Policing Northampton

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Policing Northampton

   A month ago, a group of parents, school board members, and teachers in Northampton, Massachusetts asked for a meeting with the superintendent and the police chief about a “high-five” program that had been awkwardly rolled out. In January, without any clear explanation and only a little notice, a group of armed police officers showed up at the elementary schools to give kids “high fives” on the way into class. A flash of blue, then the officers disappeared without ever saying anything to the kids about why they were there.

By the time the meeting happened, the Chief and Superintendent had already suspended the program, citing concerns about undocumented kids in a context of massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. With its future uncertain, we talked about how the program felt for our kids—mostly kids of color. A foster parent talked about her kids’ trauma after being taken from their birth family by the police. Another said that the police in a different district had violently arrested their middle-schooler when she had a mental health crisis at school, and why her first grader was then alarmed to see the police at school. A parent talked about her happy-go-lucky, goofy black boy and how hard she worked to teach him to be deferential and keep his hands still and visible in the presence of the police. “Please do not teach my kid that it’s okay to high-five a police officer. I want him to be very respectful and a little afraid.” An immigrant parent talked about the deep, everyday terror the Trump administration’s raids have produced in immigrants, documented or not.

The police chief, Jodi Kasper, spoke about Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting. “It was a wake up call for me, and for police forces around the country,” she said. She spoke about the report of Obama’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and its recommendations for improving relationships and accountability to make police seem less like an occupying force in communities of color. She talked about transparency, public meetings, and trying to think about how to follow its recommendations to institute programs with youth. She also spoke of the police’s absolute commitment not to increase the fear of kids with immigrant parents. After the meeting, she decided to continue the program’s suspension.

In pulling the police from the school, Kasper joined a growing number of city officials doing surprising things to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant raids. In Santa Cruz, CA, the police chief blasted Homeland Security for conducting a secret anti-immigrant raid under the auspices of gang enforcement. In Seattle, a City Councilmember called for that city’s police department to battle ICE agents in the streets. In Los Angeles, officials asked ICE agents to stop identifying themselves as “police.” In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh said undocumented immigrants could take refuge in City Hall. In sanctuary cities around the country, even as the Trump administration threatens their federal grants (which in small towns is basically school lunch), defiant police and public officials are refusing to cooperate with ICE, saying that it threatens their relationships with the communities they serve. Churches, schools, universities, cities, and police forces are forging a language of resistance that has positioned local civic institutions against a federal anti-immigrant program.

National news stories about Northampton didn’t get discussed in that context, though. An out-of-town blogger got wind of the suspension of the “high five” program, and in a post laced with homophobia and misinformation, stripped the issue of its immigration-enforcement context, and turned it into a thing about lesbian Black Lives Matter activists, the better to rally the right-wing troops. Which it did. From mainstream national news outlets to Bill O’Reilly, the end of the program was discussed as a question of Black community policing.

Apparently we’re growing used to the remarkable Sanctuary city story about police, but find a narrative of them concerned about the sensibilities of Black youth controversial. We shouldn’t, though. The Movement for Black Lives has long talked about immigrants, and its mobilizations over the past five years have shaped the thinking of activists, police, and publics.

The de-linking of immigration and anti-Black racism in the conversation about Northampton’s community policing initiative worked to obscure how interesting the resistance to the current Republican administration is becoming. Taken together with other kinds of small town actions, like the town-hall mobilizations in Republican districts like Murfreesboro, Tennesee and Cottonwood Heights, Utah to demand accountability on things like the Affordable Care Act, we’re seeing progressive activists rallying their neighbors.

There are a lot of stories being told to try to contain the burgeoning sense of a progressive mobilization. Activists are being paid, we hear, by Obama or George Soros or someone else (a story debunked by Tucker Carlson on Fox News, no less!). Police in West Mass are being bullied by gay-married Black Lives Matter activists.

Here’s the real story: a self-described “progressive” police department, together with the mayor and superintendent of schools in a small sanctuary city, listened to parents and teachers say that their presence at elementary schools was disruptive to the education of kids with disabilities, immigrant and other kids of color, particularly the youngest ones. It meant listening the Presidential commission’s on policing’s language: “agencies should avoid using law enforcement tactics that unnecessarily stigmatize you and marginalize their participation in schools.” It was a small thing; a small-town thing, a work-in-progress about the relationship of police and communities. But it should worry the Trump administration a great deal.

A version of this post was published by the Hampshire Gazette: http://www.gazettenet.com/Columnist-Laura-Briggs-explains-why-compassionate-officials-can-see-policing-differently-8457493

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