Editorial: Racism is a public health issue, and it’s here

  • Grace Coates, center, raises a fist after, left, Northampton Police Lt. Alan Borowski, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper and State Trooper Mike Habel took a knee, ending a long standoff between police and protesters at the Northampton police station, Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bryanna Colon chants “Say his name!” with other protesters of police violence and racism in downtown Northampton, Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Maya Williams marches with other protesters of police violence and racism in downtown Northampton, Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Thayna Garcia hugs her mentor, Maria Cartagena, during a protest, march and vigil against racial injustice and police brutality, Tuesday at Holyoke Heritage State Park. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A man leads a call and response of “No justice, no peace — with justice, comes peace” during a rally to protest racial violence that drew about 1,000 people to the Amherst Town Common on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 6/4/2020 11:51:05 AM

Northampton is a protest town. There have been countless rallies — to stop war, nukes, climate change, Trump — in our streets and parks. But Monday’s demonstration against racism and police violence following the killing of George Floyd felt different. “Restless” is the word our photo editor, Carol Lollis, used to describe the feeling in the air, as over 1,000 people marched from Sheldon Field to the police station, where a standoff ensued between protesters and officers.

They wanted the police to “take a knee,” shouting, “Kneel with us — we will respect you, if you respect us.” It took about an hour of fraught negotiation, but eventually a state trooper and two city officers, including Police Chief Jody Kasper, took a knee in front of the cheering crowd, which dispersed within minutes to go home.

One reader dismissed the display as an “empty gesture” in a letter to the Gazette. But if the action is empty, that would imply the same for the request. The officers taking a knee before the crowd didn’t appear to be a meaningless gesture to the protesters who asked for it, including Grace Coates, the black woman who helped negotiate the truce. In fact, the moment seemed heavy with hope, as our photos of Coates smiling beside the kneeling officers with her fist in the air show so clearly.

Taking a knee is a powerful statement and eased tensions Monday. But after a week of rallies, including in Amherst and Holyoke, we’re waiting to see what happens next. As a speaker said at Tuesday’s protest and vigil in Holyoke that drew both Mayor Alex Morse and Police Chief Manny Febo, “Just because someone walks with us today and they talk a good talk doesn’t mean their follow-up actions will match.”

Of course, that’s true for all kinds of self-declared supporters of the movement, not just ones in high offices, and allies can start by listening — which sometimes requires putting down the bullhorn to let someone else pick it up.

Speakers at the Holyoke march, organized by a group called 413 Boricuas, hit on this point several times over the course of the march from City Hall to the police station at Appleton Street. The organizers made it clear that they appreciated the presence of white protesters and volunteers in the movement but that “it’s not about you.” It’s about what it means to be a person of color, to not know what it feels like to be safe in your everyday life, to not feel heard.

We are also listening — and asking questions. For instance, why did Northampton police officers use pepper spray on protesters? (Kasper said it was to prevent people from overtaking the station.) Why were state police brought in for a protest that was organized by high schoolers? (It was a typical request for a large-scale protest with the possibility of violence, the chief said.) And what did Mayor David Narkewicz have to say about it all? (He assessed the rally as a “successful event,” given there were no arrests or injuries.)

Still, Northampton has a past, as some protesters in the crowd voiced, referencing the 2013 arrest of Jonas Correia, an Amherst man who was struck and pepper-sprayed by an NPD officer outside of a Northampton bar (Correia settled out of court with the city’s insurance company for $52,500) and Eric Matlock, who in 2017 in front of City Hall was pepper-sprayed, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police officer. He was later found not guilty on all counts.

In his online town hall speech Wednesday, former President Barack Obama called on mayors across the country to review use-of-force policies and pursue a range of reforms. “Chokeholds and strangleholds, that’s not what we do,” he said.

After Floyd’s death, Kasper outlined a series of actions on Facebook that her department has taken over the past five years that she says confront systemic racism and implicit bias and restrict how police officers use force. Like other police chiefs in the area, including Scott Livingstone of Amherst, she’s also seeking dialogue with residents about the role of police in the community.

These are steps in the right direction, but what’s really needed is a leap. We’re not saying it’s time to defund the police department, but it is time to have a serious discussion about how that money is being used — and if more of it would be better spent on services supporting public and mental health and preventing homelessness. Police in Northampton are currently being used as public health workers, interacting with people who are homeless as well as those undergoing mental health crises. They are also monitoring public smoking and mask wearing, among other things — which could lead to unintended consequences, such as over-policing and unnecessary confrontations.

Unlike the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s constantly evolving information on the novel coronavirus, there is no CDC guide to symptoms of racism, no self-checker.

But there are many parallels between the two crises. Much like COVID-19, racism can manifest in many different ways, sometimes obvious, sometimes undetectable until it’s too late. Symptoms can range from severe — as in the case with Derek Chauvin, the white officer who killed Floyd — to mild to invisible.

In New York City last month, a white woman called the cops on a black man bird-watching in Central Park. That video went viral, but what it documented is hardly exceptional.

Not so long ago, an anonymous caller rang the tip line at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to report a “very agitated” African American man walking on campus carrying a large duffel bag. Police shut down a building to search for the man: Reg Andrade, then a 14-year employee at the university. As Andrade, who had been walking from the recreation center to work, later told the Gazette: “How can somebody just walk by me, not even speaking, and try to discern that I was agitated? This is when it becomes dangerous, when people know how to push the buttons of law enforcement … Those were those strong key buzzwords: agitated black man dragging a heavy bag.”

Like COVID, racism is highly contagious, but it’s hard to test for — a nasal swab won’t catch it. And while there are likely millions of cases of it around the country, it’s unlikely to cause a government-ordered shutdown of schools and businesses to mitigate it.

So what can allies do to support people of color?

■Listen and check in with friends, colleagues and community members.

■Take a knee. Easthampton’s mayor and chief of police invited city residents to join them in kneeling for 8½ minutes Thursday to honor Floyd and protest racism.

■Say their names. Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Ahmaud Arbery.

■Participate in protests, while wearing masks and maintaining social distance. As Obama said in his remarks, these efforts aren’t in vain. And while they remind some people of demonstrations during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, “there is something different here,” as he put it: a broader, more diverse coalition. 

■Educate children with anti-racist books — easy enough — but also allow yourself to be educated by young people, like the high school students who organized the Northampton march.

■Treat racism like the epidemic that it is. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and American College of Physicians have all come out saying that racism is a public health issue.

■Advocate for and pass legislation like resolutions being introduced by black legislators in Ohio’s state House and Senate to declare racism a public health crisis.

■Call it out. Journalists have an obligation to name an act or pattern of racism when it’s clear, including when it’s by our president.

■Be aware of bias in our own communities, and in ourselves — unlike the novel coronavirus, racism isn’t new. It’s a disease with a 400-year-old history, and it’s not only infecting big cities. It’s everywhere. It’s here.

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