Yes, Athens (Ohio) police and politicians are racist, too

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By Damon Krane 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio) 
Wednesday, July 15, 2020 
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As the largest social movement in US history calls to end policing as we know it, local politicians from both parties are lining up on the wrong side of history.

Sunday, July 5, a few dozen people staged a “Defend the Police” rally in Athens to oppose the Movement for Black Lives. The crowd came equipped with more Trump flags, white power tattoos and guns than masks to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. Of about 50 total demonstrators, many chanting “all lives matter,” no more than 4 were masked — a considerable step up from Athens police officers present, who were maskless without exception. Demonstrators included not only Republican state representative Jay Edwards but Democratic county commissioner and former local union president Charlie Adkins.

Like Edwards and Adkins, Democratic city council member and Appalachian Peace and Justice Network board member Beth Clodfelter also defends the status quo. According to the Athens News, “Clodfelter said she recently met with Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle and was confident in what the department was doing to hold officers accountable in combating racism and police brutality” due to APD’s “implicit bias training and crisis intervention training; a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints; and a full-time social worker, as well as a former psychologist, who serves as an officer on staff.”

Yet just as Minneapolis police had five years of implicit bias training before they murdered George Floyd, and San Jose police in May shot their own implicit bias trainer of three years, most or all of what Clodfelter cited has been in place for years. Nevertheless, Black people, while just 5.3% of Athenians, were subject to 8.9% of APD traffic stops and 7.7% of arrests from 2015 to 2020. And while Athens and OU are 84% and 78% white respectively, a full 59% of those cited or arrested for an open container violation were Black, Asian, Indigenous, or of “unknown” race.

Also, on September 28, 2019, Ethan Doerr (already facing two lawsuits alleging excessive force) twice punched in the face, tasered and, with fellow officers, pinned to the pavement African-American college student Ty Bealer before a crowd of outraged onlookers, all for Bealer’s alleged crime of attempting to elude police. Bealer’s charges were later reduced to minor misdemeanor disorderly conduct, equivalent in severity to a speeding ticket. 

After video of the arrest went viral, the OU chapter of the NAACP called APD’s use of force “extremely unnecessary,” and OU Student Senate denounced the “discriminatory and brutal behavior” of the arresting officers.

Democratic mayor Steve Patterson responded by convening a press conference September 30 regarding the incident, where he was joined by Athens police chief Tom Pyle and City Service-Safety Director Andy Stone.

Although Pyle acknowledged at the conference that APD had not yet completed any investigation into the use of force, he nevertheless issued his conclusions that the arresting officers were “justified” and “restrained,” while declaring, “I don’t see racism in this incident. I just don’t.” Patterson, meanwhile, took the opportunity to accuse those critical of Bealer’s violent arrest of spreading “misinformation.”

At a council candidate forum three days later, Clodfelter stated, “What is portrayed in the video [of Bealer’s arrest] looked to me like excessive force” but she expressed confidence in Pyle’s ability to properly handle the situation. No findings of any internal investigation ever were publicly announced, and Clodfelter did not address the matter again.

Perhaps most telling, on February 1, 2017 — 12 days after Trump took office — APD, Ohio University Police Department and the Ohio State Highway Patrol violated the civil rights of hundreds of anti-racists by illegally dispersing the textbook definition of a constitutionally-protected demonstration held in Baker Center to denounce Trump’s first travel ban and to demand OU and Athens become a sanctuary campus and city. 

While dispersing the lawful assembly, police targeted 70 anti-racists for the second largest campus arrest in OU’s 216-year history. And just as recent demonstrations across the country have been marred by police attacks on journalists, police arrested a journalist from The Post and threatened to arrest others from the Athens News and Athens Messenger.

Democratic city law director Lisa Eliason not only chose to prosecute those wrongfully arrested on their original false charges, her office managed to win 15 convictions by pressuring some anti-racists into pleading down to lesser but equally false charges before the original charges were thrown out in court — thereby concocting criminal records for people who, the court later agreed, never should have been arrested. 

City council then grabbed headlines by passing a toothless resolution denouncing Trump’s travel ban, while, in much finer newsprint, Patterson rejected the demand to make Athens a sanctuary city. 

Sound familiar? 

In response to the current uprising against racist police brutality, council passed another toothless resolution, this time declaring racism a public health crisis, while in the same breath Clodfelter denied such a crisis actually exists in local policing and rejected calls for change.

That’s not the only way February 2017 reverberates today. After city police and politicians signaled their willingness to violate the law in order to help OU suppress anti-racism, administrators imposed restrictions on campus speech and assembly the Ohio ACLU immediately denounced as unconstitutional. Public backlash forced OU to abandon several restrictions, but a ban remains on demonstrations in Baker Center’s 4th floor rotunda.

When the ban was created, and for the three years it has persisted, Patterson and OU President Duane Nellis have sat together on the Joint Police Advisory Council to coordinate APD and OUPD and met privately each month. Thus in 2020 we have every reason to expect a repeat of the Baker 70 incident, with city and university officials once again abusing police power to illegally suppress anti-racism. 

So Clodfelter is just plain wrong. 

Local police, city and university officials disproportionately target Blacks, other people of color and anti-racist activists for selective enforcement of the law, violence and illegal abuse of power. And they do so with impunity: no one was ever held accountable for the misconduct above. 

Instead, nearly $10 million dollars was spent last year on APD and OUPD — two departments whose jurisdictions are contained within a city of 25,000 (school year) to 15,000 (summer) residents, located in Ohio’s poorest county. That’s almost 20 times more than city spending on rental housing safety regulation, when our housing stock is 72% rental. It’s also more police spending per capita for just APD and OUPD than Ohio spends per capita on all campus, village, city, county and state police forces combined. Meanwhile, city government spends no money to directly alleviate local poverty. 

This is why police should be defunded locally as well as nationally.

Damon Krane is a longtime local social justice organizer and independent journalist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year as a democratic socialist on an anti-slumlord platform. He contributes to https://athenscountypolicingdata.org

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