A 2020 demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement drew thousands to downtown Brattleboro.
Jeff Potter/Commons file photo
A 2020 demonstration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement drew thousands to downtown Brattleboro.

'Public safety' is not community safety

The governor's Public Safety Enhancement Team is part of a nationwide backlash to 2020 movements to defund and abolish the police. Its process is at odds with Brattleboro's Community Safety Review (CSR) Committee recommendations.

Jonathan Elwell organizes with Vermont Just Justice, an organization whose mission is "to promote the reform of the criminal legal system through monitoring and changing Vermont laws that promote mass incarceration and excessive punishment."

BRATTLEBORO-On Tuesday, April 30, Jim Baker and Gov. Phil Scott's Public Safety Enhancement Team (PSET) will host more than 100 community, government, business, and nonprofit leaders at a "Call to Action Symposium - Public Safety Enhancement" at the SIT campus in Brattleboro.

This event will be the culmination of several months of Baker's consulting with town government and community leaders aimed at, in his words, a "bigger picture about how to coordinate and collaborate" around public safety.

This process is a piece of Gov. Scott's 10-Point Plan, released in 2022 as part of a nationwide backlash to 2020 movements to defund and abolish the police.

In Brattleboro, the Community Safety Review (CSR) Committee recommendations - which have been saddled with a sort of political taboo in town - have been delayed even further to allow for Baker's process to unfold.

The CSR was a bottom-up process facilitated by trusted, radical community organizers and grounded in the experience of those most targeted and harmed by policing.

Its exploration into safety and well-being in Brattleboro identified the many material struggles facing our communities and the role of policing in oppressing those most dispossessed and marginalized. The CSR report also compiled many possibilities to address harm, change systems, and meaningfully shift power.

The PSET is based on a much more limited understanding of community safety, and one that re-centers police, even as it gestures halfheartedly toward public health.

Unsurprisingly, the possibilities for change are more limited, too - prioritizing communication, collaboration, and mutual understanding among service providers.

Crucially, this process uses the state's power and legitimacy to compel those who may agree with the values and recommendations of the CSR to nonetheless participate in the PSET forums or else lose access to a "seat at the table."

This is no accident.

* * *

Reform is a form of counterinsurgency against radical movements, as abolitionist thinkers like Orisanmi Burton and Dylan Rodríguez teach us, because it conjures a façade of change to stabilize oppressive systems. The state reinforces these systems by co-opting movement language, defanging radical demands, and redefining the boundaries of acceptable change and respectable tactics.

These dynamics have been evident in the nationwide movement to reassert police power post-2020.

That summer, Baker retweeted multiple posts that included the Thin Blue Line insignia - symbolism that has proliferated in the past decade as part of the Blue Lives Matter backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Baker's Twitter account also includes retweets of Bill Bratton, the infamous former New York Police Department commissioner behind broken-windows policing, such as "Another nail in the failed Defund the Police Movement" and "#ReFundThePolice."

Despite his attempts to appear apolitical, these examples show that Baker is keenly aware of the antagonistic relationship between abolitionist movements and efforts to augment police power, and they clearly illuminate his allegiance in this conflict.

* * *

Baker has a history of stabilizing and reinvigorating oppressive systems in moments of crisis, most recently with the Vermont Department of Corrections.

He became interim commissioner in 2019 after Mike Touchette resigned following reports of widespread sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), Vermont's only women's prison.

Beginning under Baker's leadership, the DOC transformed this crisis into a call for a $500 million investment in new prison construction - starting with $90 million for a new women's prison to replace CRCF.

Around the same period, it emerged that the DOC had been complicit and neglectful in Kenneth Johnson's death and had then moved to hide their culpability.

Baker managed the fallout and, in subsequent interviews and hearings, described ongoing deaths behind bars and the DOC's systematic, unlawful failure to carry out death investigations as a "cultural problem."

Today, the same violent systems are still leading to premature deaths, followed by yet more empty promises of reform and progress.

* * *

These are not problems with culture - they are ingrained features of a system that relies on exploitation, dispossession, and violence.

Reducing the scourges of capitalism and imperialism to issues of management and communication is a counterinsurgent tactic that serves to reinforce these systems.

This is not about intentions; it is about power. Baker's process is reasserting state and police power.

If we are serious about actually addressing root causes, ending systems of violence, and creating liberatory communities, we must speak frankly on these dynamics and act strategically to build the kind of revolutionary communal power that cannot be absorbed by the state.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

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