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Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald addresses a critical crowd at a community forum on June 17.

Voices / Viewpoint

We’re an interracial couple. We want to keep our police department funded.

Anyone who wants to defund the police had better have a plan, because we don’t feel safe

MacLean and Shanta Lee Gander are prolific contributors to The Commons and volunteers for our newspaper’s well-being. They emphasize that they write here solely in their capacity as citizens of Brattleboro, not as journalists. This piece updates an earlier version that appeared on June 20 in the Brattleboro Reformer. Editor’s note: Owing to a production error, the print version of this story displayed the wrong caption with the photo. It is correct as it appears here.

Brattleboro

We are glad that the Selectboard voted to approve the annual budget without defunding the police force.

We recognize that different voices have different ideas about how defunding would work, but anyone who wants to defund the Brattleboro police had better have a plan to keep the two of us safe.

Because we don’t feel safe.

For Shanta, as a Black American woman, it is impossible not to experience the challenge of having brown skin in a white town and experience the racism of ignorance everyday. It’s just a fact. Together, we have experienced overt actions of racism directed toward us, including the threat of violence.

As an interracial couple, we are not safe in Vermont. We see people riding in pickup trucks with Trump banners and weaponizing the American flag, and we know that some of them have weapons in their vehicles. We know that not everyone who flies those flags is a threat, but we know some are.

There have been break-ins across town and in our neighborhood, which is vulnerable. We have had possessions stolen.

At the most recent Selectboard meeting, what we mainly heard was a bunch of well-intentioned progressive White people talking about something they don’t know so much about, based on what they have read in the national papers.

Meanwhile, we are here and living our reality, and we think of our police as protection — not a danger.

* * *

Before COVID-19 hit and George Floyd was murdered, our main concern in Brattleboro was that the police department was underfunded. We know that they could use a second social worker on the force and that the patrol force is thin for the terrain it has to cover.

We know from our reporting that at a leadership level the BPD is seeking to use best practices for community public safety.

We know that the pay scale is low and there was a certain amount of churn in the ranks as a result.

We know that rookie cops make mistakes.

We know that not everyone you hire turns out to be a good apple.

We also know all the recent history — let’s go back two decades — and how police made mistakes in specific incidents.

We also understand that human services need to be better resourced.

All our services are underfunded. Shifting money from BPD to some other idea might be a plan, but we don’t like it.

We don’t feel safe in Brattleboro as an interracial couple, but we do feel safe with our police department, and we want to be able to call 911 anytime we need to and know that someone will show up.

* * *

One of our dearest friends lives a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. She has fought hard all her life for racial equity, and her daughter is one of the council members who voted to defund the police there.

A few days ago, she described the ashes on her stoop from the fires burning.

She and her daughter have our total support, due to the history of White police violence against the Black body in their city — and, of course, because of our love for them.

But the argument to defund the Brattleboro police department, which is small and already challenged to do the work of community policing and public safety, seems like the worst sort of insidious white-skinned progressive racism to us.

It doesn’t take the needs of people of color into account, especially in this time of racial strife and overt racism.

To apply a national lens in a blanket way to our small town lacks any sort of critical thinking.

* * *

There is no question our local institutions are racist in structural ways. Shanta was the first employee of color in Brattleboro, in a one-year term on the Selectboard in 2018–19.

There is, of course, a terrible irony that she had to be elected to be the first employee of color, and we could make that sound bad.

But in the recent years, the town has taken strong steps to do affirmative hiring and mend past wrongs, working hard to address the structural injustices built into our systems.

As a result, several people of color are on the town payroll as full-time employees, as part-time employees, and as kids working in the kinds of temporary jobs that attract high school students.

The percentage of people of color in the town’s employ now lines up pretty closely with our demographics, but the numbers are still small — and for that reason, the town has not announced them.

In an email, Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote that he did not want to engage in tokenism, which is why we didn’t know the figures. We get that. Shanta has been prey to tokenism since she moved to Vermont with her professional and academic background.

We’re not saying that our institutions don’t need to be scrutinized. In fact, we are saying the opposite. This is the perfect moment to hold ourselves accountable and to make fundamental changes.

For one thing, we agree with Elwell that there is nothing to brag about in the town’s progress yet. We also agree with Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald that there is more to be done in review and training.

But before we start talking about the problem of race in this town, let’s be clear that the kinds of structural issues that have to be dealt with at the national level exist here in different ways.

Brattleboro has the chance to do better — Vermont, too, for that matter. But we need to be strategic about the parts we pull from the national discourse to apply to our own region.

* * *

For us, if we all want to put our energy toward healing the savage wounds of race in the United States and the ways in which our town still needs to work hard to do better, perhaps we can explore a side of racism that is rarely discussed in Vermont: the progressive racism that is often wrapped in White privilege.

We often wonder what the people living behind their “Black Lives Matter” signs in their front yards really do every day about racism. Every day. Not just on Facebook.

So before we take the national lens to zone in on our local community, we might want to ask ourselves: “Is this useful? Is this helpful? Is this truthful? And does this apply specifically to our community?”

In our work as journalists, we have witnessed the BPD come to the table to work in open and authentic ways with the hard issues that we already face, namely substance-abuse addiction and crime.

We know what a difficult job the police have here. We know about the complexities of opioid addiction and crime, or of how to address domestic abuse, and we have witnessed how the police deal with it in ways that de-escalate the situation and try to promote healing and safety rather than incarceration.

There is no question that more funds are needed for human services. But to treat this as an either/or in the town’s budget is to miss the point. The bigger task is to keep building the bridges between law enforcement and human services.

We both need to know we have the option of dialing 911 if needed, and we know our current force is stretched thin. We know from our experience that whoever shows up from BPD will help us feel more safe.

There is no question that at the national level policing needs a radical overhaul. We know firsthand what stop-and-frisk was like in Manhattan and what policing is like in places like Hartford, or Chicago, or Atlanta.

There is clearly more work to be done locally, and it is in progress. Having a review system for public safety and policing makes sense. So does supporting human services better than we do.

But let’s keep the Brattleboro Police Department funded.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #567 (Wednesday, June 24, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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