Note this statement is not an endorsement of any candidate. Rather it is a critique of the way that Amherst town government supports white supremacy. Also, this is not an exhaustive list of the egregious statements and actions made by these councilors.
In the summer of 2020, the brutal police killing of George Floyd amidst the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BIPOC communities ignited a wave of protests nationally.
Locally, community members came together to advocate for town funding to be reallocated from the Amherst Police Department into services that would better serve BIPOC and other traditionally marginalized residents. Defund413Amherst organized community members to speak at budget and Town Council meetings. Councilors commented that the budget hearing in July 2020 was one of the best attended public meetings of its kind. Yet calls to defund the police were pushed aside as “merely a phase.” No meaningful monetary reallocation took place that budget cycle (though two vacant police positions were frozen for a period of six months).
At the time, many incumbent candidates now running in contested 2021 races remained silent on the issue of police violence, or dismissed the voices of BIPOC neighbors who had come forward to share their trauma.
As the next budget cycle approached, another opportunity arose to push for reimagining public safety when the majority BIPOC Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) was formed. The CSWG rose to the task and made thoughtful recommendations for creating community based services that are more inclusive for BIPOC residents, including CRESS, a BIPOC youth empowerment center, a BIPOC community center, and a department of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Again, candidates currently running for re-election were not vocal supporters of the plan, and again, some were outright racist in their treatment of CSWG members. While some councilors have expressed some support for the CRESS program, none have advocated for the funding level recommended by CSWG. Councilors have been silent or voiced opposition to the remaining components proposed by CSWG.
Ultimately, after significant community pushback, the CRESS program was allocated $475,000 in the FY22 budget, the Town offered to hire a DEI director, and an existing HR position was reframed to include a diversity focus. No money or additional positions were redirected from the police department and no serious consideration was given to the rest of the CSWG’s recommendations for proactive community safety programs.
Fast forward to the 2021 election season, where many of the same incumbents are listing their support of CSWG among their accomplishments during their first term! Even in the most generous light, this mischaracterization of their records on the subject is performative activism. As community members who have followed Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s advice to “pay attention,” we’d like to set the record straight about four incumbents running for re-election: Evan Ross, Andy Steinberg, George Ryan, and Mandi Jo Hanneke.
Ross was absent during the July 2020 public budget hearings, during which the call to defund Amherst Police Department arose. Upon his return, during the budget vote he supported the police position freeze, stating, “There’s a lot of discomfort with the optics that we’re doing nothing, but we’re working to eventually move money to other places,” adding that it could be a priority of the town manager to “reimagine policing” and that he supported the recommendation to freeze several police positions with a lot of discomfort, “…knowing it’s the best course forward with what we want to do as a council.” He voted to pass the budget as is.
During the formation of the CSWG, Ross voiced overall disinterest in transparency, so that applicants can be known by the public and councilors. The process in Amherst is secret.
Ross’ campaign website touts his support for CRESS as an accomplishment. While he did second a motion put forth to double the number of responders from the town manager’s proposal, the final number of responders approved by town council was still HALF of what CSWG recommended.
Further, at the 5/27/21 Finance Committee-CSWG meeting, he spoke against Town Manager Bockelman’s proposal to shift the funding for the vacant economic director position to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion director, which was a recommendation of the CSWG.
While championing himself as an advocate for CRESS, and arguing that people should choose to vote for him because of his work on this issue, Ross has failed to support the CSWG in any meaningful way. This is clear co-optation of the tireless work the CSWG has done in hopes of increasing BIPOC community trust in alternative public safety services. His opposition of the DEI position, also proposed by the CSWG, in favor of an economic director highlights a prioritization of profits over people.
As the chair of the Finance Committee, Andy Steinberg has been the facilitator of many important budget meetings. In the July 2020 budget hearings, and in the May 2021 “joint” meeting with CSWG, he played an active role in silencing public comment.
Additionally, in that meeting, he kept the CSWG in the audience for two hours while the Finance Committee discussed details of the working group’s proposed CRESS program. In a half-hearted apology after CSWG members expressed their frustration, he said, “I’m very sorry if the choices made about process were not the correct choices, but they were made in good faith and what we tried to do was to start by having the first presentation by the CSWG at our town council meeting and then having the town manager to have a response to it so the first and last word would be from the working group. If that was a bad choice I’ll take responsibility. But it was about giving the first and last piece to the CSWG. What we thought was a reasonable approach. Given the time now, I do want to draw it to a close. I need to recognize the co-chairs from the CSWG to close out.“ This was just one of his attempts to curtail public comment at this meeting.
