The following op-ed was written by Watertown Citizens for Black Lives, a working group of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice & the Environment:
Something about the moment we are in – maybe it’s because COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore the deadly ways race predicts health outcomes, or because our disrupted routines make it possible for a single event to galvanize our shared attention on a huge scale – something made everyone notice the brutal killing of George Floyd.
As sickening as his murder was, it was far from unique. Floyd’s name is one in a very long list of Black people killed by police (or by vigilantes with ties to law enforcement), a list that includes Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and too, too many others (https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/). Activists campaigning for safe communities have been imploring for years that we reaffirm the individual humanity of each of these lives, and our own, by saying their names, by holding their killers accountable, and by creating conditions such that Black lives are no longer disproportionately the victims of state violence.
Since George Floyd’s death, more people, and notably more white people, are finally beginning to reckon with the long history of police brutality against Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC). In this context, Watertown Citizens for Black Lives would like to share information about the values and work of our group. Since 2017 we have been campaigning against violence and systemic racism in our local community. We engage in monthly vigils; host events and discussions to deepen our understanding of racism and white privilege; gather resources in support of the Movement for Black Lives, and work against white supremacy and systems of oppression and violence against Black people. Here are some of the assumptions we hold:
- We believe that Black Lives Matter.
- All people and institutions should treat everyone fairly.
- Deep, systemic racism exists in our country and our town.
- Systemic racism hurts not only BIPOC, it also hurts people who identify as white.
We confront our own racial biases every day. It is impossible not to have them, in a society that is swimming in racial bias. Every day, all of us are immersed in media and a culture full of white supremacy, which means that white people are more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt, the chance to recover from a mistake, accommodations for comfort and safety, and opportunities for success in work, housing, education, health, banking and investment, the law, and every other sector of our society. Each day we struggle against these manifestations of systemic racism and as a group, we continue to discuss how we can dismantle these systems.
We appreciate that Watertown Police Chief Mike Lawn made a public statement in response to the murder of George Floyd. It is noteworthy that Watertown officers under his leadership have engaged in multiple trainings and consultations – some of which were part of their accreditation process – intended to prevent biased policing in our community and better equip officers to de-escalate potentially violent encounters and avoid unnecessary use of force. We honor the fact that members of our Watertown Police Department have chosen to serve the people of Watertown, and we appreciate the thoughtful and compassionate acts they perform. And we value that residents are offered the opportunity to learn more through the Citizens Police Academy (CPA). Several of us have participated in the CPA, and we still have questions.
We understand that American policing has its roots in the institution of slavery and slave patrols, followed by a more recent history that includes enforcement of post-Civil War “Black Codes,” turning a blind eye to lynchings and other acts of terror against Black Americans (when police did not themselves participate), surveillance and forceful suppression of civil rights activists, and helping to create the staggering racial disparities within the current mass incarceration crisis. The echoes of this heavy history are felt throughout modern policing and affect how members of the public experience even nonviolent interactions with police.
Because the chief’s statement was entirely about his department being different, better, unconnected to and unaccountable for the actions of police officers elsewhere, we think there is more work to do to properly locate WPD within the historical context of American policing. Nationally, we are not dealing with a “few bad apples.” We have seen officers using inappropriate force and brutality over and over again, in big cities and small towns, and in the north, south, east, and west of our country. To say that “we are better” – while elsewhere, the badge-carrying officers who commit these acts are protected from accountability by inadequate laws, selective enforcement, restrictive union contracts, and fraternal norms of silence – is not enough.
We think there is more work to do. Members of our group are now part of a collaborative effort across several organizations in Watertown to develop specific policy proposals with the goal of making our community safer and more welcoming. Just as many of us recognize racial bias in ourselves, and continue, over and over, to try to root it out with reading and research, actions, and accountability to people of color both inside and outside our group, we think Watertown PD needs to take the time, in light of recent events, to engage in consistent self-reflection (not just a one-time event) to create transparency and improve the dialogue between the department and POC in the community. The history of these patterns is long; the work to dismantle and overcome them will take sustained self-critical reflection and continual development.
Find us at watertowncitizensforblacklives.org.