By Cara Berg Powers
Worcester is in the news again, and again, not in a good way. As if the coverage of our schools’ bungled Spring emergency instruction or the follow up highlighting our calling of DCF on families who were failed by that instruction weren’t enough. And the Worcester Business Journal has some unsettling Polar Park updates, but that’s actually not the article I saw running rampant through my social media feeds- in and out of Worcester yesterday. It was the headline in the Telegram & Gazette that, according to Chief Sargent, the Worcester Police Department has NO Institutional Racism. That’s remarkable, especially considering that giving that as an answer to community members telling you that they’re experiencing Institutional Racism from YOUR Institution is literally Institutional Racism.
For those of us concerned about the quality of life for ALL of our neighbors in Worcester, this is unsettling but not unsurprising. After all, this isn’t the first time that our Chief has said in a public meeting that he’s “never seen racism in the Worcester Police Department.” First of all, has anyone asked Chief Sargent to define Institutional Racism? Because, as they say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
But let’s be honest, this isn’t about a careful examination and fact finding. It’s about denying there are problems so that we don’t have to do anything about it. It’s the same line of thinking we heard from Superintendent Maureen Binienda last year when Worcester Interfaith and other groups demanded answers for our deep racial disparities in discipline. School Committee Member John Monfredo almost said the exact same thing about our schools, but even he relented when pressed. “Never seen racism” seems to be a popular refrain amongst Worcester leaders. “Worcester is different,” they say.
But if we’re different, it’s in the egregiousness of our disparities and our deep denial of the lived experiences of Black and Brown people living in our City from our elected and appointed officials. Take, for example, a 2003 Boston Globe analysis of traffic data, naming Worcester as one of 19 Communities in Massachusetts in which Black and Brown folks were TWICE as likely to be stopped by police. Further, that same report found that white people were MORE likely to be arrested for drug possession when they were searched, giving evidence to the claim that many of those stops were erroneous.
Or of course the fact that in 2015, racial tensions in our city were so bad that the Department of Justice was called in to lead an unprecedented series of Race Dialogues, with one of the stated goals being to “influence attitudes of local law enforcement.” As a member of the Worcester Human Rights Commission, which has an almost 50 year history of oversight and memorandums with the police, primarily around racism and brutality, we spent about a year following these dialogues synthesizing the notes. In the compiled notes from the dialogue, the word “police” is included 360 times. Additionally, in the progress report the city released as follow up, one of the five key takeaways from the dialogues was, “Police profiling and racism need to be addressed.” This was only five years ago. Here’s some of the things community members shared, per the notes (which were carefully compiled by volunteers from the community who continue to be ignored):
- As an example of the police culture, a member of our group shared a personal story about leading a training for young police recruits and hearing racial slurs directed at her from the trainees with no repercussions from police leadership.
- When people are directed to the Bureau of Internal Affairs they are reluctant to report for fear of intimidation or discouragement
- A member of our group recognized that he is in a demographic of people who feels safe around the police. He also discussed his work with youth stated that when he speaks with young people he finds that the white kids feel safe but the black [sic] kids feel that they are pulled over for nonsense reasons. He hears this over and over.
Again, this was five years ago. We have the same City Manager. The Chief of Police was hired the following year, having spent decades in the department. This should have been a top priority. Instead, he has never heard of it. Racism?
Denying the experiences of these members of the community, predominantly Black members IS racist. And before we get into a white people “I’m not racist” argument, I’m not interested in what is in any of Worcester’s decision makers hearts. I’m not interested in your feelings, I’m interested in making our community safe for my husband, our daughter, my neighbors, friends, and students. But if making the community safer for ALL of it’s residents isn’t enough to convince you to take a deep breath and confront some hard truths, I’ll remind you of the literal institutional racism against Black officers, litigated by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Filed in 1994 and finalized in 2011, two Black officers alleged a pattern of discrimination that kept them from advancing in the force. The MCAD finding supported their claim, writing:
“We conclude that Harris and Tatum have sustained their burden of proving disparate treatment, and that the City of Worcester engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination where the interests of white officers were consistently favored over those of minority officers.”
I know that Chief Sargent doesn’t really know what Institutional Racism means. THAT is Institutional Racism.
But it’s not just that, it’s also living in a city that you know does not fully acknowledge your humanity, does not accept or believe your experiences as valuable to the ways we enact or enforce policies. It’s going to a school that disproportionately suspends students that look like you. And before we say “well that’s not the police,” consider that in 2017, 89 students were arrested in Worcester Public Schools, including at least two for cell-phone related incidents, and 43% for non-violent incidents. If this feels like deja-vu all over again, it’s because this conversation, and denial in Worcester is not new. In fact, when I did some googling to identify sources for this article, I found one titled “Black Activist Blasts Worcester Council’s One-Sided Pro-Police Initiative.” When I opened the article, I saw my husband’s smiling face with our then infant daughter. She’s 7 now and our city has literally been having this conversation her whole life (and honestly, of course much longer). They didn’t listen to him then, just as they are ignoring the hard work of countless community and commission members now.
When Black and Brown community members show up to meetings, tell you that they are experiencing racism at the hands of an institution you are responsible for, the only appropriate response is “let’s get to work figuring out how to fix this.” Chief Sargent’s response that it simply doesn’t exist and he wouldn’t tolerate it isn’t just denial of Institutional Racism, it’s proof (along with everything else here) that he is in charge of a racist institution.