Public Comment: Town Needs Framework to Investigate Civil Rights Complaints



The following public comment was offered at the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee’s public forum on December 2, 2023.

I have two comments, one on the status of CRESS and one on the work of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC)

1. I echo the statements offered at Thursday’s CSSJC community listening session that the town needs to fully fund CRESS and that residents need to speak up in support of that during this budget season. In addition, I believe that the Town Council needs to formally acknowledge and embrace the original mission of CRESS as set out in the final recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) (see also here and here).  I am concerned about the interim leadership of CRESS, not because I doubt the commitment of any of those individuals, but because handing the leadership of CRESS over to what Fire Chief Tim Nelson called – “public safety professionals” – seems to have opened up a discussion of whether CRESS ought to be as alternative as it was envisioned.  Just one example is the discussions among the leadership team reported at the most recent CSSJC meeting, expressing a desire for a “more clinical approach” on the part of CRESS.  That discussion leads me to wonder whether there is an overarching dissonance between the town’s public safety professionals (i.e. police and fire) and the alternative peer-to-peer philosophy established at CRESS’s founding. Perhaps, that peer to peer approach, which is less controlling,  less prescriptive, explicitly anti-racist, and more directed at relationship and community building is just too alternative for the professional public safety folks and perhaps that accounts for some of the pushback from them on getting CRESS up to speed and enabled to take calls.  It seems to me that if there IS a cultural conflict between CRESS as envisioned by the CSWG and the public safety establishment, then the discussions of what CRESS is and what it “needs to be” ought to happen out in the open and with considerable public input so that the different understandings are resolved BEFORE we hire a new CRESS director and a new chief of police.

2. I am concerned that this town lacks an address where residents can take  complaints about civil rights violations, where, they will be thoroughly investigated and acted upon.  The recent debacle at the Middle School, where LGBTQ students were harassed by both other students and staff, and where complaints from parents and children were routinely dismissed out of hand, is just one case in point.  The reports of investigations document how school administrators purposefully suppressed the investigation of such complaints and went out of their way to protect perpetrators.  The school committee and the town council professed powerlessness and did nothing to address these harmful violations of civil rights.  Parents had to resort to complaining to the state the get the ongoing harm investigated and had to turn to the state again to gain access to those damning reports. Unfortunately, those violations of civil rights in Amherst are not isolated occurrences.  We might consider the case of the July 5 incident of 2022 (also know as the Amherst 9 case) or the struggles of the Black Business Association of the Amherst Area to have their complaints heard concerning the alleged inappropriate allocation of ARPA funds.  And there are plenty of more quotidian injustices that don’t make the headlines but nonetheless require redress as the CSWG hearings and the 7 GEN report informed us.

But the town’s Human Rights Commission is not empowered to pursue complaints and can only refer them to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).  The DEI office, severely underfunded and under-staffed, to date, has not had the capacity nor shown an appetite for pursuing such complaints with any gusto. And the CSSJC, who often hear about these injustices, is not empowered to investigate them much less act on them. This is a town that is sadly, rife with inequality and that inequality often manifests as violation of rights.  The Resident Oversight Board, when it is created, will provide, we can hope, recourse for complaints about police misconduct that currently go unaddressed. But what of all the others injustices?  Must we turn to the Attorney General or the Secretary of State  every time human rights appear to be violated in this town?  We need a town body, with a degree of political independence, that is empowered to pursue complaints effectively and thoroughly on the part of Amherst residents. This body probably is not likely to be CSSJC, but just as the work of the CSWG gave us CRESS and DEI and hopefully a ROB and a BIPOC youth center, the CSSJC can be the persistent political force that demands that the town have an effective address for human rights complaints, and the voice that demands that the rights of all Amherst residents must be protected.

Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass Amherst.   He was co-founder and co-director of two social justice-based civic leadership programs at UMass – The UMass Alliance For Community Transformation (UACT) and The Community Scholars Program. He is Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy.

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