Police defunding advocates bring cause to Amherst councilors’ homes 

  • Members of a group called Defund 413 Amherst participated in a car protest Monday in which they drove by four town councilors’ homes asking them to vote for defunding the Amherst Police Department. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A group called Defund 413 Amherst participated in a car protest driving by four town councilor members homes asking for the defunding of the Amherst Police Department Monday, July 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dorothy Pam, a town councilor in Amherst, waves with her husband, Bob Pam, as she listens to members of Defund 413 Amherst express demands during Monday’s car protest. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lydia Irons, a member of Defund 413 Amherst, expresses demands to Town Councilor Andy Steinberg, during a car protest which drove by four town councilors homes asking to defund the Amherst Police Department Monday, July 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lydia Irons, a member of Defund 413 Amherst, expresses demands to Town Councilor Andy Steinberg, during a car protest which drove by four town councilors homes asking to defund the Amherst Police Department Monday, July 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pat DeAngelis, a town councilor in Amherst, listens as members of Defund 413 Amherst express demands during a car protest which drove by four town councilors homes asking to defund the Amherst Police Department Monday, July 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gio Castro, a member of Defund 413 Amherst, expresses demands to Town Councilor Dorothy Pam during a car protest Monday, in which participants drove by four town councilors’ homes, asking them to vote to defund the Amherst Police Department. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Curry Kautz, a member of Defund 413 Amherst, expresses demands to Town Councilor Pat DeAngelis, during a car protest which drove by four town councilors homes asking to defund the Amherst Police Department Monday, July 20, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2020 6:43:13 PM

AMHERST — Advocates for defunding the Amherst Police Department took their message directly to four councilors Monday after they were unable to get town officials to slash the department’s budget.

Just hours before the full 13-member Town Council was scheduled to vote on Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s $68.03 million fiscal year 2021 proposal, including $5.15 million for police, more than 20 vehicles filled with representatives of the Defund 413 Amherst chapter and their allies staged a car rally. They drove through town and to the homes of most of the councilors who took part in a 5-0 Finance Committee vote to support Bockelman’s spending plan.

Gio Castro, one of the main organizers, spoke through a loudspeaker outside District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen’s home, disputing Bockelman’s contention that cutting the police budget by $2.68 million during the COVID-19 pandemic would be a mistake.

“What’s a big mistake is funding a police department with 44 police officers in the middle of an economic and health crisis,” Castro said.

Castro added that policing as an institution supports violence and racism and that Amherst’s community values should make everyone feel safe, not just the white and wealthy.

At each stop, the activists announced their arrival with horns beeping and balloons and signs attached to their vehicles. One read, “Black Lives Matter more than White Feelings and while another said, “Defend the People, Defund the Police.”

Once outside their vehicles, the rallygoers banged pots, pans and drums, and chanted slogans such as “no justice, no peace, defund the police.”

Another organizer, Lydia Irons said many people have felt silenced and cut off by the way public comment has been run by the Town Council.

“For us, we want it to be disruptive and a nusiance,” Irons said.

At the home of District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, where a Black Lives Matter sign is on the front lawn, Castro said it would not be genuine if DeAngelis votes for the police budget.

DeAngelis said she is sympathetic and understanding of abolitionist theory for police, but also is listening to the broader community in her support for the budget.

“This is a public safety crisis,” said Curry Kautz in an appeal to DeAngelis for reinvesting money from police into the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities.

“Don’t be afraid of change,” Kautz said.

A petition that gathered several hundred signatures over the weekend contains a list of demands to the Town Council. Those demands, in addition to the $2.68 million cut, include spending none of the $2.5 million set aside for capital projects on police, making sure that $80,000 in the town budget proposed to deal with structural racism go to Black-led organizations and community members – and not to police – implementing a permanent police hiring freeze, freezing all applications for state and federal funds for grant programs for the police, repurposing transferable state and federal funds already received for police programs and not giving police any town reserves if there is reduced state aid.

Irons said the list of demands, along with the petition, was to be delivered to all 13 councilors.

Among those who participated in the rally was Jess Slattery, who was creating cardboard signs to affix to vehicles as people gathered at Mill River Recreation Area.

“I think the police department is very inflated and treats people of color disproportionately,” Slattery said. “There are better organizations to fund to keep the community safe, and we want the councilors to be receptive to what community members are saying.”

Of the four councilors, only Schoen, who represents District 1, didn’t address the Defund 413 Amherst protesters.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam told the advocates from her porch that she felt it was an accomplishment to recommend that two anticipated vacancies remain unfilled, until Bockelman, in consultation with the Town Council, and town residents, “has fully explored alternative options of providing services and presented the results to the Town Council no later than Jan. 31, 2021.”

“If we thought that was enough we wouldn’t be here,” Castro said.

The activists booed when Pam said she would be voting for the budget.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg referred to a statement issued by the Finance Committee to the Town Council, adding that he appreciated the numerous emails and correspondence from residents.

Irons said the effort to cut police is not a “knee-jerk reaction” but a careful examination of town priorities.

“You have a choice here,” Irons said. “You have a choice to be on the right side of history.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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