Additionally, Steinberg has often cited his experience in legal aid to “white-mansplain” the experience of people of color who are victims of crimes. He has explained that he has worked in domestic violence and often collaborated with police. These comments, which often include stories of crime victims who are grateful for police involvement in their cases, have been paternalistic and dismissive of the lived experiences of BIPOC residents who have shared their unease about seeking help from police in Amherst.
Finally, he is often seen in meetings sleeping. Whether it is out of disinterest or due to a medical condition, this is disrespectful when people are sharing their stories and addressing the trauma of white supremacy in town.
George Ryan has consistently and openly shown disdain when BIPOC residents have shared their experiences with white supremacy in town, when people have uplifted the work of the CSWG, and when community members have stressed the need to address racist policing in town. He has rolled his eyes as community members give public comment, shaken his head, and buried his head in his hands. This sends a strong message that BIPOC lives don’t matter.
Further, in a GOL meeting on August 5, 2020, when discussing incorporating the term “social justice” into the town manager goals, he made racist statements that indicated he thought BIPOC residents were fabricating their experiences.
“I feel that it [the language] shouldn’t be strong. The people that I am speaking to would not endorse strong language in this regard. We can acknowledge a concern but I have deep ambivalence about some of the claims that are being made. Just because people claim things doesn’t mean that they are true. I would like to keep the language vague.”
He continued by acknowledging his opposition to the $80,000 set aside in the FY21 budget for addressing racial equity.
About this funding, Ryan said, “This [money for addressing racial equity] was a decision that was made by the Town Manager. I just disagree. Maybe I’m a symptom of the disease you are talking about but I hear from other people including some POC that these claims may not be real and I don’t believe that we have some obligation to address them.”
He has not made any significant statements in support of the CSWG recommendations.
He has also described receiving public input as being “ambushed.” This lack of receptiveness is consistent with his outward displays of disinterest and disrespect.
Mandi Jo Hanneke
As a town councilor, Mandi Jo Hanneke has fluctuated between exhibiting white silence and expressing sentiments of the “all lives matter” variety. She remained largely silent through the FY21 budget process, wading into the waters of social justice advocacy following the January 6, 2021 insurrection. However, she was not able to convey an understanding of the connection between white supremacists storming the Capitol and white supremacists patrolling the streets.
Though she voiced support for a scaled-down version of the CRESS program, she was the sole vote against the reparations initiative. For these reasons, it is safe to say that Hanneke is not an advocate for racial justice issues.
Despite putting forward a “Resolution in Support of the CRESS Program” alongside Councilor Pat DeAngelis (which passed with a small amendment), Hanneke declined to support specifying a set number of community responders for the program, and ultimately the number of responders that the town council recommended to the town manager was half of what the CSWG recommended.
Additionally, at the most recent town council meeting, on October 4, 2021, Councilor Hanneke expressed dismay that White residents in Amherst would be largely left out of the proposed committee to carry on the work of the CSWG, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC). She stated “I am concerned about the 5/7 BIPOC super majority, in a town where 70% of the population is white (non-Hispanic) [and] as far as purpose […] While some of the sentences say the purpose of this [committee] is to support all members of the Amherst community to understand and enjoy the benefits of a community that is truly diverse, the sentence in the middle states specifically says ‘specific advice and support to fully realize the resolution Town Council adopted’ that relates only to Black residents. So I sometimes, in reading this, get concerned that the committee would be focused on community safety for Black residents only, not for all BIPOC residents or all residents in town. Community safety and social justice is a need for all residents, not just Black residents.”
The position of Defund413Amherst is that there cannot be safety for all residents if our BIPOC community members are not safe. Hanneke’s comment demonstrates that she does not prioritize anti-racist policies, nor is she willing to give up her white privilege in order to uplift BIPOC neighbors.
But Hanneke was not finished sharing her concern with the proposed charge of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee. “Lastly, funding priorities can sneak into measures the council adopts in non-funding measures.” She went on to express concern that creating this group could imply that the council supports the CSWG’s recommendations to fund a BIPOC youth empowerment center and a BIPOC Multicultural center, when the council has not identified them as funding priorities.
These proactive community safety programs that the CSWG recommended, after extensive research and community input, were not included in the FY22 funding proposal from the town manager, nor have they been championed by Councilor Hanneke or any of the incumbent councilors running in the 2021 election.
In order to create meaningful change in Amherst, we must abandon the status quo. We must uplift the voices of BIPOC and historically disempowered residents and put them in positions to contribute to decision making in Amherst. We must implement all of the CSWG’s recommendations in order to re-envision public safety and community care. We must vote out incumbent town councilors who have hindered anti-racist initiatives in town. We must show up on November 2. Find information about polling places, early voting, and mail-in ballots here.