In January 2015, the Young Gifted and Black Coalition wrote an open letter to Madison Chief of Police Mike Koval. Koval responded. Here are letters from several community members responding back to the chief. The letters are from:
In his recent blog post, Chief Koval responded with dismay and disbelief to the demand, presented by the Young, Gifted, and Black coalition in an open letter to him published in the Wisconsin Gazette last week, that interactions between their communities and the police ought to be reduced until there are no interactions at all. As a white, middle-class resident of Madison’s Marquette neighborhood, I do not know what it is like to live as a working class person of color in a community under intense police surveillance. I can tell you what it is like to live in a community where there are very few interactions with police or none at all: It is not bad at all.
No one I know who lives in my neighborhood is or has ever been incarcerated. Not once have I witnessed someone being arrested in my neighborhood. While I sometimes see police cars in my neighborhood, they are usually on their way to somewhere else. I have never been stopped by a police officer, in my neighborhood, for any reason, nor have I ever seen someone be stopped or questioned in my neighborhood. When I walk somewhere in my neighborhood, I do so without fear of being questioned or arrested by police, and not a single person in my neighborhood has ever expressed any fear of being arrested. The police are here, I know that, but their presence is seldom felt by me or people I know. The one time I can remember their presence was felt very powerfully, by almost everyone in the neighborhood, was after Paulie Heenan’s tragic encounter with Stephen Heimsness, the police officer who shot him to death. In the days and weeks following Heenan’s death, I heard many people saying that they did not feel comfortable calling the police, even in an emergency, because doing so introduced the use of deadly force, whether warranted or not, to the situation in question. What I did not hear people saying was that they feared that they or someone they cared about would die as a result of a random encounter initiated by officers on a routine patrol of the neighborhood.
Nobody has ever asked me whether I want to have minimal interactions with the police, but I am grateful that the MPD have decided to let my neighborhood deal with most of its problems, when they arise, rather than proactively intervening in our daily lives in an effort to prevent them. When I think about how my life would be with regular “proactive” interactions with police, the relative absence of such interactions in my life seems like a necessary condition for freedom and self-determination, not simply a privilege, though it is that as well. I suspect that many of my neighbors feel the same way. It’s important to note that the fact that I have minimal interactions with the police in Marquette is not simply or even chiefly a result of my neighbors’ behavior. Statistical and anecdotal evidence alike suggests that there are people, who live in my neighborhood, who break the law. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” It seems likely that this holds true in Madison as well. The near East side has a reputation for being the haunt of hippies, old and young, and, in the summer, the sweet smell of marijuana sometimes wafts from open windows along Jennie Street. Of course, the lion’s share of arrests for drug offenses do not take place in this almost exclusively white neighborhood. They take place in Madison’s working class communities of color. As more than one study has shown, African Americans in Madison are far more likely to be arrested than white people.
While it may be difficult for many of us to imagine a world without policing, many white people, like me, live in a world where our encounters with the police are rare and, usually, positive. This is because, in general, we are not perceived as criminals and our neighborhoods are not heavily or intrusively surveilled. It is not difficult for me to imagine why other people want to live under similar conditions. Of course, policing or not policing is not the only relevant question when we consider the stark differences in quality life enjoyed by people who live in the Marquette neighborhood vis a vis people who live in, for example, the concentrations of affordable housing around Elver Park. In impoverished neighborhoods, people who feel unsafe may, for understandable reasons, ask for more, not less, policing. What the Young, Gifted, and Black coalition has challenged all of us to do is to address the structural inequalities that divide our neighborhoods, to build a city where every community has the material resources they need to resolve their own problems on their own terms. Rather than chastizing the Young, Gifted, and Black coalition, who are calling for real solutions to inequality, Chief Koval might put his prestige and stature to better use as an advocate for the economic justice we need for true social stability and crime reduction.
