Buffalo and being called an (again, he spelled the N word) by other black people.”
“One of the things I was taught in my household was to respect other people growing up. If you want respect you have to give respect. What I try to do is every person I have encountered since I was a child to right now, I try to treat with respect, and treat people the way I would want to be treated. That’s the way my parents taught me.”
For all its flaws, Brown came to understand why Buffalo was “The City of Good Neighbors.” Older men and women embraced him along the way, treated him like a son or brother, helped him become, along with Griffin, the only four-term mayors in the city’s history.
“That’s why I fell in love with Buffalo early,” Brown said, “and made the decision early that this was where I wanted to live, this was where I wanted to make my home and raise my family. Yeah, fell in love with Buffalo early.”
These past few months have been the toughest of his life, and it doesn’t promise to get any easier, with the economic crush of the pandemic sure to weigh on the city for years to come.
“We know here in Buffalo there have been literally thousands of people that have been furloughed or laid off or lost jobs,” he said. “We are preparing now a program with federal resources that have come to the city to protect people from evictions — residents protected from eviction and residents to be able to pay their mortgage who have lost their employment due to COVID-19.”
His 2021 budget proposal, released in early May, has been criticized by the comptroller, Barbara Miller-Williams. Of course, in 2021 there will be a mayoral election. Brown hasn’t decided whether to run for an unprecedented fifth term, but he sounded like a man who knows there will be much work yet to be done in the years ahead.
“There is some unfinished business, and right now the community is in crisis,” Brown said. “The community is hurting and in pain. We have to ask ourselves, who are the most equipped people right now to help lead our community through this very difficult and challenging time.”
He and his sister were the first in their family to attend college. He was groomed to push high, to go out and seek the promise of a changing America. That was half a century ago. While it’s distressing to see the persistent racism, he’s encouraged to see people, many of them young and white, rising up behind the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We were taught to never quit anything,” he said. “I never quit. I never give up. I never back up. I keep moving forward.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.