Guest columnist Patrick O’Connor: When protests die down, remember Holyoke

  • In this June 2 file photo in Holyoke, protesters kneel and raise their arms in front of the police station during a protest, march and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality. Gazette file photo

  • In this June 2 file photo in Holyoke, Thayna Garcia hugs her mentor, Maria Cartagena, during a protest, march and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality. Gazette file photo

  • In this June 2 file photo, protesters in Holyoke march from City Hall to the police station in a protest and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality. Gazette file photo

Published: 6/22/2020 8:21:03 AM

Some of the same people correctly decrying the injustices they see in our country help to create and maintain systems of poverty and racism that contribute to such injustices. In fact, their lifestyles support the stage where many of these abuses are acted out.

Crime and abuse thrive in darkness. It grows where people are not paying attention. It feeds off of silence. It becomes stronger around people who have no voice. We see this in police departments. We see it city halls. We see it in schools. We see it in the streets.

When people turn away, criminals of all types take advantage, whether it be a cop, a teacher, a city councilor or a citizen. This is why phones that can record such abuses are so important and powerful. They bring injustices to light. (Can you imagine if children were routinely able to record the behaviors of their parents and blast it out for the world to see?)

Yet, I wonder why so many inner-city, minority communities exist in darkness in the first place. I live in the city of Holyoke, which is surrounded by one of the most liberal, progressive communities in the nation: the Pioneer Valley.

Nearby, we have quaint towns like Amherst, nestled in between some of the best universities in the nation. We have thriving arts communities in Northampton, which has a long history of social justice movements. Many of the people who live in these predominantly white, middle-income communities are standing out in the streets, justly chanting “I can’t breathe!” and holding signs that read, “Defund the Police.”

Yet, right next to these communities, we have one of the poorest communities in the state and all the violence and suffering that comes with poverty. I wonder where our neighbors are when there is not a national crisis. Where are they when there is not a protest? I don’t see them in our city.

Where were they a few months ago when Holyoke tried to build two new middle schools for its impoverished students? Where were they when educators told the public about classrooms with no windows, walls caked in mold, roofs that leak when it rains? Where were they when school supporters (just a handful) spent nights calling residents and knocking on doors, asking them to help pay for these schools?

Where were they when we listened to an onslaught of racist remarks, when we argued against city leaders telling lies? Where were they when the city voted against building those middle schools, when the city voted to keep another generation of students in a cycle of poverty that allows for many of the injustices they cry out against in protests?

They were in nearby towns in homes walled in by invisible boundaries based on income and race, in neighborhoods created and supported by the types of supremacy (both white and income-based) they claim to fight against. They had turned away from cities like Holyoke long ago, allowing them to remain in the dark.

What will they say as our city’s students return to falling apart buildings next fall? Will they remain silent? Will they continue keeping Holyoke and other cities like us in the dark where abuses thrive?

Their choice not to go to a restaurant, a hardware store or a grocery store in a low-income area keeps our economy from growing. Their choice not to move into one of our neighborhoods keeps tax dollars from paying for training of our police officers or improving a park where our children can play.

Their decision to “choice” their children out of public schools (or refuse to move into our community because of our public schools) keeps our schools in shambles and our citizens disempowered.

They have created the stage where many abuses are acted out, and now they sit in their comfortable seats in the audience, watching, and sometimes standing up in protest before they return home.

Patrick O’Connor is a Holyoke resident.

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