Columnist Jena Sujat: Seeks leadership on complex downtown issue

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/12/2017 9:44:28 PM

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the Northampton Police Department’s recent invitation to join it for a community discussion on surveillance cameras in the downtown area.

It makes me sad that the request for help from the Police Department immediately devolved into name-calling and shaming. We should be having a conversation, not a battle.

So rather than talk about the security cameras, I’d like to write about why there is a request to discuss the cameras in the first place. I’d also like to raise some questions, and put forth my own request.

For the past 12 years, as a business owner and member of the downtown Northampton community, I’ve seen an issue worry the community, often quite deeply. The issue ebbs and flows, and when it has seemed especially worrisome, we and others in the larger Northampton community have sought help from the mayor, Police Department and social services.

In the past, we have had trouble defining or naming this issue. It is complex, nuanced, and layered; we have struggled to figure it out and articulate it. The community has often asked, “Perhaps panhandling is the problem?” But while the issue may involve panhandling, panhandling in and of itself is not the problem. After all, we want people who need help to be able to ask for it!

We’ve also asked, in regard to this issue, “Perhaps all the loitering is the problem?” After all, sometimes loiterers erupt into arguments, become aggressive and violent, and create public safety issues — but while the issue may involve loitering, loitering in and of itself is not the problem. After all, I’m sure we all “loiter” at some time or another.

More recently, as the Northampton community continues to try to understand this issue — people are asking, “Perhaps it’s all the illegal drugs downtown that are the problem?” After all, the illegal drug economy in town includes a lot of other problems along with it: shoplifting, public intoxication, aggressive behavior and violence, severe withdrawal symptoms, overdoses, and deaths.

So unlike the panhandling and loitering, which aren’t problems in and of themselves, the illegal drug economy downtown is a problem. This illegal drug culture not only negatively affects those of us who live and work downtown, but it also adversely affects young people who want to hang out on Main Street and those who come to enjoy Northampton from out of town. It’s a problem that at least part of the Northampton community would like help to fix.

Within the request for help in fixing this issue, I see additional questions: Can we acknowledge that there is an illegal drug problem downtown? Can we at least consider that the “anything goes” philosophy that seems to drive Northampton’s public safety policy might also be fostering this illegal drug industry? Is it possible to work toward eradicating the downtown drug industry while also keeping Northampton a dynamic, free and open public place?

When this issue has come up in the past, those in the Northampton community asking for help have been framed as anti-poor, anti-homeless and anti-free speech. Amid all the name-calling, aggression and, frankly, fear of backlash, the issue has been dropped; many would say the issue has continued to get worse.

But framing the community that is requesting help as anti-poor or against free speech only makes great headlines and looks good on signs. As a community, we are seeking a workable solution, and to label this community as anti-poor and anti-homeless is reactionary, divisive, simplistic, mean-spirited and just plain incorrect.

This issue is complex, nuanced, and fraught with difficulty. Given that, I wonder, is there a leader who can listen to all the voices of our Northampton community, reframe the issue at hand and guide us to a solution? I hope so.

The Northampton Police Department will host a community discussion at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Northampton Senior Center, 67 Conz St., about the possibility of installing surveillance cameras on Main Street.

Jena Sujat, of Northampton, has owned PINCH at 179 Main St. for 12 years.

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