In the wake of nationwide protests last year of police violence against communities of color, some municipalities in Massachusetts have begun to tackle police reform. Two Cambridge city councilors, Quinton Zondervan and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, have led hearings about militarization of the city’s police department. The following is testimony given by Andrew King at the Jan. 6th, 2021 hearing of the Cambridge City Council’s Public Safety Committee. —The Editor
My name is Andrew King and I live at 40 Essex St. in Cambridge. I’m speaking for Massachusetts Peace Action, whose members include hundreds of Cambridge residents. We strongly oppose the militarization of domestic police forces.
I remember attending a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in 2016 in Central Square that was organized by CRLS high school activists. After several open mic poetry readings, several of us wandered down Main Street. We were shocked when we found ourselves staring down an armored tank, sitting in the parking lot across from Bertuccis, lying in wait, ready to maintain law-and-order if necessary. Needless to say, this was a harrowing sight to see in the heart of our purportedly progressive and multi-cultural city. It brought to mind the notorious military-style crackdown that Ferguson police waged against the city’s African-American youth and families.
Since its inception in 1997, the military surplus equipment transfer program, also known as the 1033 Program, has transferred over $7 billion in military equipment including military assault rifles, armored tanks, and helicopters to 8,000 local police departments across the country. The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, launched a nationwide movement for Black Lives, which shined a spotlight on this increased militarization of policing which disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color. (1033 is a residual program of the failed War on Drugs which led to the criminalization and mass incarceration of millions in black and brown communities across the country.)
A recent inventory spearheaded by City Councilors Zondervan and Sobrinho-Wheeler, found that the Cambridge Police Department –which prides itself in being a progressive, community-oriented law enforcement agency – has 94 military-grade assault and sniper rifles, 11 shotguns, and an armored vehicle. Research shows that arming local police officers with military equipment can increase their use of violent force; it contributes to a war-like mentality against the communities they are supposed to be serving. A militarized police force will only serve to intimidate and exacerbate the disproportionately negative impacts of policing on Cambridge’s historically disenfranchised residents.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Cambridge youth and families joined thousands of others in cities across the nation in taking to the streets in nonviolent protest to call for racial justice. Our city should learn from the systemic failures of other militarized police departments around the country – such as the NYPD and the Louisville police department – that responded to their citizens with violent repression and “aggressive tactics that violated the first Amendment rights of protesters,” leading to thousands of arrests and the shooting death of a peaceful demonstrator in Louisville. Studies also show that, in addition to being unsafe, the 1033 program is ineffective and fails to reduce crime or improve police safety.
The recent racial justice demonstrations have sparked a national conversation on police violence and militarization, and the reimagining of what public safety would look like if we repurposed excessive funding for policing towards prevention and human needs programs in under-resourced communities. The City of Cambridge has a real opportunity today to live up to its progressive ideals of racial justice and equity, tolerance, and peace, by taking this first step towards police reform.
—Andrew King, an alum of Cambridge public schools, serves on the education committees of the Cambridge Residents Alliance and Our Revolution Cambridge. He is a Board member of Citizens for Public Schools and a doctoral candidate in public policy at UMass, Boston.