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“They Defend Their Whiteness Here, Hard”

Organizers fighting to uproot racism, defund the police, and challenge liberal exceptionalism in Easthampton

By Jack Chelgren

This summer, a new organization of concerned residents has emerged to join the fight for racial justice in Easthampton. They’re called 01027: A Knee Is Not Enough, or AKINE for short, they’re led by a group of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of color, and they’re pushing for significant transformations in the institutions and culture of a city where racism and resistance to change have long been flashpoints of conflict.

The group took shape shortly after a controversial event in early June called Easthampton Kneels, a vigil for George Floyd organized in part by Easthampton Chief of Police Robert Alberti. The event was announced on June 1 in a joint statement co-written by the Chief and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. They began by acknowledging that the country was in a state of pain and turmoil, and that Easthampton was not “immune or removed from racism.” They voiced their sympathy for victims of police violence, affirmed their support for “honorable police officers,” then called on residents to join them in taking a knee for eight and a half minutes on June 4 to commemorate those “lost due to brutality and [to] protest the death of George Floyd.”

Easthampton had been slower than other towns in the area to organize large public demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter. By June 4, there had been sizable demonstrations in Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, Springfield, and elsewhere, but nothing of a comparable scale in Easthampton. Many people were anxious to take part in local actions in solidarity with BLM and against police violence.

But Easthampton Kneels was not what everybody had in mind. For Jason Montgomery and Myra Oyedemi, who would soon become founding members of AKINE, the vigil was disturbing both because of the police department’s involvement and also because the Mayor and the Chief had not announced further plans to address racism or rethink established models of policing. For Oyedemi, Montgomery, and many others, taking a knee was far from enough.

“It felt as though the Mayor and the Chief were trying to actually preempt any form of civil protest against law enforcement abuses by essentially controlling the narrative,” said Montgomery, looking back on the event. “People were talking about this thing that was being sponsored by the Mayor and the Chief of Police as a protest—who are you protesting if this is sponsored by law enforcement and the municipality?”

Before long, the Facebook event’s discussion page was flooded with posts questioning the organizers’ intentions and demanding to know whether they could expect anything more from the city than a symbolic gesture.

The event went ahead as planned, despite confusion and growing opposition. According to the Gazette, close to 100 people gathered in the triangular rotary on Main Street at 4:00pm on the fourth. Others took part from home or in other locations around town. The Easthampton Congregational Church rang its bells for eight and a half minutes. Demonstrators held signs; drivers honked affirmingly; someone drove by shouting “all lives matter.” The Mayor and Chief knelt in front of the Public Safety Complex on Payson Avenue.

But enough people were dissatisfied that things didn’t stop there. A few days later, a group of residents including Montgomery and Oyedemi convened a virtual discussion about how they could do more as a community and demand more from the city government. This meeting led to the formation of AKINE.

Committees and counterprotests

The group started out with the intention of organizing a follow-up protest in response to Easthampton Kneels, and partnered with Massachusetts Jobs with Justice to do so. The event took place on August 1, drawing around 200 people to the same rotary where the earlier vigil had taken place almost two months before. Participants heard speeches from organizers, then marched down Main and Union Streets, chanting, holding signs, and blocking traffic.

From the beginning, however, AKINE has been committed to creating lasting transformation, not just isolated events. Starting the day after Easthampton Kneels, the group circulated a petition calling on the city to adopt regulations based on the #8Can’tWait campaign.

The Police Department soon responded on Facebook, promising that “Easthampton codifies the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ policies,” and uploading a memo regarding the Department’s use of force policies. The city announced that Mayor LaChapelle had signed the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper pledge for mayors, which involves taking steps toward greater transparency and regulation of police departments, particularly regarding use of force.

For AKINE, these responses were neither reassuring nor satisfactory.

“There’s any number of things Chief Alberti could do to show that he understands the tone and tenor of what is happening in our nation right now,” said Montgomery. “But instead what he says is, ‘This is a great place, we’re doing all the right things, and we don’t need to be told what else to do.’”

