Critics blast Holyoke acting mayor’s decision to rescind order on racism, police violence

  • TERENCE MURPHY

Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2021 8:00:20 AM

HOLYOKE — Acting Mayor Terence Murphy has rescinded a previous executive order that declared racism and police violence as matters that constitute a public health emergency.

Murphy said the order “has no immediate benefit” because the city has not yet acted on many of the plans in the order, which former mayor Alex Morse signed last year.

“It is my expectation that all city departments consistently treat everyone with respect as we serve the public regardless of race or ethnicity,” Murphy said in an announcement explaining his decision this week. “Holyoke should always be a community that welcomes diversity in its many forms.”

Murphy’s action, which came one day after people around the country mourned the anniversary of the police murder of George Floyd on Tuesday, drew criticism from those who said it brushed aside legitimate concerns about racism in the city. Many took to social media to express anger at the decision.

“A lot of friends, family and colleagues of mine are very frustrated,” city resident John Rivera said. For Murphy’s first executive order to be the rescinding of an attempt to combat racial injustice sends a strong, negative signal to people in the city, he said. “For me, growing up in Holyoke, racism is alive and really a thing out here.”

The executive order, which Morse signed on June 17, 2020, declares racism and police violence to be “matters of public health that constitute a public health emergency.” The order notes that racism creates barriers to equity in health, housing, education, employment and public safety for Holyokers, and that people of color have been over-represented in jobs that are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Morse’s order sought to create a position within the city’s Board of Health focused on racial equity in public health. It also established a citizen police advisory committee, recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for city employees, advocated for the study of interventions that decrease reliance on law enforcement for public safety, and called for lawmakers to directly combat racism through actions such as eliminating laws that shield police from investigation and accountability.

Murphy said in an interview that the initial impetus for his taking action on the order was to ensure Juneteenth would become an official city holiday. Murphy said there were lingering questions from the personnel department about whether Morse’s order made that day a paid holiday every year, or simply in 2020.

So Murphy said he took action,filing an order with the City Council calling for the holiday to be codified in city ordinances. In his announcement, he said city employees will have a paid holiday on Juneteenth, which the state has also recognized as a holiday.

But in rescinding the order, Murphy also undid other plans to address racism in the city. He noted that the city had not followed up on those plans. The police advisory committee stalled after the city failed to devote resources to the group, for example, and Murphy said the racial equity public health position on the Board of Health was never created.

“Since so many of the plans in the executive order have not been acted upon, such as a citizen police advisory committee, I believe the order has no immediate benefit,” Murphy said in his announcement.

Some, however, questioned that rationale for rescinding the order. Gloria Caballero-Roca, an Afro-Latina city resident and candidate for mayor, said she felt that was a “weak argument” and that plans that have not yet been acted upon can always be acted upon. That’s particularly true when it comes to the need for better police practices and working to end the impacts of racism seen in Holyoke: housing segregation and health disparities, for example.

“As Black people, every day we are on constant alert, and that alertness speaks to the fact that we can be stopped, we can get frisked, we can get denied service,” Caballero-Roca said. “I would think that any call to consciousness-raising around the subject of endemic racism in an effort to make more public an understanding of the experience of Blacks and Latinos is a good thing, not to be cast aside.”

Murphy countered that he was not brushing aside concerns about racism when he rescinded the order. He said he wants to promote treating others with respect and dignity, adding that as a city councilor he has worked to expand economic opportunities for residents of every ward in the city.

“Do I think there’s racism in the world? Absolutely,” Murphy said in an interview with Holyoke Media. “Do I think this resolution is going to eliminate it? No I don’t. Do I think taking individual actions consistently has a potential of improving our interactions and our respect for each other? Yes I do.”

Murphy told the Gazette that is the approach he took growing up in his neighborhood in South Holyoke, which he described as “very integrated.” And he said that’s how he has approached his public service in Holyoke.

But that focus on individual action came off as naive to Elizabeth Caretti Ramirez, one of the members of the city’s citizen police advisory committee.

“It’s very clear that Murphy thinks that if we’re all just nice to each other, then racism isn’t a problem,” she said. “This is an institutional, systemic issue, and he’s the face of the institution and system right now.”

Vanessa Martinez, another member of the advisory committee, said she was disappointed and frustrated with Murphy’s decision. She said it was exactly what she had feared would happen with the group, which was in limbo after city leaders failed to devote resources to its work.

“We did a ton of work,” Martinez said. “We spent a lot of time, energy and effort trying to build something, and now it feels like an erasure.”

“I felt like we were pawns being bounced between politicians,” Caretti Ramirez added. “First we were a pawn of Morse and now we’re a pawn of Murphy — and maybe people behind the scenes we are not aware of.”

Murphy said that a citizen police advisory committee might be something he is still open to, though he wouldn’t create such a body by executive order.

“I have never said that there’s not some racial inequality from the police department,” Murphy said. He said he has begun collecting specific information from the Holyoke Police Department to determine what needs to be changed and will be publishing those reports. “I’m not just going to make a blanket statement.”

Martinez, though, said she already felt like there was a lack of follow-up from Murphy about the advisory committee’s work. Caretti Ramirez added that Murphy’s action was symbolic, but that it was a puzzling action for an acting mayor to take, considering he is only in that role until November.

“It doesn’t mean anything because we were just sort of hibernating waiting for an elected mayor to come along, and depending on who that is they may pick up our work,” Caretti Ramirez said. “But it’s pretty shocking that somebody in this position, who is supposed to keep the seat warm, is making these symbolic, conservative gestures.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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