On Monday October 17, certain members of the Amherst Town Council showed us what white supremacy looks like. At-large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke used the “Right to Postpone” provision in the town charter that gives any single councilor the ability to cease all debate on a motion and postpone it to the next Town Council meeting. This was invoked in response to Councilor Michele Miller proposing a way forward in the matter of the July 5 actions of the Amherst Police Department (APD), in which several juveniles of color were detained and told they “have no rights” by an APD officer.
Councilor Miller’s reasonable motion – to refer the matter to a group consisting of three town committees (the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, and the Human Rights Commission) in consultation with town staff and the town attorney – was made after almost an hour of discussion that included impassioned pleas from members of the CSSJC for the Amherst Police Department and town leaders to address the harm done to the young people involved.
During discussion on the motion, Councilor Hanneke invoked the “Right to Postpone,” which is not subject to discussion or vote, and immediately ceases all debate on the motion. Town Council President Lynn Griesemer used this opportunity to not merely halt debate on the motion, but to cease all discussion of CSSJC business, and move on to the next Town Council agenda item (which is not mandated under this provision).
Members of the CSSJC seemed stunned and angered. CSSJC member Pat Ononibaku said it best when she responded, “This is what white supremacy looks like.” A committee whose charge is to confront systemic racism was trying to work within town government to address an incident that had been inadequately addressed for months. All it took was one person, employing rules of the game she helped to write, to silence them and to deny everyone the chance to hear what they and other elected representatives had to say.
At the joint meeting of the Town Council and the Finance Committee the following day, Hanneke proceeded to read a long letter, not of apology, but defensiveness, stating that she had exercised her right to halt and postpone discussion about the motion because she needed more time to consider it. Given that her actions prevented all of us from hearing others’ perspectives, what was it that she was going to be considering except her own unchallenged thoughts? Only one other councilor had been recognized to speak to the motion before Hanneke brought the entire proceedings to an abrupt end the day before; no one from the CSSJC had the opportunity to speak a word about the motion.
She also mentioned the need for “safe” spaces for people to share their opinions and perspectives. As a white person in a position of power, Councilor Hanneke is always “safe” to speak her mind in Amherst. She may feel uncomfortable in a discussion involving the BIPOC community, but that is not the same as feeling unsafe, and spaces do not need to be made comfortable for white people with power.
We hope that Councilors Hanneke and Griesemer will ponder their role in upholding white supremacy in Amherst. We urge them to lean into the discomfort and hurt they may feel in being called out for perpetuating white supremacy. It is this work of listening, of being open to solutions stemming from these discussions, and embracing the discomfort of being called out, that can dismantle pieces of white supremacy in Amherst, one conversation at a time.
Maria Kopicki, Joanna Morse, and Jennifer Shiao
Maria Kopicki, Joanna Morse, and Jennifer Shiao are residents of Amherst