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See Something, Say Something #13

Regular Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.

No Justice, No Peace, Cheerleading the Police 

On August 5th, The Gazette’s Michael Connors wrote about a police charity donation drive taking place in Northampton. The entity raising money is the Northampton Police Relief Association, which is made up of current and former officers, and has created a telemarketing fundraising blitz conducted by a contracted firm. Money raised will go to school associations, a local ballet school, and the Northampton Survival Center. 

“It’s why a lot of police officers become police, to give back to the community,” the officer being interviewed told The Gazette. Although the hundreds of residents who testified against the police budget in June might beg to differ that the police “help the community,” the notion that such a claim has been put on trial in the court of public opinion didn’t make the article, leaving readers with an easy-to-produce, run-of-the-mill puff piece singing the praises of generous cops “giving back.” 

Connors, who covers “cops and courts” for the paper, hasn’t had a bad thing to say about the police, with the almost-exceptions of covering a police reform bill and an anti-racism protest. In the ten articles he’s published in the past month involving the police, none could be characterized as accountability stories. Some titles include: “Northampton police arrest man on car break-in charges,” “Holyoke police arrest three, seize two handguns after gunfire goes through apartment windows,” “State police seize 500 bags of heroin in Holyoke traffic stop,” “Northampton man charged with breaking into Urban Outfitters,” and so on. 

Although The Shoestring has opined on the journalistic depravity of such stories previously, the police charity story reminds that this is the status quo of The Gazette’s police coverage.  —Will Meyer

“White people like me”

Dennis Bidwell, the infamous former Northampton City Councilor and real estate philanthropy grifter, is well known for social justice concern trolling in order to legitimize liberal support for the police. Throughout the 2017 surveillance camera debate, Bidwell was one of two Councilors—the only Democrat—to side with the Mayor in offering unyielding support for Kasper’s proposal. Rather than engage the policy implications of police surveillance cameras, Bidwell engaged the terrain of reactionary calls for “civility and respect,” suggesting that his opposition to the ordinance banning surveillance cameras was rooted in his distaste for the community opposition’s “tone.” 

Crawling out of retirement from City Council, Bidwell penned an op-ed in The Gazette outlining what he dubbed “The consequences of Northampton’s police budget cuts.” 

He began: “As the nation, with the world watching, confronts our country’s systemic racism with an intense focus on policing, white people like me are doing more listening, learning, exploring and engaging in challenging conversations.” After two paragraphs of praising the reckonings being prompted by the protests against the white supremacy that undergirds American policing, Bidwell pivots to condemning the protestors’ tactics and shunning the Councilors for their vote, not-so-subtly pleading with them not to cave to the influence of “the intimidating presence of the loudest voices.” 

While Bidwell says he supports the “deep structural change” protestors are agitating for, he is clear that he doesn’t support their tactics—or elected officials responding to their pressure. He says he prefers “deep study and careful reflection” to inform policy. The problem with such a position is that it is ahistorical. As a data-driven analysis in The American Prospect suggests, if protestors “don’t riot, politicians feel unrestrained” to delay, deflect, and deny the radical changes Bidwell allegedly supports. —WM

A local problem

On June 15th the Greenfield Recorder ran an article with the headline, “Is Police Brutality a Local Problem?” The piece describes, “worldwide protests and a national conversation about police reform” that were set off simply by “the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer,” flattening and decontextualizing centuries of anti-Black racism and struggles against it which produced this moment. Attempting to answer the question posed by the headline, the piece states that “complaints of excessive force used by law enforcement appear to be rare in Franklin County.” Still, information on what complaints may exist, what number qualifies as “rare,” or even how “excessive force” is defined is not provided. What is provided instead are the opinions of Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan and three police chiefs from the county on the state of policing in “Franklin County,” “Massachusetts,” and “America.” Across the board the insights offered are as vague as they are broad. Orange Police Chief James Sullivan’s comments are a good example: “he said complaints of police brutality in Franklin County are rare, and he credits this to a mixture of good training and officers who love their communities.” Sullivan describes Franklin county’s officers as “professional police officers,” and says that the states in our region “diligently train officers the proper way”; again, without elaborating or defining what that “proper training” is. While the four men generally condemn the lynching of George Floyd specifically, at no point are connections made between the role of racism in policing or any other institution in producing his death.

The focus on specific examples of “excessive force” by police is not surprising because it’s a familiar trope in cop apologist narratives. Rather than addressing the issues of racism, capitalism, or colonialism that threaten our nation’s self-image, it’s easier to look at overt police violence as a singular instance of improper police work, devoid of any connection to the mandate of law enforcement officers in the United States. (There are of course those who will excuse police violence, a group that apparently includes Leyden Police Chief Dan Galvis who, in the piece, attempts to both-sides the lynching of George Floyd by speculating on the details of Mr. Floyd’s death and stating that “the guilt can’t be 100 percent on the police officer. Some of it lies on [Floyd].”) By focusing on the type of policing that most readers will recognize as too far they are reassuring us that the bad kind of policing doesn’t happen here. 

The issue of course is that in fixating just on police violence, the type of behavior that we recognize as too far, allows us to overlook other topics that readers may find concerning about their local police, such as the fact that the ACLU identified that in Franklin county “Black people were more than 100 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.” As attention to police militarization has become more visible in recent years how many residents are aware that the county’s Special Response Team has over $115,000 worth of SWAT-style training and gear (a search of the Greenfield Recorder’s archives find reference to it being used once in 2017 and then in 2018).

I’m not surprised that the Recorder chose to run an article that would have been better suited as an op-ed from the Sheriff and Police Chiefs; reading it I was reminded of their reporting in January of this year where they repeated the claims of the Orange police department regarding “fentanyl contamination” including dubious statements about the risk of inhaling or touching fentanyl. In all fairness The Recorder is not unique in choosing to use the anecdotal evidence of law enforcement without any sort of critical engagement (off the top of my head: Boston 25’s recent report based on quotes from Boston Police Commissioner William Gross where he blames an increase of crime on the release of “repeat offenders”) but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating that my local paper decided to use their frontpage to preemptively launder the image of local police. — Constance Augusta A. Zaber

Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Constance Augusta A. Zaber (@girltrash_) is a resident of so-called “Greenfield.”

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