This attitude of exceptionalism, more specifically the belief that Easthampton has an exemplary police department that does not need to change, has been an obstacle for AKINE. In Oyedemi’s experience, there are people in Easthampton who are firmly entrenched in their belief systems and resistant to any kind of change. But there are also people “who feel that they’re aligned with change, but don’t really feel that there’s great necessity for vast changes.” Both groups, the conservatives and the advocates of slow change, have presented distinct challenges for AKINE as they seek to lobby for precisely that—vast changes.

AKINE’s first big public action was to issue a set of demands calling for greater accountability from the Police Department and Easthampton Public Schools, as well as an independent long-term study of policing in Easthampton and annual antiracism trainings for school staff. Additionally, AKINE urged EPS to remove its school resource officer and replace the position with a counselor, and identified specific sources of funding for reallocation, namely asking Chief Alberti to turn down his raise for fiscal year 2021 and for the EPD to reinvest the $8,457 it received for sending 21 officers to a heavily-policed protest in Northampton on June 6. (This was the protest that Northampton property mogul Eric Suher urged NPD Chief Jody Kasper to gear up for in a June 3 email released by The Shoestring.)

Mayor LaChapelle responded to AKINE’s demands on July 7, and Montgomery notes that some slight progress has taken place since then. For instance, the Police Department and the Mayor’s office have now created links for residents to report comments and concerns about the police, with the option of doing so anonymously.

Reopening old wounds

Since the protest on August 1, AKINE has increasingly directed its attention to getting members involved with local government, attending City Council meetings and joining various municipal committees.

Meanwhile, many members have faced vehement opposition, bureaucratic hurdles, and outright hostility. “I’ve been threatened at my house since starting this,” said Montgomery, who recently withdrew himself from consideration for appointment to the city’s Community Relations Committee out of concern for his family’s safety and well-being. Montgomery had been threatened both online and in person, as have several other members of AKINE.

For many people involved with AKINE, particularly organizers of color, the kinds of hostility they’re witnessing are unpleasant and alarming, but not new. John Fedor-Cunningham says he became interested in police transformation in part because of abusive experiences he had with the EPD dating back to the 1960s. Fedor-Cunningham, who is white, grew up in Easthampton, and recounted several instances of violence and unequal treatment on the basis of homophobia.

Montgomery likewise feels that the climate of racial animosity has existed for some time. He recalled that when he first moved to Easthampton a number of years ago, he “would talk to people, specifically folks from Holyoke in the Latino community, who would say, ‘We don’t go there. You don’t go to Easthampton.’” He remembered feeling confused because, in addition to some openly racist people, it seemed there were a lot of white liberals who might make the town an inclusive and welcoming place.

After living in Easthampton for a while, however, Montgomery came to realize that white liberals were part of the problem, because in the absence of genuine diversity and inclusion, racism will continue to thrive, even in supposedly progressive circles. Contrary to western Mass’s cultivated progressive reputation, “They defend their whiteness here, hard.”

The existence of the Community Relations Committee is itself a testament to the city’s struggle with white supremacy in recent years. The CRC was established in 2018 in response to racist bullying at Easthampton High School, as well as the disclosure of serious racial disparities in discipline and school officials’ routine indifference to racism.

The events that led to the group’s creation began in April of 2017, when a fight broke out at EHS after a white student—the son of the school resource officer—harassed a Black student online using the n-word. Three students of color confronted and attacked the harasser. They were arrested, and the Black student who was the target of the slur was charged with assault.

Tensions continued to rise over the next few months as an Instagram account called “Make.EHS.Great.Again” shared images of the Confederate flag, as well as particular students and the campus; a Confederate flag appeared on a truck in the school parking lot; a student wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school; and the Superintendent declined to ban him or other students from doing so on account of free speech.

At the end of May, the Massachusetts Attorney General opened an investigation into the school. The probe resulted in a report, which revealed that between 2012 and 2016, Black students at EHS were disciplined four times more often, and Latinx students three times more often, than white students. It found that racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance were commonplace, and that students often did not report harassment because they didn’t think staff would do anything.

The following year, prompted in part by the Attorney General’s findings, and in part by contentious debates over whether Easthampton should become a Sanctuary City, Mayor LaChapelle and Chief Alberti invited the US Department of Justice to host a daylong workshop to identify civil rights problems in the city and brainstorm solutions. This workshop, called a City-Site Problem Identification & Resolution of Issues Together, or City-SPIRIT, took place on June 20, 2018, and brought together around 40 community members to discuss both strengths and concerns about the city and its culture.