As a white ally of people of color struggling for empowerment, I feel compelled to respond to the recent exchange between Madison Police Chief Koval and the Young Gifted and Black Coalition (YGB).
In a January 12 post on his blog, Chief Koval responded to an open letter from YGB that requested the Madison Police Department develop a plan for addressing racial disparities in its policing. His response is essentially a refusal to engage with the ideas put forward by YGB, ideas which could reduce the high arrest rates currently plaguing the black community here.
Both sides acknowledge that racial disparities exist in Madison in myriad forms and are among the worst in the nation. The differences in opportunity and quality of life for white community members and our black and brown brothers and sisters is shocking to say the least. Blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested than whites, and 75% of black children in Dane County live in poverty—these are just a few of the disheartening figures from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity report.
But rather than taking responsibility for part (only part) of the problem, Chief Koval declines to acknowledge his department’s culpability or consider what is within his power as police chief to accomplish. Instead, he spends the better part of the response taking umbridge at the suggestion that people of color may wish to have “no interaction” with police as a long-term goal for policing in their communities.
Police interactions are by no means the entire source of the racial disparities that plague us. These are systemic problems with a long history rooted in the chattel slavery that existed in the U.S. from the 17th to 19th century. They continue in part because it is expedient for our economic system to designate a class of very-low-wage workers and scapegoats whose existence helps maintain the wealth and privilege of those at the top. Low minimum wages, drug laws, sentencing practices, media portrayals, personal bias, and discrimination in education, hiring practices, housing and real estate are all elements of a demonic cocktail that keep blacks and latinos oppressed.
To his credit, Chief Koval lays out his support for six policies to address bias in the criminal justice system: removing juveniles from adult courts, expunging old arrest records, alternatives to fines for traffic violations, removing minor drug offenses from criminal courts, peer courts, and more social resources for youth at risk. These are good ideas and I laud the chief for using his “bully pulpit” to promote them. Likewise, YGB’s letter acknowledges that Madison’s community policing model is “a step above certain other communities.”
But enacting the reforms that the Chief proposes is the responsibility of legislators, county commissioners, and alderpersons, not the Chief of Police. We should absolutely hold our politicians accountable for supporting communities of color; but we also need to hold our police chief accountable for better policing policies that are within his power to enact.
YGB’s letter lays out four components they would like to see in a written plan by the Madison Police Department: dramatically reduce the number of contacts with black people and poor people, increase voluntary referrals to community-led resources and programs during police contacts, cut in half the number of blacks arrested, and refer as many of those arrested as possible to community-led alternatives to jail. They also request a citizen review board and other accountability measures. While “no interaction” is a long-term goal, YGB’s letter suggests a sensible path to community control over the policing activity. It is not, in the Chief’s words, “pandering to the ‘blame game’ of throwing my Department to the wolves.”
For better or worse, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City have focused the public attention on the very real racism in policing practices and the lack of the same accountability for police that is experienced by civilians. As a child growing up in a mostly-black, working-class neighborhood (albeit in a different state), I experienced firsthand how police could be perceived as an “occupying force,” a term used by YGB to which Chief Koval objects. I was asked multiple times by police if I was lost while walking through my own neighborhood, and was once part of a peaceful crowd that was fired on, unprovoked, with non-lethal assualt weaponry.
In Madison, I have often seen what I perceived to be an over-response by police to minor incidents involving people of color and/or the homeless. Over the weekend, for instance, I was in a car that was briefly held up in traffic by three squad cars that seemed to come out of nowhere. At least one officer exited a vehicle with gun drawn. I did not see the subject of the call, but the situation seemed to rapidly defuse, leading me to question what could have possibly been enough threat to exit a squad car with a firearm at the ready.
Even practices often perceived by city leaders as designed to promote “community policing,” such as increased foot patrols, can exacerbate the feeling of one’s neighborhood being occupied. If your primary experience of the police is one of arrest or harassment, seeing more cops on the beat can lead to greater stress and paranoia, not to mention greater arrest rates in places where officers are simply around more often to see “problems” as they occur.
