Community Safety Act

I strongly support the Community Safety Act (CSA).  If I am elected to the City Council, I will vote for it, and work hard to ensure that it is fully-funded, resourced, and reviewed as needed to ensure that it is functioning effectively.  Kevin Jackson, Mary Kay Harris and others on the Council have been strong and eloquent advocates for the legislation, and I will do my best to aid in that effort.  I understand the reasoning of Sam Zurier and others for tabling the CSA until June 1st, but I ultimately don't agree with it.  Zurier, in his April 30th ward letter, indicates that he and a majority of his colleagues reversed their votes in response to a direct request from Police Chief Hugh Clements.  Clements expressed worry about the impact of passage on department morale, and apparently asked for the extra time to work on this -- work that may include some suggested changes to the CSA.  Protecting the people of Providence is vital, difficult and often thankless work, and I entirely understand the importance of workplace morale for officers.  Indeed, that is part of the reason why I support the CSA in the first place:  I believe that it can create a more grounded basis for mutual trust between law enforcement and the community, which can help our police officers stay both effective and safe.  But the CSA isn't new, nor is most of the language.  The problem Clements raised could have been grappled with much earlier.  As a consequence, at least from the outside looking in, this appears to be a delaying tactic.  What will happen between now and June 1st, that will suddenly make the CSA's impact on morale -- a subjective measure, however important it might be -- change?  At a certain point, justice too long delayed becomes justice denied.

Why do I support the CSA?

Back in September 2016 I was involved in organizing an East Side neighborhood meeting, designed to put pressure on Councilmen Sam Zurier and Seth Yurdin (as well as Mayor Elorza) to pass the CSA.  After lots of powerful testimony from East Side residents who have either experienced racial profiling themselves, or worked with those who have, Mayor Elorza for the first time publicly endorsed the spirit of the CSA, if not all parts of it.

My testimony from that night is below.  It was aimed at an overwhelmingly white audience, designed to try and convince Zurier (who was there) and Yurdin (who was not) that the desire for police accountability crossed lines of race, class, and neighborhood.  While the language of the CSA has changed since then, my reasons for supporting it have not.

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In thousands of households around the country tonight, there are young black men receiving “The Talk” from someone who loves them.  It is happening in Charlotte.  It is happening in Tulsa.  It is happening in Providence.  It is happening in wealthy families, poor families, middle class families.  It is happening in the homes of black police officers.  It has happened, generation over generation, throughout the entire history of this country.  Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, got the talk from his father when he was young – and he recently gave it to his own son.  Eric Holder, who was until recently the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the United States. 

Does everyone know what I mean by ‘the Talk’?  I am white.  My 10 year old son lives here on the East Side with us.  I doubt it ever occurred to my father to give me The Talk.  The fact that I know some of my son’s school friends have already received it, and that he will never have to, horrifies me.  This conveys a message to our children, about who we are – and who they are.  It is not a message that is consistent with any of our faith traditions, or the best of our national ones.  It tells us, in the words of Ta Nehisi-Coates, that “something went very wrong, long ago…something we are scared to see straight.  That something has very little to do with the officer on the beat and everything to do with ourselves.”

Our society has tolerated the conditions which have necessitated The Talk -- even encouraged them – for centuries.  In modern societies the state, at all levels, has a monopoly on violence.  In American history, that monopoly has consistently been used to contain black people, and to protect white people and their property.  It was true under slavery, when access to arms by white individuals and white militias was 'needed' to deter and suppress slave rebellions, and to chase down fugitive slaves.  It was true out West in the 19th century, when the state used its military power (and granted white citizens related power) to displace and destroy native economies and peoples.  It was true in the Jim Crow South, where the primary role of police forces (and of the 2nd amendment) was first and foremost to reinforce the racial order.  And as blacks moved to Northern cities by the millions from 1910 to 1970, the job of all-white urban police forces in black neighborhoods was to maintain racial boundaries in housing and public spaces; they were generally absent when needed, and abusive when present.  Virtually every Northern black protest movement of the 1960s -- and virtually every riot -- began with a focus on police brutality.  

Whether consciously or not, this has been the clear will of white Americans for most of our history.  The injustice of this, Coates tells us, “compounds, congeals until there is an almost tangible sense of dread and grievance that compels a community to understand the police as objects of fear, not respect.”  When Officer Timothy Loehmann got away with murdering 12-year-old Tamir Rice, white Americans may have believed it was aberrational, however awful – but it was consistent with generations of black experience. 

The problem, ultimately, is a deep one.  

When police officers encounter citizens of color, they do so in a situation that white Americans have spent decades constructing and defending.  Too many whites hide (literally as well as morally) from the consequences of their complicity behind housing segregation, and explain away what they can’t ignore with platitudes about black criminality and white innocence.

Our 'policing problem' is really a societal problem.  A policy problem.  A white problem.  Cops don't make policy.  Citizens do.  You can't ask people to do the dirty work of white privilege, and then blame them for being dirty. 

Just last week [September 2016], the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – the entity tasked with investigating the police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities – told a legal symposium that “Unconstitutional policing undermines community trust.”  “Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities can lead residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as corrupt.  Those perceptions can drive resentment.  And resentment can prevent the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.”

In many black and Latino communities today, police derive their power solely from the force they deploy.  This is dangerous to those being policed, but it is ultimately dangerous to do those doing the policing too.  A liberal democracy, a society based on the rule of law, will not long survive if all the law represents is brute force.

If the police are seen as having no legitimacy in certain communities -- as having a license to exercise power that is arbitrary, capricious, and unaccountable -- they will be increasingly seen as an occupying force, and mistrust and resistance to them will be seen as legitimate.  Endangered and ineffective, police will focus more and more on force protection, and will have implicit and explicit biases confirmed, further delegitimizing their authority.  Whites, fearful that the 'criminality' in black communities will threaten them, will enact policies that make the situation worse.  This is not where we are in Providence.  Not yet.  

White Americans have never lived under those conditions, not in the past, and not now.  That is why white Americans of good will have to learn their history, they have to listen as empathetically as they can, and they have to act.

The CSA is an important and powerful step in the right direction for Providence, and I fully support it.

No competent professional should fear a system of accountability, as long as there is adequate training and due process, and the system of accountability is evidence-based.  In fact, they should welcome it.  It buttresses and legitimates their authority, and it ensures that they are surrounded by other professionals who know what they're doing, enabling them to be more safe and effective.

Let us create a Providence in which the generations to come never need to give or receive The Talk, and in which police officers of all backgrounds can do the people’s will safely, effectively, and justly.

Political advertisement paid for and approved by the Friends of Mark Santow.
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