Columnist Chelsea Kline: WMass organizers reflect on this country’s critical moment

  • Jose Adastra is a boricua artist, activist and parent. submitted photo

  • Dan Cannity, of Northampton describes himself as an unapologetically queer and black man from Northampton who is commited to social justice. submitted photo

  • Jossie Valentín is a former Holyoke city councilor and state policy adviser for Sen. Ed Markey. Submitted photo

  • Lois Ahrens, photographed in her Northampton home on March 5, 2019. Ahrens is the founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project. Gazette file photo

  • Hawa Tarawally is a Smith College junior, human rights activist and a chief executive officer at Every Step Counts Foundation. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 7/12/2020 9:00:20 PM

We have arrived at a profoundly overdue tipping point in our nation’s history, and now more than ever, we must be listening to those who are organizing and working for justice, peace and equality.

Five organizers in western Massachusetts generously shared their thoughts about this critical moment, and our future: Hawa Tarawally, a Smith College junior, human rights activist and a chief executive officer at Every Step Counts Foundation; Jossie Valentín, former Holyoke City Councilor and state policy advisor for Sen. Ed Markey; Dan Cannity, an unapologetically queer and black man from Northampton with a commitment to social justice; Jose Adastra, boricua artist, activist and parent; and Lois Ahrens, founding director The Real Cost of Prisons Project.

Hawa Tarawally

“It’s crucial to question whom the police are protecting and whom they are policing. Clearly, the police aren’t protecting the most vulnerable people: Black, women and trans women. If police are supposed to protect but leave out minorities, the police become a force for disempowerment.

Real democracy is responsive to the people’s power; it listens and creates policies that serve the people.

We must strive for solutions and communities that guarantee the values of true democracy. The U.S. democracy is being tested right now, and the whole world is watching to see if it will respond to its own preaching. The Black Lives Matter movement is the cry of millions and, ultimately, the cry of the century!

We can achieve an anti-racist society when we wake up to the reality that everything is part of ourselves. When you see everyone as part of yourself, then you don’t need to be told what is right or wrong. The whole concept of having separate identities or races is what led us down the path of ‘divide and conquer,’ but when you see me as part of yourself, the way you see your child as part of yourself, then you can understand that we are all connected by the same energy because we are all alive and humans. Life is the ultimate connective force, and what makes you and me the same person.

So, the answers and solutions we seek to create a better world lies within ourselves.”

Jossie Valentín

“When we look at how and where decisions (including budgetary ones) are being made, we cannot ignore the fact of who is actually making these decisions. My former boss — Sen. Elizabeth Warren — would say this phrase which always resonated for me, ‘If you’re not at the table, you may be on the menu.’ This is one of the many reasons why I believe that representation is crucial at all levels of government.

“Collaboration between organizers, elected officials, community leaders, and others is crucial as we work together towards not just being allies but being accomplices and holding each other accountable.”

Dan Cannity

“First, recognize that the police as an institution has historically and continually been on the wrong side of history, the police have been a tool of the oppressors. Kimberly Jones said, ‘We’re not looking for revenge. We’re just looking for equality.’

Black Lives Matter aims to focus on the fact that Black lives in all of their forms have been the target of oppression. U.S. policing at its core has always been about race and class, and many laws make it clear that police protect property, not people.

The practices of punishing people of color, Indigenous or poor people, combined with protecting property, has coalesced into our current policing system, which fuels the movement to defund the police.

When someone says it’s one bad hamburger, really the whole factory’s goal is to make bad hamburgers! It’s entirely possible that it can accidentally make a couple of good hamburgers along the way.

We must pivot funding away from law enforcement and simultaneously reinvest in the community, reinvest where our values are. Rebuild our communities, which have been consistently underfunded; our schools, community health systems … We demand to know why aren’t we investing in all the things that we know actually prevent more crime from happening!”

Jose Adastra

“As a child in Puerto Rico, the drug war really impacted me and my family. So many people were incarcerated, but it didn’t help anything! People still didn’t have enough. People like me, whose family had been oppressed by the police, have either killed themselves or are incarcerated. There’s not many like me with families and healthy lives. I’m a minority of the minority.

I spent my entire life seeing how Brown people are arrested for things that white people get away with all the time. I see how Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are basically hunted every day. I see that the police either knowingly or unknowingly are participating in a blatant race war that is amounting to genocide.

That’s why I’m helping to build community where all people can simply exist peacefully — the bare minimum! I believe that we need to put money into addressing poverty, which is the root of so many issues.”

Lois Ahrens

“We are at the beginning of positive change, and we have an opportunity to address issues that should’ve been addressed many, many years ago. Now, finally, many people are seeing that police can’t be, or shouldn’t be the go-to solution for every problem. This is the time to pull all these strands apart and decide who can be trained and funded to respond to the needs of all people and communities in much more effective ways than the police.”

Chelsea Kline is a social justice advocate in western Massachusetts and a mother of three. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette.

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