It is understandable that YGB’s request for “no interaction” with police may seem shocking to Chief Koval, given his position of authority over an institution designed to assert authority over those viewed with suspicion by the wealthy and powerful. But here’s a radical idea: why not try it for a while?
Engage with YGB’s request for a policing plan to address racial disparities, rather than dismissing it with paternalistic chiding. Remove routine patrols from the South Side for a month and just respond to calls from civilians, and see if the crime rate changes up or down. Even better, assist YGB and other groups in the black community in building up a community-based response system that doesn’t require police intervention to solve problems.
High arrest and incarceration rates in communities of color hurt all of us, by depriving those arrested of future opportunities to achieve success and by depriving our community of valuable contributing members. We’re all in this together. It’s time for Madison’s police chief to act on it.
Carl Lemke Oliver Sack is a board member of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice and a graduate student in the Department of Geography at UW-Madison. He lives in Tenney-Lapham.
The “Young, Gifted and Black Coalition” has begun an important work in raising the consciousness of the entire community concerning the injustice to which people of color have always been subject.
Each of us has our own prejudices and biases. “Racism,” however, implies the systemic abuse of power, especially by members of the ruling class, and permeates our common life. We are all victims of a cultural construct that creates a qualitative difference based upon skin color or shade. Somehow, we have accepted the myth that the lighter the skin, the “better” the person, creating an excuse for domination and servitude, leading to repression and great suffering of persons of color..
There is an assumption, fostered by those who would keep us divided, that people of color, especially Black people, are criminals and therefore need to be subjugated. The original “police forces” were the slave patrols, bent on punishing people rather than seeing their enslavement as the enslavement of themselves as indentured servants, and the enslavement of all persons not in the ruling class.
This has led to the distortion of our criminal “justice” system, with its history of Black codes, Jim Crow laws, lynching and exploitation of its victims. Our prison-industrial complex self-perpetuates to create more suffering than rehabilitation.
We can and must create safe spaces for dialogue and mutual learning, and commit ourselves to seeking greater understanding of one another, to become supportive and mutually accountable.
From Sara McKinnon and Karma Chavez (also published in the Cap Times):
We write this as a white lesbian woman and a light-skinned queer Chicana in solidarity with the Young Gifted and Black Coalition. We’ve lived in Madison now for nearly five years and we have had NO INTERACTION with the police. We haven’t done anything to make that happen. We simply live in a nice east side neighborhood, have good university jobs, are gender conforming, and have light skin. There are many neighborhoods in Madison where the police are a non-presence. In those parts of town, the police are only reactive—they show up when called, and are never proactive—they don’t patrol the streets presuming the presence of suspicious or criminal behavior. In the neighborhood we live in, we are never surveilled, we are never questioned, there are no patrols, and no checkpoints. It is as if there are no police. Because we have the privilege of no interaction with the police, we were surprised at Chief Koval’s response to the Young Gifted and Black Coalition’s open letter, which among other things, named its desire to have no interaction with the police. Chief Koval framed this request as outlandish, unreasonable and down right impossible. But we have to wonder why if we can live a police-free life, that Chief Koval imagines it as an impossibility for Black people to have the same. And furthermore, if we were a part of a minority group in town that was eight times more likely to be arrested than the majority, we would certainly experience those doing the arresting as an occupying force too.
