Dear Ithaca Police Benevolent Association,
Like many other Ithacans, I’ve watched with dismay as I’ve seen the IPBA Facebook fill up with media and language that I recognize from police unions in other towns and cities. I see you criticizing individual media outlets and reporters that you don’t like. I see treasurer Mike Meskill wearing a Thin Blue Line cap in fundraising videos — blacking out the American flag to argue that it is police, rather than community or shared purpose, that keeps America together. And I see you wildly mixing the financial and safety concerns of your members — the core of your mission as I understand it — with a public-facing narrative that crime is overwhelming the city because of a lack of police. In your August 31 post, you asked the “silent majority” in Ithaca to contact our representatives, using the same language that Richard Nixon did to rally support for the Vietnam War.
Your followers respond to your increasingly strident and anti-Ithaca rhetoric. On your post complaining about protests on August 6, a heating and cooling technician from Covert wrote that “A gathering of veteran patriots could clear the way for you but be mindful that while liberals and snowflakes may tolerate domestic terrorism we will not and the necessary amount of force to gain compliance will be utilized.” Your own ex-officer Greg Firman offered to bring retired police to push aside protesters in a now-deleted post. When you rail against your own citizens, you don’t provoke compliance with your wishes. You feed into a narrative created by Tom Reed and reinforced by Trump that there is something wrong with Ithaca, that it needs to be disciplined or suppressed. Little could be worse for the relationship between the police and the public.?
I know you have some supporters who are Ithacans — although many of your strongest supporters on Facebook are not — but I want to remind you of the cultural and political divide between these statements and the Ithacans I know. We depend as a community on our people of color and immigrants. We offer a tolerant and open space to the students and visitors that come to town. We are a small city under substantial economic pressure, and we understand that suffering creates crime that police can’t prevent or “solve.” Lastly, we know that there is a racial divide in Ithaca, a basic and violent unfairness that is very old, very complex, and which remains to this day in many forms, including policing. As you well know, this is a murderous injustice, and the deaths of Black people at the hands of police offend not just our shared sense of decency but our belief in the rule of law.
Luckily, we have some powerful resources here. We are lucky to have Svante Myrick, who won reelection in 2019 with an overwhelming 76% of the vote and whose care and consideration keeps the city together. His commitment to releasing video, sharing disciplinary records, and communicating with the population consistently benefits the police department. We have a strong community of Ithacans committed to racial justice, who will not allow the kinds of inequities that make other communities so violent, disaffected, and grim. We have a history of Black excellence and Black love in the city that spans from Alex Haley to Bernie Milton to Rediet Abebe, the first black woman ever to get a Ph. D. in computer science at Cornell, who graduated last year. Underpinning these strengths are our cultural traditions: openness, a struggle for peace through justice, and a love for difference. We do not have to arrest our way out of 2020. And we shouldn’t! Doing that would sacrifice so much of what makes Ithaca flourish.?
Protestors are making demands of you because we need daily, serious change in the way police officers think about the community. I have seen positive, caring responses to the challenges that face us from some officers, but I don’t see it in the IPBA. Right now, you have the ability to encounter the protests with resentment and anger; you have the liberty to rail against the mayor during contract negotiations. But if you do, please, don’t tell yourself that you’re doing this on behalf of the Ithaca community. Don’t pretend protests are abstract “civil unrest.” They are a message. We are not silent. We are speaking to you through the ballot box and in the streets.?