Johnson/Artu: Defunding the Police - Overcoming Silence

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Defunding the police is a movement to reallocate or redirect funds away from police departments into other governmental/social-service agencies. This movement has struck a national conversation over the last few weeks as countless protestors across the country have taken to the streets in a collective effort to call out state-sanctioned, reckless police violence against black, brown, and poor people.

The history of policing in the United States of America is rooted in violence and the constant need to protect wealthy landowners' property. Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D. Associate Dean and Foundation Professor, in the School of Social Justice at Eastern Kentucky University (2014), writes the birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal, and political-economic conditions. However, the institution of slavery and the control of minorities were two of the more formidable historic features that shaped early policing in the U.S. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were designed to control the behaviors of minorities. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order, with laws enacted at both the state and national government divisions. Virginia, for example, passed more than 130 slave statutes known as the Virginia Slave Codes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of people of color, however, were not merely a southern affair, as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York, and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves.Thus from 1689 until this current moment in time, BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of color) and poor white people have disproportionately seen the over-policing of their communities.

Daily, both BIPOC and poor white people are subjected to police violence (e.g., physical force, harassment, etc.), are abused by the justice system (e.g., cash bail/bond systems, excessive court fees, and fines,) and are given longer jail and prison sentences. Nationally, we see this occurring with videoed killings of unarmed BIPOC. We also see this in the violent responses by police towards protesters; protesters have been permanently blinded by rubber bullets and have had their skulls cracked on pavements. Locally, we have seen this violence and abuse of power in incidents like the 2014 killing of Michael Santiago. In 2014, Brattleboro police, including officers Chad Emery and Mark Carrigan, used a "no-knock" warrant and a battering ram to enter the room of Michael Santigo. This incident was based on an informant's allegation that Michael Santigo might be using the local hotel room to sell drugs. Upon entering the room, Carrigan shot Santiago twice, with a shotgun; Carrigan was quoted as saying Santiago made "aggressive" movements toward him. After the Brattleboro Reformer obtained a heavily redacted 240-page Attorney General's Office report, the report stated that there were no firearms found on Michael Santiago nor within the hotel room. Like many killings of BIPOC, this killing was ruled justifiable by the state.

Moreover, on June 18 of this year, local police officer Chad Emery, also named above in the killing of Michael Santiago, was arrested and charged with two counts of domestic assault and one count of aggravated disorderly conduct against a female family member in Guildford. Responding officers to the scene removed two firearms from his vehicle. The family member he assaulted alleged that Emery had also been driving his vehicle while "highly intoxicated" and with a minor present as his passenger. Since his arrest, Emery is now on paid-administrative leave, and his superior suggested that an internal investigation would be conducted. Still, its results will likely remain confidential due to the police department's collective bargaining agreement with the police union.

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How can BIPOC and poor white people here in Brattleboro or elsewhere throughout the nation trust the police when there is one system for them and another for us? Withal, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg as to why those most affected by oppressive policing and judicial policies do not trust the justice system. This lack of trust is deeply rooted in BIPOC and poor white people's inability to rely upon a system that almost always chooses not to hold itself accountable. However, it willingly and eagerly criminalizes our lives daily. Vermont alone has an incarceration rate of 328 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than many wealthy democracies do (Prison Policy Initiative, 2018); in example, Vermont's incarceration rate is more than two times higher than the United Kingdom's - whose police officers are regularly unarmed.

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From cities to towns, to idyllic Vermont hamlets like Brattleboro, voices echo loud and clear that Black Lives Matter. It is without question that black and brown lives matter and that BIPOC are disproportionately on the receiving end of police violence. Yet, the same is true for our poor white brothers and sisters. How is this possible you might ask yourself? Is this statement not a minimization of what BIPOC deal with daily? Indeed, it is not. Policies set forth to control and oppress BIPOC in this country always have and will continue to leech into the lives of the most vulnerable, in the case of Vermont, poor white people. The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival 2018 fact sheet states that 35 percent of people (216,000 residents) in Vermont are poor or low-income, with 36 percent of those - or 208,000 residents - being poor white people. Therefore, who would benefit most if Brattleboro's Select Board had decided to defund the police - absolutely, BIPOC and poor white people. Defunding the police and allocating resources into social service programs, education, etc., would have shown all residences of this community that the Select Board stood on the side of the people and not on the side of the wealthiest and their property. Instead, they choose not to.

Several op-eds have been written in our local papers. Most recently, two articles written by the Ganders expressed the idea that the police are on "our" side and that defunding is a national issue, not a local one. These articles also mentioned that though the police are underfunded, they are doing a "great job" at addressing public safety, the opioid crisis, and domestic violence while using de-escalation tactics to promote healing and safety. These statements are problematic because throughout public forums Brattleboro community members, one after the other, have aired grievances about Brattleboro Police Department misconduct, officers' misconduct, police killings in Brattleboro, and the repetitive reluctance of our town's leadership to discipline those police officers participating in violence against our community.

In another article written by the Ganders, it was suggested that those calling upon the Select Board to defund the police should have a "plan" or "solution" ready. But throughout the past decade, plans have been submitted, and they have been stripped of their teeth or outright ignored. For example, in 2004, the Brattleboro Civilian Police Board Steering Committee submitted a comprehensive proposal identifying how a Civilian Police Board could effectively and constructively manage the police's relationship with our community. Alas, 16 years later, the civilian board remains unfunded, three of the five seats on the committee remain unfilled, and police officers who have complaints lodged against them regularly are in attendance; such as Officer Mark Carrigan, who in the latest CPCC meeting declared that it is not the "role of the committee" to do a "review of the police department." Unfortunately, these conditions have made the CPCC's (Citizen Police Communications Committee) input into how our community is policed effectively obsolete. The committee's function has been reduced to handling complaints, compliments, or information concerning police procedures with limited disciplinary authority, and no ability to review nor recommend policies independent of complaints.

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We would challenge the authors of the article, the Reformer readers, and the Brattleboro Select Board to ask themselves, for what reason does it serve the leaders of our community not to defund the police? As Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr. once said, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal... Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter... In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Silence is not golden, and we hear the Select Board loud and clear. The decision to not defund the police says to us that they adhere to the logic that the police unbiasedly keep us safe and play a fundamental role in "order" - ignorant of the history of policing, ignoring the inherent violence, ignoring that the national conversation is pushing for a different world and a different way to deal with societal ills and suffering. Ultimately, the majority Select Board members' inaction reminds us that they have no desire to stand in solidarity against systemic and systematic oppression.

When will the deafening silence end in our community?

Derek Johnson is a member of Brattleboro Solidarity, an educator in Springfield and a faculty member of Spark Teacher Education Institute. Wichie Artu is a leading member of the Racial Justice Organizing group, a member of the Root's Social Justice Center BIPOC Caucus, and has ties to Out in the Open. He also works as the database engineer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and sits on their LGBTQ+ Leadership Council. Both are people of color who live in Brattleboro. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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