SCHENECTADY — Authorities are investigating an apparent firebombing of a local woman’s car after she attempted to break up a dispute at a rally.
Jahonna Chaires doesn’t consider herself to be political.
But when she watched a white man described by witnesses as an “agitator” come close to getting beaten to a pulp, she stepped in to intervene — not only to maintain neighborhood peace, but also for his safety.
Chaires, who is black, awoke the next morning to a smoldering vehicle.
“I heard my neighbor yelling, ‘Jo, Jo – your car’s on fire,’” Chaires said.
The busted-out back window of her 2005 Acura MDX, she said, revealed the charred remains of a Molotov cocktail and a hammer Chaires believes was used to break the window.
The clash followed a peaceful protest that saw demonstrators march from the County Jail and up Albany Street to Brandywine Avenue before marchers turned around and headed back toward Jerry Burrell Park, which is located in the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, among the city’s most diverse — and also poorest.
The marchers splintered off and continued to share personal stories of police encounters and systemic racism, inequalities that have come to a head following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month.
Numerous vehicles prowled the perimeter as people spoke, including a Dodge Challenger driving aggressively and doing what eyewitnesses described as “donuts” in the grass.
Two white people in attendance, who were part of a larger group, began hurling racial slurs, according to eyewitnesses.
“It seemed like a set-up just to incite something,” said Shawn Young, an activist with Citizens Action of New York, one of several groups organizing demonstrations in the Capital Region.
The stunt drew an unfavorable reaction and several of the men jumped on a pickup and took off.
But one man was left behind as the truck sped away and was ultimately confronted by the crowd at the corner of Paige and Hamilton streets, just feet from where Chaires was watching in front of her home.
Once a physical confrontation seemed imminent, she stepped in.
“I knew what was about to occur,” Chaires said. “I didn’t want this to turn into a race war.”
She told an angry protester to get back to the park and the agitator to get lost.
The crowd dispersed and the man slipped away.
The night ended peacefully.
Hours later, her car was torched.
Chaires believes she was targeted and remains fearful and on edge because authorities are staying mum.
She watched city police take a man into custody the next day at the corner of Hamilton and Schenectady streets, and identified him as the one she confronted.
“When I looked down the street, all I can say is that’s the guy,” Chaires said.
City police are working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in an ongoing investigation, said city police, who declined to confirm any arrests.
Chaires comes from a family of cops. Her great uncle, Mark Chaires, was the city’s first black police chief.
As such, she has a unique perspective of the tension playing out both locally and nationwide between police and the minority communities they are tasked with serving.
Chaires said she has never viewed people under the prism of race or ethnicity, but the act of violence saddens her and has served as a wake-up call.
And on Thursday, instead of focusing solely on her granddaughter’s fourth birthday, she was sidetracked with securing new transport and her family’s safety.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Chaires said. “We all have to unite as one.”
Local activist Damonni Farley is “saddened but not surprised.”
“We’re seeing incidents like this across the nation,” Farley said. “These are cowardly acts of desperation on behalf of a rapidly shrinking group that want to maintain the status quo. This isn’t black vs. white — it’s wrong vs. right.”
As the protests have grown increasingly sophisticated and organized, internal security forces have cropped up and are working with organizers to monitor potentially disruptive elements, including a trio of white men, some in military-style attire, who trailed protesters for hours in Clifton Park on Monday, one of the handful of demonstrations in the Capital Region in the past two weeks.
“The way they were dressed looked very suspicious,” Young said.
Security attempted to suss out their intentions, but in the absence of direct provocations, they could do little except to monitor their presence.
The situation was similar in downtown Schenectady on Thursday as security monitored vehicles they perceived to be suspicious.
“At every event, I’ve seen an element of that in each city,” Young said. “As momentum continues to grow, I think the element of opposition is growing as well, and that’s something we need to be paying attention to.”
In the meantime, organizers plan on launching a GoFundMe campaign to help Chaires purchase a new car.
“Most people want to be on the right side of this issue,” Farley said. “Real purpose is greater than perceived power, and that’s why we will come together to help Ms. Chaires get through this.”