Andrea Battle and Jeff Gold: Difficult truths and democracy in Amherst 


Thursday, February 16, 2023

Key components of a healthy democracy require a commitment to equality of basic rights and justice, the rule of law, and free and fair elections for all citizens. But for these principles to be realized, a strong democracy also demands trust built on transparency, good communication, and access to information.

We believe a good working definition of democracy involves collaborative work and civic engagement to address commonly defined problems. We applaud Amherst’s stated commitment to ending structural racism and the formation of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) program and the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). These are vital steps in the right direction.

But the town of Amherst appears recently compromised by a lack of transparency and less than optimal communication. No matter the intentions, the off-the-record meeting between the police and members of the Town Council sent a message of exclusion and lack of transparency, and further deepened mistrust and tensions in the town.

The town’s legal counsel and a majority of the council agreed that the meeting did not violate the state’s Open Meeting Law. But whether the meeting violated the law misses a profoundly critical point. The optics suggest an exclusive relationship between the council and the police, requiring special handling and confidentiality. That is to say, transparency and access to information was not available to the public or other town bodies.

If it wasn’t understood beforehand, it should now be evident that many leaders and members of the BIPOC community felt excluded from this meeting. We assert that what is less evident is that our Police Department, whose job it is to serve and protect all members of the community, also was not well-served by this meeting.

Nowhere is polarization more evident than in our community’s narratives and experiences with policing. For many members of the community, the police are seen as under significant pressure. They perform their jobs and are vital to the well-being of the community. We are told that morale in the Police Department is low, and that police officers feel defensive about their work. Similar to many public servants, much of their work likely goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Alongside this narrative is another truth, much more distressful: Many in our community have had different experiences with police in Amherst and in other places going back decades, where they have been targeted and harassed. We’ve lost count of the many murders of innocent African Americans across the U.S. by aggressive police.

We know about “the talk” Black parents give their children as they approach teen years, instructions about how to behave when interacting with police; and the fear, deep desire to protect, and sense of threat these talks contain. These conflicting and uncomfortable truths profoundly shape both the police and the community in the current community dialogue.

The appearance of a more exclusive relationship between the Town Council and the Police Department contrasts sharply with the council’s relationship with town bodies representing people of color. The Community Safety Working Group worked diligently to make recommendations to the town in an effort to shape a more inclusive community. The working group and its successor, the Community Safety Social Justice Committee had to share intimate concerns about safety for residents of the BIPOC community within the venue of recorded public forums.

This difference between the off-the-record meeting with the Police Department and the Social Justice Committee public meeting(s) lacks a sense of fairness and, in our opinion, promotes inequity — at the very moment when the town needs more transparency. This has sadly increased polarization and added proverbial fuel to an already smoldering fire.

We need deep and respectful listening for all parties. How can we build relationships and better understand our experiences, unless we talk with each other? We need to understand our different narratives and the uncomfortable truths contained within them.

The kind of conversations we need will not happen by an “act” of council. A community has to practice being a community — an inclusive community — for real. On Jan. 17, the DEI held a community event in which diverse members of the town had the opportunity to share a little about themselves with each other. We are thankful to Pamela Young and Jennifer Moyston for this important first step. It is one of many collaborative steps that need to be taken.

It is very hard work to constructively build upon what might be characterized as fractured relationships. We should strive for deep democracy where all people are valued and listen to each other. If Amherst residents and the police are asked to share painful experiences and uncomfortable truths, those conversations have to happen in venues where everyone is included.

We strongly advocate that the town support the outline of Community Envisioning and Healing by Barbara Love as recommended by the Community Safety Working Group in its report to the town (pp. 41-45; see amherstma.gov/3566/Community-Safety-Working-Group). Such “conversations” need to be structured with a uniform standard for everyone, and offer all town personnel the potential to work on dismantling the current insidious polarization.

Our community desperately needs this transparency, accountability and potential healing to move toward a more genuine democracy.

Andrea Battle and Jeff Gold are members of the Racial Justice Committee of the League of Women Voters — Amherst.