This moment has been a long time coming.
In 2018, several young black men suffered due to the unnecessary use of force by Burlington police officers. As elected officials we were not aware of these incidents until eight months after the incidents occurred and inappropriate discipline had already been applied by the former chief of police and members of the Police Commission. There have been multiple attempts to bring about justice for these past incidents without any concrete positive results. Some important questions arose from what happened that I have been grappling with: Why did both the mayor and city attorney choose to hold back critical public safety information from the council and the community? What have we done to bring some level of justice and fairness to those decision making processes? And now, what is an alternative that could bring consensus to the protestors demands? What is the role of the community and the rule of law?
Under our city’s charter, the chief of police has the authority to hire or fire police officers subject to an appeal to the police commission. The city council has the authority to approve or disapprove of the mayor’s choice for a police chief. While the council cannot hire or fire a police officer, the council could have provided some level of justice long ago by using the power of their vote for the chief of police.
Did anyone on the council have the courage to stand up around the re-appointment of the former chief of police in 2019? I did. The mayor’s proposal was to vote for his full slate of department heads. I asked that we vote separately for the police chief, but other city councilors were against a separate vote.
The council had the opportunity to request the termination of the officers. There were options before the COVID emergency when the city had the financial means. The officers could have been terminated and offered severance. This would have required us to have the courage for a lengthy legal fight for justice. Progressives and Democrats on the city council made it clear they did not want to go that route and they did not want to vote against the re-appointment of the police chief.
Following this spring’s death of George Floyd and the revival of national Black Lives Matter protests, I proposed the following amendment to the Racial Justice Alliance’s resolution in June: “Due to the unsafe feeling of our community about the continued service of officers Jason Bellavance and Joseph Corrow on the Burlington Police Department as foot patrols, the City Council strongly requests for acting Police Chief Murad to transfer the two officers listed above to the Burlington Airport to continue their service as Police Officers of Burlington.” Acting Chief Murad and the city’s attorney declared this was not possible. I was quite surprised and disappointed to learn later (at a special city council meeting on 9/8) that it was actually possible, as one of the officers has now been transferred to the airport.
This September I asked the mayor a simple question: What is being done by your administration about the protests and protests’ demands? The mayor’s response was to share only in the council’s executive session. The simple answer was nothing was being done, despite two weeks of camping out by courageous young protestors putting their safety on the line.
It is time to face the fact that our local government as a whole is not performing well and that there are few prospects of improvement when it comes to equity and justice. All that we are experiencing as a community right now could have been prevented by acting rightfully at the right time. These protests and all they stand for are only amplifying my call for justice made for so long now.
Justice has already been denied by the local government. However, this is not the time to quit in the fight for social change and social justice. It is hard work to bring people together; the process is messy and takes a long time. I will not quit and nobody should, especially now. Protestors, please listen to my perspective as a black person. Take the energy and passion you have for justice and channel it from protest into organizing. It is time to organize for the long-term systemic change we need to create a just and equitable Burlington.