Bethlehem’s Year of Floyd (2): Council deploys

Latest in a series of posts regarding the George Floyd anniversary

Gadfly is modestly proposing that City Council mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death at a Public Safety meeting on May 25, 2021. A year gives us some distance on our efforts to act on the significance of his death and a perspective on the challenges it presented to the City. Gadfly continues here a quasi-history of the “Year of Floyd” as seen through his eyes and the pages of the blog. One man’s version. As always, Gadfly invites you to join in.

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The June 2 City Council meeting at which Chief Diluzio made his “George Floyd’s Death & Policing in America” presentation was 8 days after the murder of George Floyd. Bethlehem had seen a peaceful demonstration 3 days before. Peaceful but certainly angry.

Several Council members were there on May 30 to witness and no doubt to participate in the anger, and all members shared such messages addressed to Council calling for local action as “During the next budgetary assessment, the City of Bethlehem needs to defund policing and allocate this funding to Health services, Public Housing, and Education,” “We are contacting you again to demand immediate action,” “I am emailing to demand the restructuring of the Bethlehem city budget in a way that prioritizes social services for communities and drastically minimizes spending on police,” and “WILL YOU ask the “affected” what THEY need?”

The Mayor and the Chief had stated their relatively inactive positions, now what would Council do?

Would they, in Gadfly’s view, rise to the occasion, respond in kind to the uncoiling significance of Floyd’s murder and the demand for meaningful action?

Each Council member spoke at that June 2 meeting.

President Waldron’s focus was solely on the model non-escalating behavior by our police department in ensuring a peaceful protest and ensuring the First Amendment rights of the protestors. The police acted with such  “restraint” and “respect,” said President Waldron, that “not a single incident . . . happened within that large rally last Saturday.”

Councilman Callahan likewise echoed praise for the police doing “a heckuva job” but moved a bit beyond that to action, by which, however, he meant only sending “some type of resolution to the state . . . our state senators, our United States senators,” and by “going out and voting.”

Frankly, Gadfly was most surprised, most disappointed by Councilman Colon — from a diverse Puerto Rican/African American family with a life experience no doubt different from almost every one else on Council — who was satisfied hearing that the police department was up to snuff, who’s “using this time to listen” (a term he repeats 4 times) and keeping “the dialog going” (what new in regard to racism could he expect to hear at this point in our history?), who sees change as “incremental,” and who seemingly sees very little role for Bethlehem in taking the lead in fostering change. Councilman Colon’s response simply seemed too low energy for Gadfly given the rather tumultuous events spreading around the country and, indeed, the world. (Councilman Colon is chair of the Public Safety Committee, and Gadfly will have occasion later to link this low key attitude to the operation of that committee.)

Thankfully, in Gadfly’s opinion, the remaining four Councilpeople significantly raised the level of conversation.

Councilwoman Van Wirt immediately smoked the Mayor and Chief for failing to indict systemic racism not only in Minneapolis but also here in Bethlehem as well. The Councilwoman charges them “to do something,” that is, “to look at our own city and address economic and social racism where it exists.” Bingo! Councilwoman Van Wirt reads a letter originally posted on Gadfly from resident Breena Holland — the hard-edged, no nonsense kind of letter we’re used to from her –in which she calls out the Mayor and Chief for words that “are not that meaningful unless they get turned into action.” If the Mayor and Chief “can pretend [racism] does not exist locally” and only “condemn what happened to George Floyd for the brutal inhumanity it displayed, . . . then they are part of the problem.”

Now we’re cookin’, feels the Gadfly.

If we — the imperial white “we” — are going to help the “other,” are going to actively help the other, what do we most need? Perhaps empathy is the key trait. The ever heart-felt Councilwoman Crampsie Smith does a clinic on empathy: “it is really important for us to reconcile with the fact that people of color are deeply and profoundly hurt and that hurt is manifesting itself as anger. Can we blame them? Absolutely not. I would not be in this position of councilmember if it were not for my dear friends of color. I am blessed every day to see the gifts, talents, and dignity of my wonderful students of color. My heart is broken for them and for our country. As a mother you live with many fears regarding your children’s well being. I thank God my twenty-year-old son is white, for his safety is greater than his friends of color. And that is truly wrong. My heart breaks for the parents of children of color, for I cannot fathom the fear they live with each and every day. Their fears are above and beyond what any parents’ fears ever should be.” So personal, so powerful. And where does the Councilwoman end up? With the magic words. Anti-racism. “We must insure that we are not not just against racism, but that we are anti-racist, we are inclusive, and we always strive to insure justice for all.”

Anti-racism. Bethlehem as an anti-racist city. Now we’re talkin’.

Gadfly remembers remarking during public comment one meeting that Councilman Reynolds is the loudest of the Councilmembers. With his commanding voice and machine-gun delivery, he can make you sweat. Councilman Reynolds picks up on the need for empathy, describing what he has learned from his students. He picks up on the need for anti-racism: “there’s also a difference between not doing something wrong and doing what’s right. And I think that’s part of the conversation we need to have in the city. . . . It is not even enough just to say that we can have peaceful demonstrations here. It’s gonna be enough when people that are in marginalized communities are able to look at us as our elected officials and look at things we’ve done and say, you know what, they made things better, they made things more inclusive, they gave power to people that didn’t have power before.” With the statements by the Mayor and the Chief as the implied point of reference, the Councilman says, “it’s just not enough to be against racism, but we need to pro-actively be anti-racist. ”

Anti-racism again. For most individuals and institutions, that means a complete 180-degree re-orientation in attitude and behavior. And a risky re-orientation at that.

We end our survey of Council responses at this June 2, 2020, meeting with a dose of reality. We end with Councilwoman Negron. We don’t need a resolution, she says. We don’t need a “magic pill.” We know the problem, we just ignore it. It’s simple. Simply do justice, something we all know. Simply do justice. Here’s the bitter truth. Here’s speaking truth to power. “Your brown and black constituents are being right now, every day treated in an unjust way. . . . the injustice exists. And there’s no way for anybody to say otherwise.” The Councilwoman herself feels at times “intimidated, afraid.” Then come the words “we” don’t want to hear: “Liberty and justice for all. Really? Justice for all. Justice for all as long as you have light skin, gold hair, and blue eyes. Because if you don’t, there’s no such a thing in here as justice for all.”

Words far from those of the Mayor and the Chief. Words that should move us to action.

Will they?

to be continued . . .

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