Opinion: Council Offers Small Step Forward With Resolutions On July 5 Incident.  Town Still Has Much Work To Do

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I joined the special meeting of the Town Council on November 14 after the Town Manager had already made an apology, so I cannot comment directly on his words. I hope the discussions that were undertaken that evening will continue and that they will serve as a model for accountability to the Amherst Police Department.

Regarding Councilor Griesemer’s motion to direct the Town Manager to pursue implementation of some of  the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee’s (CSSJC) recommendations, the amendments to its original version presented on November 1 removed some key components necessary for reconciliation. I believe that removing the CSSJC, The Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA) as guiding committees involved in this work, undercuts what has already been done through these committees to uplift the voices of the Amherst 9 and their families.  It excludes committees that are BIPOC majority from a central role in moving toward the repair, healing and reconciliation that our town needs.

Town Council President Lynn Griesemer framed her motion as a response to the original CSSJC letter demanding a response from the council, rather than a response to the July 5 incident. She acknowledged that subsequent incidents involving APD have occurred and posited that her motion would encompass a response to those as well. The motion will instruct the Town Manager to address the creation of a resident oversight board, which will provide accountability in future incidents. However, the motion will not produce the required accountability on the part of the APD in the July 5 incident or support the necessary repair for the involved youth.

I believe that removing the provision about creating a justice compensation fund from the original motion sends a message that the town is not willing to commit resources to making our young people whole or to repairing damage done by police misconduct. This fund was proposed as a restorative justice opportunity that would center the need for repair, in this case, as identified by the youth and their families.

I was frustrated to see the attempts to strike the youth empowerment center from the motion as it would be perhaps one of the most appropriate resources to support the youth of this town.  As Councilor Walker described, it could provide a space for healing, especially after disempowering experiences in the community. 

Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne’s fixation on the word “responsibilities” and her insistence on adding it to the proposal for “know your rights” training was troubling. I interpreted it as saying that these youth were inherently misbehaving or acting irresponsibly. I was also concerned about the misinformation provided regarding the “responsibility” to identify oneself to police. As a person who has organized and attended “know your rights” trainings, I can attest that responsibilities are implied when discussing rights and that adding the word responsibilities to the title implies an expectation of misbehavior on the part of those receiving the training. 

Equally troubling was Councilor Haneke’s amendment for the removal of language around racial healing in discussing the community visioning.  Indeed, the section of the CSWG report relating to this recommendation is entitled “ENGAGE OUR TOWN IN AN EXTENDED PROCESS OF COMMUNITY RACIAL HEALING AND VISIONING.”  The unwillingness to accept the perspectives of racism as trauma during this process has been apparent, and will be a barrier to the healing process.

I am grateful for Councilor Ellisha Walker and her subsequent motions. It was telling that none of the policies recommended for review by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) had been discussed between APD and the Town Manager. Walker’s perseverance, despite her words and intent being misconstrued, was bravery in the face of white supremacy. I was disappointed that the three areas related to APD personnel and discipline which could increase accountability were struck from her motion. The town councilors who voted for that amendment to strike (Bahl-Milne, Hanneke, and Steinberg) have been outspokenly supportive of the APD, and I believe this amendment will allow for incidents like July 5 and the October 19 incident at Hampshire College to continue without consequence.  

Finally, the conversation around making the APD anti-racist was also defensive toward APD and it was not clear that all of the councilors understood the difference between not engaging in racist behavior and being anti-racist. I hope that this proposed anti-racist culture will develop and thrive in all town departments including APD and Town Council. 

While the motions passed were not perfect, they will move the town forward in addressing community safety. There is clearly still a lot of work ahead.

Note: the comments above are my personal reactions to the Town Council meeting of November 14 and do not reflect the views of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee or its individual members.

Allegra Clark is a resident of Amherst.

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