We have been very excited to see the Young Gifted and Black Coalition emerge as a game-changer in the conversation around racial disparities, policing and incarceration in Madison. We have found their demands to create new paradigms that it seems no one else has considered. We are taking them very seriously, and so we were also concerned about Chief Koval’s tone in relation to the Coalition. Koval seemed to take their requests to dramatically shift policing practices in order to end racial disparities as personal attacks against him and the MPD, not as systemic critiques of the institutions of policing and incarceration. The language he uses to describe the coalition are minimizing and demeaning. He calls their positions on racism and the police “naïve,” he accuses them of “pandering to the ‘blame game,’” and rather than entertaining their request for less policing, he has now publicly announced he is increasing policing in their communities. This is unacceptable. We urge Chief Koval to sincerely consider the demand for no police interaction. It is not an unreasonable request because for many of us in this city, it is already the reality. We also call on other non-black people in Madison to think about the privilege of living without an occupying force in your neighborhood. If you, like us, recognize that this is a privilege that all should enjoy, voice your solidarity with the Young Gifted and Black Coalition in their pursuit of self-determination.
As Dane County leads the nation in racial disparities, particularly in the criminal justice system, there is no doubt that the world we experience is drastically different based on our race. We are very grateful to YGB for pushing this conversation forward, speaking honestly about experiences with police and articulating a vision for alternatives. In reading Chief Koval’s response, we appreciate his honesty and good intentions to work for racial justice and many of the solutions he outlined in his statement for shifting institutional racism within the criminal justice system. At the same time, some of his response highlights the gap in understanding the impact police presence has in communities of color. Though there is a need for protection and accountability in our communities, there is also a lived reality in communities of color that policing acts as an ‘occupying force.’ This is what YGB is speaking to when they are asking for alternatives and more community control.
People of color often have contact with the police and have done nothing wrong. As white folks, we do not have similar experiences. From people in our lives who are Black, we have heard of the following experiences happening here in Madison:
A Black man is walking down the street on his way home. Suddenly several squad cars drive up and five cops run out of the car pointing their guns at him. The man quickly puts his hands over his head and pleads, “It’s not me!”. After holding him in handcuffs for several minutes, the police determine through radio conversation that they had the wrong person. A crowd has now gathered in the neighborhood. When the man loudly tells the crowd he has been racially profiled, the police tell him to shut up. When he refuses, he is arrested for disorderly conduct and taken to jail.
A Black woman is meeting up with a friend of hers, a Black man, to go for a run through a park one fall night after dusk. Despite the fact that she leaves her car with ankle weights and sweatpants on, two cop cars pull up and detain them both charging the woman is a prostitute.
A Black man tries to attend his son’s elementary school graduation. He is unaware that he needed a ticket to enter and, while trying to explain the situation to the police officer at the door, hears his son’s name called. He leans into the door to glimpse him walking across the stage when the officer physically pushes him out of the doorway and onto the ground, then proceeds to arrest him.
A black person pulls onto a main road on their drive to work. Several times a week, they find a cop car trailing them and running their license plates, trying to find some reason to pull them over.
An unemployed Black man runs to the grocery store late one night to buy diapers for his baby. On his way out of the store, a cop recognizes him, runs his name through his computer, and then proceeds to arrest him on a warrant for failure to pay child support.
A homeless Black person is on the lake fishing early one morning with all his possessions on him, including a sleeping bag. A cop makes an accusation that he must have slept in the park overnight, which is illegal, and arrests him.
All of these experiences are incredibly traumatizing and we can completely understand how they can lead to a desire to have no contact with the police. Seemingly “neutral” police activities such as patrolling through the neighborhood, playing with kids in a park, and chit-chatting in the neighborhood are always overshadowed by the fact that the police have both the role and the power to drastically change the course a person of color’s life in a moment.
For Chief Koval to call into question the desires of the YGB and then state he will actually increase police presence in neighborhoods can feel like a targeted threat, even when it is with the good intention of building relationships. It is understandable that the Chief perceives police as the ‘guardians of the community.’ However, we cannot erase the lived experiences we wrote about above, or the long history of distrust between communities of color and the police. It will take a long future of strengthening relationships for that to change. We encourage conversation and joint problem solving to make our community more safe. The lived experiences we highlight above certainly demonstrate that the very definition of safety differs largely based on our lived experiences, which are influenced by our race and the power we hold.
