New Hampshire’s racial justice organizers call for better education, reform

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Protesters gather outside Manchester City Hall to demand the removal of two aldermen. Photo/Mary McIntyre for NHPR

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Outside Manchester City Hall Tuesday evening, around 100 people gathered to demand the resignation of two city aldermen who made posts on social media protesters are calling racist and the mayor referred to as “an embarrassment to the city.” Chants of “hey hey, ho ho, racist Joe has got to go,” referring to at-large Alderman Joseph Kelly Levasseur, echoed through the courtyard. 

Organizers of Black Lives Matter Manchester told attendees to call their local aldermen and demand resignation, and to vote Levasseur and Ward 8 Alderman Michael Porter out in local elections. 

The comments made by Levasseur were in response to a social media post calling for vandalism in Manchester. An organizer later sent him a private message, where Levasseur insulted him. In a separate post, Porter appeared to support using a “big old plow truck” to clear protesters out of the city.

After almost two weeks of protests against the police killing of George Floyd that have swept the state from Conway to Nashua, organizers say they are working together to move toward concrete political action and put together a central message regarding changes they want to see in their state. 

BLM Manchester has been perhaps the most active group in New Hampshire. Since the end of last month, they have organized three events and are beginning to work with city and state stakeholders on bridging the gap between police and communities.

Organizers across New Hampshire also had a Zoom video conference call with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Monday, but no concrete steps or actions have yet been taken, said Ronelle Tshiela, an organizer with BLM Manchester.

“It was a good conversation, they were there to listen, but obviously in the future we’re going to be looking for more concrete steps,” Tshiela said. “We’re going to be looking for what they’ll actually do to solve all of the issues that we’re talking about. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to support us, but it’s another thing to actually be our voice in Congress.”

While not all activists agree on exactly what change would look like in New Hampshire, most mentioned a few specific areas that need to be improved: education and police accountability and policy. 

Education

Rogers Johnson, president of the Seacoast NAACP and chair of the Governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, believes education is the key to racial justice and equity in New Hampshire.

“Most people in New Hampshire don’t think that they’re biased. We need to educate them in what they don’t know, and that’s the problem,” Johnson said. 

The type of education Johnson and the NAACP have been advocating for goes beyond the basics of what is taught in most New Hampshire schools. Incidents at schools like Oyster River in Durham – where a black boy was the victim of alleged racist bullying incidents on a school bus – and at Dover High School – where a video surfaced of students singing a song in class with the refrain “let’s kill all the blacks” – have only exacerbated the fact that what the current system offers is not enough, he said.

“The police are made up of us. The problem exists within the community. It exists within the school system. We teach black history during black history month. We talk about Martin Luther King on MLK day. And outside of those periods, we don’t talk about it at all,” Johnson said. 

The latest social studies standards were developed by the New Hampshire Department of Education in June 2006, according to Grant Bosse, director of communications at the department. The department has been working on updating those standards over the past year in collaboration with educators, lawmakers, the New Hampshire Historical Society, and others. 

“New Hampshire’s current social studies standards incorporate complicated issues of race and civil rights, and the revised standards will as well. Granite Staters, like all Americans, should understand how our nation and culture have been shaped by our struggles with these issues,” said Andrew Cline, director of the state board of education.

Black people make up less than 2 percent of the population in New Hampshire, but they are more than five times as likely to be in jail compared to whites, according to a data analysis by New Hampshire Public Radio.

Tshiela said that black history education was a topic of discussion with the senators early this week, adding a stronger focus is needed on bringing quality education to communities of color as well.

“We think there are disparities between schools in Manchester depending on where they’re located and who attends those schools,” Tshiela said. “Education could be something that solves a lot of problems that happen in the black community.”

Ronelle Tshiela addresses attendees of the May 30, 2020, Black Lives Matter rally in Manchester. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Reform

Joanna Kelley, owner of Cup of Joe in Portsmouth, said she’s new to political action and organizing, but getting involved in local politics is the best way to make change. She organized a protest in Portsmouth Sunday to honor the loss of black lives, drawing more than 4,000 people.

Kelley, who ran for City Council last year, has been encouraging black people and people of color at rallies to run for public office. She has begun early stages of working with state and local leaders on bail reform, she said.

“There are black people here, and I literally think people forget it sometimes. So my first thing is, if you don’t like your police department, you need to get on your police commission. If you don’t like your local representative, you need to organize or campaign against them,” Kelley said.

A number of police reforms have been overturned recently across the state. An effort to implement the use of body cameras in Portsmouth was unanimously voted against last year by the city Police Commission due to a low number of complaints. At the state level, multiple police-worn body camera bills have been killed in the house, as well as a bill that would prohibit the purchase of military-grade vehicles or equipment by the state.

“We think that police departments should not be able to reject body cameras for their department. That should be the standard. That’s how we promote transparency,” Tshiela said. 

In Manchester, aldermen voted on Tuesday to fund the addition of 10 new police officers to the city’s budget. Jordan Thompson, the ACLU’s racial justice organizer and an organizer with BLM Nashua, said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and other local politicians had made commitments to stand in solidarity with the movement. 

“What we’re seeing now is that it was all lip service,” he said. “The words are nothing more than just words because when they had an opportunity to act, they did not.”

Defunding the police

The argument for defunding police departments has become a popular one after a majority of Minneapolis City Council members announced their intent to defund and disband the city’s police department. Many wonder exactly what that means.

“It looks like making sure that these budgets allocate the funds that are currently being used toward allowing police to have access toward military-grade weapons … that instead we are investing in the black and brown communities in our state, in things like implicit bias training,” Thompson said. Activists have suggested redirecting funds from police departments toward education and social services. 

“We have no problem in the state defunding education. We have no problem defunding vital funding from services that people need,” Thompson said.

While some activists believe in a partial defunding of police, the discussion is ongoing in New Hampshire because “it does look different for every police department and we kind of have to figure out what that would look like for us,” Tshiela said. She added that Manchester activists are having discussions with police about how it would work in the Queen City.

Minneapolis wouldn’t be the first city to defund its police department. It happened in Camden, New Jersey in 2012 in an effort to reduce corruption in the city. The old police department was replaced with a new community-based department. At the time, the city’s crime rate was among the worst in the country. But seven years later, crime dropped by almost half, according to a report by CNN

Johnson, of the NAACP, said it wouldn’t work in New Hampshire due to the already severe lack of services in rural parts of the state.

“We don’t have the same issues here, per se. What that means is, yes, there could be racial bias or systemic issues, but it’s not going to be to the same degree you’re going to find in Milwaukee or Minneappolis,” he said. 

“I wish you could say that the department of health and human services could provide services, but what do they do now? They go out and pick up homeless individuals and drop people at the hospitals, but the hospital doesn’t have room for them.”


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