This is a letter to the editor from Tompkins County resident Nathan Sitaraman about public safety and the upcoming election one year after protests against the Ithaca Police Department. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have lived in Ithaca for six years, working as a graduate researcher in the Cornell Department of Physics. My experience here has largely been a positive one— while South Carolina will always be home for me, I’ve felt welcomed by the community, and the progressive political atmosphere is unlike anything I experienced growing up. But over time, I’ve seen that while the city as a whole is financially prosperous, most working class people in Ithaca are no better off than those I knew back home, and communities of color are just as neglected by local leadership. Instead, the city’s wealth flows to Cornell, to outside developers, and, increasingly, to the police department, which throws its weight around in local politics like no police department I’ve ever seen before. And as I learned, it isn’t afraid to throw its weight around in the streets either.
A year ago, I picked up my phone and learned that IPD had arrested a prominent activist and gone out of their way to make her as uncomfortable as possible in the process. I got the call just hours after another incident in which a Black man was arrested for talking back to a Trump supporter who had threatened him with a knife. That evening I and dozens of other fed-up Ithacans marched to the police station to speak out against IPD and their continued disregard for the people they are supposed to serve, the people whose taxes pay their salaries. Looking back, I’m proud of the passion we showed, and I’m especially proud of our disciplined commitment to nonviolence; I felt confident that this approach would keep me and my fellow Ithacans safe, but the police had other plans. Instead of respecting our right to peaceful protest, they treated us like a dangerous threat.
Despite our nonviolence, and despite the absence of behavior such as vandalism or looting that had precipitated police crackdowns in other cities, the police abruptly surrounded us and began to attack. They first arrested a transgender woman before turning their attention to a black man who they began to drag out of the crowd. The police report claims that, at this moment, I “growled” like an animal at the police, a bizarre, inaccurate and racist allegation. The report neglects to mention that when I attempted to step between the police and their target I was immediately tackled and handcuffed. In the moment, as I sat dazed in a holding cell, I wondered what crime I could possibly be accused of, if my glasses were broken, if my shoulder was okay, if I’d make it to work in the morning. And I wondered what could possibly be done about the police department, which had so boldly attacked a group of unarmed, peaceful civilians.
Mayor Myrick sided with IPD, claiming that “the rhetoric and behavior of some of the protestors was dangerously unproductive and intended to provoke violence.” Aside from begging the question of why we would deliberately goad the police into attacking us, this statement illustrates a key problem felt across the country: when the police hear rhetoric that they disagree with, or see behavior they deem unproductive, they quickly resort to violence instead of seeking a peaceful outcome. The Black Lives Matter protests began for this very reason: rather than solving the underlying problems that lead to violence and crime, the police are consuming precious resources while making life more dangerous for the people they claim to be protecting and serving. If we truly are intent on building toward a more prosperous, peaceful future for all of Ithaca, why would we funnel increasing amounts of money through an institution steeped in a long history of violence?
Fortunately, the solution to the problem of police violence is not complicated. The communities of color, working-class people, and transgender people who are disproportionately victimized by police violence would benefit greatly from improved financial security and from the work of unarmed civil servants. A reallocation of taxpayer dollars could quickly accomplish what decades of attempted police reform has not: a more equitable society in which the basic civil rights of all Ithacans are valued and protected. If that sounds like a good plan to you, I encourage you to support the Common Council candidates running on the Solidarity Slate platform, which aims to make this vision of a safer Ithaca a reality.