We strongly support the YGB and their desires to have more ownership and decision-making power about what occurs in their communities. We strongly encourage public entities, especially our local government and law enforcement agencies to remain open to feedback and communication, even when it is difficult to hear, or if it feels like an attack. The neighborhoods of color subjected to higher rates of policing certainly feel as though they are under attack. We believe we can all work through these challenges and come to a conclusion that works for everyone.
At the YWCA Racial Justice Summit in 2013, Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. asked how Dane County could both lead the nation in racial disparities and be filled with such nice, liberal white people at the same time. Nice white liberalism may be exactly the force that allows those of us who are white to call out racial disparities while refusing to think critically about changing the institutions, systems, and structures that produce such results. As the YGB demonstrates, institutions, systems, and structures involved in producing these results involve the Madison Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies, although law enforcement is certainly not the only source of these disparities.
That being said, it is undeniable that the MPD and other local law enforcement agencies are the institutions responsible for arresting people: the entry point into the criminal justice system. If there were no arrests, entry into the criminal justice system would not happen. What would it look like to analyze the policies and practices in place that are disproportionately impacting communities of color, and make change? Perhaps simply ceasing to arrest people for offenses that do not actually cause harm to other people or impact public safety, such as sleeping in a park or unpaid fines? And instead expand on our restorative and community-based approaches that are working, to resolve problems in a deeper way?
Just as we are pointing the finger at the police department, we believe it is important to point the finger at ourselves. Because of white privilege, those of us who are white usually experience the police to be benevolent and helpful. We are conditioned to call on them for assistance whenever we have a problem, even for problems that could be better solved through direct communication between individuals, like calling the police on a neighbor’s barking dog, or for moments when we confuse discomfort with being unsafe, like calling the police to report people yelling at each other on the street. Neighborhood associations in Madison can also play into this when encountering challenges by calling for an increased police presence or successfully advocating for an increase in funding to the police department. Such a response comes both from a conditioned lack of creativity and absence of community-building to address issues in ways that get at the root cause as well as an entire worldview shaped by the experiences of white privilege.
We need to transform the systems that lead to extremely high arrest and incarceration rates of African Americans in Dane County or we will continue to get the same results. Those of us who are white especially need to reflect deeply on the ways we have come to value and trust the police, just as it requires the police to honestly acknowledge the ways they are complicit in a system that at the very least makes people of color feel unsafe, and at the very most upholds racism. It should of course be emphasized that it is not law enforcement’s actions alone that uphold racism, but all types of institutions and cultural forces working together. Since this is the case, all of us need to engage in efforts to build alternative models for conflict resolution and accountability in our communities that are rooted in trusting relationships and effective solutions.
We thank YGB for speaking truth publicly about their experiences and desires about policing in our community. We thank Chief Koval for his open and honest response. Such deep, direct engagement is the only way we can continue to work hard towards building a world rooted in racial justice. Thank you YGB for helping to pull those of us who are white outside of our worlds of comfort and “niceness” and asking us to critically reflect on the ways we are all complicit in a system that demonstrates Black lives don’t matter. #blacklivesmatter
White People Working for Racial Justice
Dear Chief Koval,
I’m sure by now you have received a great deal of response from your public exchange with the Young, Gifted & Black Coalition. My guess is that you have heard much support for the frustration you articulated and your sense that the demands of the coalition are both too extreme and errantly based in part on unfounded assumptions of structural racism within your department. No doubt you have gotten feedback from supporters of the YGB Coalition too, but the sentiments of many folks I see posting on the news sites covering your statement frequently range from the insultingly dismissive to the causticly hostile.
While I don’t for a minute believe it was your intention, your tone functioned as dog whistle for a segment of the population that would rather not hear that our city is struggling to confront very real problems within our communities of color and our poor communities. From the sound of it, many of these folks are enraged that anyone would dare call any attention to the inequity in our midst.
I can put it no other way, Chief Koval, your response, even while touching on many good points and valuable initiatives, was nonetheless tone-deaf and disrespectful.
