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Art Keene

Town Council squandered an important opportunity to lead last night (7/20/20).  The Council that was so quick to grant relief to wealthy Amherst Woods residents in the form of an emergency bridge , the Council that expeditiously revised zoning for downtown businesses and embraced the urgency of installing café lighting — couldn’t muster one single concrete concession to Amherst’s citizens of color and their allies who have been bringing the same complaints to the Town for at least the last 30 years. To the folks who took the time to testify, Councilors offered hand wringing, empty assurances that their words had been heard, and promises that they would definitely look into those concerns in the coming year. But there was not a single offer of substance. 

The Council might have offered something concrete and bold, or even some small act of good faith.  But instead, all we got were platitudes, excuses about how the Councilors’ hands are tied, some tremulous voices, and a little bit of white fragility as some Councilors seemed to be trying to assure the protesters that they are the good White people.

Municipalities all over the country are undertaking bold and creative actions to rethink policing (e.g. look here, here, here, and here.  Even Northampton cut 10 percent from their police budget.  For Northampton,  that’s $675,000 which is enough cash to make some significant investments in human services.  (And here I pledge to continue to point out when Northampton undertakes good work and when they are more progressive and more thoughtful than Amherst, even though Councilor Alisa Brewer reminds us, time and again, that she does not want to hear about Northampton and that she finds such comparisons offensive.)

Amherst had a plethora of options and choices to pursue alternatives to the current model of policing and to address immediately and concretely, the concerns and complaints of our citizens of color. Instead, our Councilors vaguely and ambiguously suggested that something unspecified may be done at some time in the future.  

There were explanations about why our Town couldn’t reallocate funds at this late date. Fine. But the Council could have made an offer showing commitment and good faith and leadership. They failed that test miserably. 

Instead of any concrete action, there were excuses for inaction and plenty of righteous self-justification.   And those tremulous words that were meant show respect for the petitioners seeking cuts in the police budget….  that’s not how I heard them.

The Councilors had access to plenty of ideas and models for actions they might have taken, leaving no excuse for their dismal performance.  Here are some ideas that I was anticipating might be offered in lieu of a budget cut. 

1. The Council could have made a firm commitment to create,  in the coming year,  a citizen’s oversight board to independently monitor police activities, to hear complaints and follow through on them,  and to serve as an independent check and balance on police malfeasance.  And yes, I know that our police department doesn’t beat or kill people and does not use military grade equipment.  That’s a minimum expectation we should have for any police department.  It does not grant APD a pass on racial profiling. Those who argue that APD ought to get more credit for not beating or killing people ought to be trying harder to raise the bar. 

2.  The Council might have made a firm commitment to create an Amherst department of human services which, over the years, would assume the social services duties now fulfilled by the police and that would be funded by a gradual transfer of portions of the police budget to that new department as those duties are transferred.  

3.  The Council could have made a firm commitment to spend the next year studying the transformations of policy and practice in policing that are already being implemented in other communities (like Seattle and Minneapolis and Eugene, and elsewhere) with a promise  to bring the best of those ideas back to Amherst as part of next year’s budget planning.

I suspect that if we asked the people who have taken the time to bring testimony to the Council, they would have all kinds of ideas of other things that might have been taken as acts of good faith.  

But there were no acts of good faith; just hollow assurances of some future action.  Really,  why would anyone take seriously a statement from this government that “we’re going to look into this and we’ll see what we can do”? This disrespect and failure to attend to members of the community justifiably leads to anger and polarization.

When Dr. King was sitting in that Birmingham jail back in 1963 he was assailed by his so-called allies for his tactics.  We agree with your goals, he was told, but not with your tactics — civil disobedience strikes, and speaking out in ways that offended White sensibilities.  You need to tone things down and be patient, he was told.  Changing these things will take time, he was told.   

And how little has changed in 57 years.  Families that experience profiling and harassment by our police department are told to “wait”, “we’ll look into this” in the coming year. I have been hearing complaints about profiling and harassment from friends and colleagues since I moved to Amherst in 1981.  We should all be outraged that this problem persists.  We should all be embarrassed that we care so little about our friends and neighbors and colleagues of color that we allow the problem to go unaddressed;  that we take their appeals and complaints with so little concern.  And I am offended that our leadership can’t muster the same energy for addressing these concerns as they do for the concerns of wealthy, mostly White residents.

Art Keene is Managing Editor of The Amherst Indy.  He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass and has lived in Amherst since 1981. 

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  1. Thanks for writing this, Art. Maybe we should give Town Council the benefit of the doubt, and expect they will take appropriate actions within the next couple of weeks.

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