Youth march for justice, civil rights leaders begin talks with Amherst PD
On Friday, June 13, on the fountain steps of Sweetser Park, ARHS grad Tabor Bowman, 18, spoke to a gathered crowd of youth protesters. He read a poem that he had written just days before, in the wake of the national Black Lives Matter-led uprising for justice after George Floyd’s death.
“Innocent until proven guilty, that’s the biggest lie I ever heard,” he said. “More like guilty ‘til people forget. Guilty ‘til another one of my people gets killed. Not yours. Innocent ‘til proven guilty can’t be a thing, not as long as the guilty party is always darker.”
The youth-led march gathered hundreds of local residents, who marched to the police department from the ARHS football field, to protest ongoing police brutality in our country, as well as racism within our own community.
Many held signs with slogans like “Abolish the police” and “Defund the police,” in support of a growing push to redistribute funds–away from policing and towards other social services–or to abolish the institution completely and replace it with something altogether different.
Protest organizer and ARHS grad, Miguel Cruz, 18, said, “You know, the police get a lot of money, and we could use that money on schools.”
According to Cruz, these protests are about calling out an institution that is founded upon and plagued with racism. “[Police] are not meant to protect black people or people of color. The people themselves aren’t all bad, but the system is corrupt,” he said.
When Monica Cage, 16, was asked about Amherst police, she said she was reminded of her younger brother. “My brother is mixed with Laotian and black but to the world he is seen as a black man,” she said. “He is thirteen years old, and he lives in Amherst, but he has had way more interactions with the police than he should have in his whole lifetime.”
Just a day earlier, local civil rights leaders and activists met over Zoom with Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone and APD Captain Gabriel Ting, to explore these fraught questions, in a conversation called “Racial Equity and Public Safety in the Town of Amherst.”
The event was coordinated by Gazit Chaya Nkosi of the Amherst Human Rights Commission and co-hosted by Nkosi and UMass Professors Dee Shabazz and Amilcar Shabazz. Town council members Shalini Bahl-Milne and Pat DeAngelis, Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and 50 others logged on to participate in the call; I joined as a student journalist.
Both Livingstone and Ting addressed George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, an event that sparked national outrage and weeks of protests against police brutality. “I don’t know if I even have words,” said Livingstone about Floyd’s death. “Anger, disgust. It was really difficult to even watch that, to witness that there are people who are in our profession who behave like that.”
“It’s tarnished our profession tremendously,” agreed Ting. “Immediately, you know, I contacted a lot of colleagues, and we were all in agreement about how disgusting this was, and how profoundly it is going to affect all of us across the nation.”
The first topic addressed in the meeting was police training, specifically ways in which agencies are held accountable for abiding by training mandates. Livingstone, who has been on the Massachusetts Police Training Committee since 2010, admitted that holding smaller agencies accountable for adequate training “has been difficult.”
He said the Amherst department abides by state-agency directives in regards to use of force, and participates in annual de-escalation training. “If there was specific federal funding or federal grant money that was only allowed to go to agencies that do the right thing as far as training, as far as policies and procedures, with some sort of civilian overview committee, I would welcome that conversation,” he said.
As for police demographics, Livingstone has taken personal responsibility for recruiting people of color, women, and officers who hail from surrounding towns.
In terms of budgeting, Livingstone acknowledged that the police are often called to cover community health issues. He described that “roughly a third of our calls are mental health related.”
“We have a number of people within the agency who are trained in crisis intervention. We train to distinguish persons in crisis from persons engaged in criminal activity. We feel like Amherst is pretty strong in that area and ahead of where most agencies are,” added Ting.
Even COVID-19 mask and distancing enforcement “wasn’t something that [the department had] been specifically trained to do, frankly, so everyone’s saying the police can handle that, the police can handle that, and we’re always not great at handling everything.”
Amilcar Shabazz also questioned whether or not the origins and history of policing in this country, such as early slave patrols, are included in the police training process. Livingstone said he couldn’t recall any in his experience.
“You know, we do receive, we’ve had, and we’ll continue to have trainings in implicit bias and race relations [but] even here it didn’t come up,” he said. He added that the tendency for police training to come from former officers can be limiting.
“In my opinion it wasn’t always [training] from the people I was looking to get training from,” said Livingstone. “I was looking for some training from someone who wasn’t a cop or wasn’t related to the police field.”
Shabazz also raised concerns over town budgeting, a direct reflection of the rising movement to redistribute police funding to other kinds of services in the community.
Currently, according to the proposed town budget of 2020, public safety makes up 44% of the town budget while community services receive 7%.
Bockelman is open to discussing how to “align our local budget with the needs of the community.”
He said the most important thing to leave untouched is the police training budget, however.
“There’s a lot of work to be done amongst ourselves and how we deliver services, and I think one of those things, you know, is to listen. How people of color specifically are feeling in our community in regards to the police department, because we have policies and we do all these good things but we need to be in a position of listening,” Bockelman said.
In response to frustrations within the police department about lack of citizen feedback, Nkosi pointed out that there may be a responsibility that falls on the department itself.
“There are families that are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. One, because maybe they’re already being policed in other ways, another being if their documentation status might be impacted by their coming forward with a complaint,” they said. “Another may be access to English language proficiency. Another may be just understanding and being aware of how the history of authority in our country interacts with people of color.
Nkosi concluded, “We really need to rethink how we present opportunities to participate and acknowledge why people aren’t showing up.”
By the end of the meeting, both Livingstone and Shabazz acknowledged that the meeting was just the beginning of a necessary, continual conversation.
Shabazz also pointed out that they had not touched on police unions and their history of protecting officers with track records of racial bias, to which Livingstone responded, “I think we’d agree on police unions more than you expect.”
“I do appreciate the way we’ve at least gotten a baseline sense of sort of where we’re at now and how we’re trying to move forward. I think this is important,” Shabazz said.