I don’t see how this furthers the dialogue around race and equity our city needs to have.
Unlike many other organizations in Madison, the YG&B Coalition seems to be trying to break through the status quo thinking that assumes we can all just politely sit down and hash out our differences and come to a comfortable consensus on a way forward that ruffles no feathers. These young leaders are not entrenched in established organizations with mature boards and invested donors that expect “safe” moves. They are daring.
These are very difficult conversations we are going to have. When you interrogate the ethics behind one group holding systemic privilege over another group you inevitably end up talking about how to shift the balance. Someone on the privilege side of the equation is going to have to give up something for the equation to balance, and that’s always a third rail.
You may not like it but your organization is but one part of a much larger system that functions together to hold white privilege in place. You may feel you are being unfairly targeted, especially given the real and commendable efforts you and your department have made to begin tackling some of these structural problems, but how do you really expect folks to square your efforts with the data contained in the results of the Race to Equity Report and not be alarmed? I can sense the cognitive dissonance. The YGB Coalition is simply looking for ways to achieve measurable results in the form of justice as soon as possible. Why take such an unsympathetic read of their justified anger?
We in the Madison white majority community should refrain from indulging in the privilege of being offended because we are tired of hearing their – and our – cries for freedom from oppression. We need to think of the larger context we are operating within; it’s bigger than the MPD, it’s bigger than Madison and it’s bigger than now. Realize that this is the continuation of a fight for the human rights of people systematically targeted in almost unbroken continuity since the 17th century because of the color of their skin and their utility to white economic enterprise.
I should not need to iterate through that tragically long list of atrocities, but it is 2015 and, to quote Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “More African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850. Discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights, which many Americans thought was wiped out by the civil rights laws of the 1960s, is now perfectly legal against anyone labeled a “felon.” And since many more people of color than whites are made felons by the entire system of mass incarceration, racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under the post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation.”
We live in this paradoxical world where, as inequity grows to historically unprecedented proportions, a majority of white Americans claim colorblindness, believe racism no longer exists (unless it’s against white people) and have been fully conditioned to see any problems facing communities of color as likely of their own doing and not the responsibility of nice white folks to deal with anymore because, after all, they didn’t own slaves and get over it already. With each iteration of the “peculiar institutions” this country has forced black Americans and other people of color to endure, the dominant narratives of the time seek to justify their existence through some form of punitive race-based logic. The result has been an ongoing human rights disaster for millions of Americans spanning generations. Yet we in the white community who enjoy the privileges of all that involuntary sacrifice have grown numb with entitlement to it.
The YGB Coalition is bold, to be sure; they come from a long tradition of bold civil rights leaders who didn’t let decorum get in the way of shining a light on the magnitude of the problems we face as a society. For us to hang together under the founding set of liberties this country tells itself it was built on, we will need to work much harder than we think we should have to to overcome the fruits of our history. This isn’t the low hanging kind either, by the way.
I would have hoped you could receive the message contained in the demand letter with far more empathy for the deep sense of struggled contained within it. Arguing it point by point really misses the point. It is just my feeling that I am expressing, but when I read their letter, I read a request for equity now, not equity later, justice now, not justice later and a demand for bold solutions. I don’t know how you say no to that. There must and will be creative steps taken, but they won’t be easy and they won’t be comfortable.
I have always had great hope for your tenure as Chief, knowing how big of a job you have and the talent and commitment you bring and the tremendous responsibility you feel. Many people I deeply respect who know you much better than I feel the same way. I trust them that you are the right man for this job.
Don’t be thrown off your game by one letter, it is an invitation to a world that we in the white community only think we understand. It is an invitation to bold solution building and trust making. We need to sit in silence for a time and just listen with empathy, and then move in concert with leadership that seeks so badly to nourish the great potential of our black communities and to not forever be caught between white supremacy and the struggle for justice and equity.
Nate Royko Maurer