The workshop produced a report that, like the Attorney General’s probe, highlighted serious problems with “racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-immigrant sentiment,” as well as homophobia, transphobia, sexism, segregation, and barriers to civic involvement among various communities in Easthampton.

In response to these findings and additional public testimony, the City Council voted in July 2018 to create the Community Relations Committee, with the express goal of creating a space independent of any particular branch of the city government where problems of racism or other forms of discrimination could be brought forward and addressed.

Still, as AKINE’s experiences this summer can attest, the problems identified in the Attorney General and City-SPIRIT’s reports are far from over. Discrimination, sharp divisions within the community, and resistance to change remain well entrenched.

When AKINE first started raising concerns about policing and racism in Easthampton earlier this summer, Mayor LaChapelle suggested they work with the CRC. At that point, there was only one person of color serving on the Committee, out of the 11 total seats.

Since then, two spots have opened up, and AKINE has made it part of their strategy to try to fill those spots with members. But a series of threats and antagonistic situations, including the harassment that led Montgomery to step back from the CRC, have made the road to getting involved with local government quite rocky.

While presenting at a meeting of the CRC in mid-July, representatives from AKINE were disturbed to see 15 police officers in attendance with their video off, all identifying themselves only as “EPD” plus their badge numbers. Detective and local police union president Andrew Beaulieu told the Gazette that this is standard procedure for EPD in all public Zoom meetings. But several members of AKINE said they felt unnerved by the large, unexpected group of anonymous officers, and Mayor LaChapelle granted she could see how it was intimidating.

In another jarring encounter, organizers and participants who took part in the August 1 protest reported that a group of about 10 men, including two current police officers and one retired police officer, shouted obscenities and sexually harassed marchers passing by the Pascommuck Club on Union Street. These marchers also said that a Jeep had been parked on the lawn of the club, displaying a Punisher skull marked with a thin blue line, both of which are symbols of the so-called Blue Lives Matter movement.

“There’s a lot of talk about how we are targeting police in this town, and it’s not true,” said Montgomery. “We don’t have a problem with any individual police officer. We have a problem that policing in the United States is an inherently racist institution, and we need to make sure that it’s regulated and reformed in a way that ensures that it can’t act on those natural biases.”

More than just police reform

Although the immediate motivations that led to AKINE’s formation were the recent BLM uprisings and dissatisfaction with Easthampton Kneels, Montgomery and Oyedemi emphasized that their goals go well beyond just transforming policing.

“I think everyone in the group sees that there’s a systematic need for change,” said Oyedemi. “Not just speaking about policies and actions and practices, but also thinking about how businesses have a role to play, and how individuals within their homes and dinner table discussions have a role to play. We’re hoping to have those conversations.”

When asked about the group’s position on reforming the police (as typified by #8Can’tWait) versus dismantling and abolishing the police (a model like #8toAbolition), Montgomery described AKINE’s strategy as “divest and reinvest.” He voiced skepticism about organizing oriented solely toward reform, without a more ambitious agenda—“reform in and of itself”—but also said he didn’t know what abolition would look like in Easthampton, at least right now. He said he’s not sure the necessary resources and alternatives exist yet. He clarified that these were his views, not the views of the group, and emphasized that AKINE as a whole “believes in transformation.”

For now, AKINE is pursuing transformation by working with and within city government, while building power and expanding its network of antiracist organizers. Two members, Myra Oyedemi and Gaby Stevenson, are still seeking to join the CRC, and AKINE is looking to get supporters on other committees as well. They’re also planning a community educational event, tentatively scheduled for October, which Oyedemi said will address “not just comfortable issues like implicit bias, but look at racial justice in a historic context.”

Oyedemi hopes people will keep having these conversations and will come to think of racial justice as a lifetime commitment, not a “hashtag moment.” The country is changing, she said, becoming more racially and culturally diverse, and failing to keep learning and fighting for justice would be a disservice to everyone.

Jack Chelgren is a writer, formerly of Easthampton, now living in Chicago.

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