Community responder director has already had ‘huge impact’

By Nick Grabbe

Two weeks into his job as director of the new community responder program, Earl Miller learned that his sister had died suddenly.

The programs and interventions he plans to create in Amherst could have had an impact on her life if she had had access to them, Miller told me. “The best way to pay tribute to her is to do a good job here,” he said.

Miller received support from Fire Chief Tim Nelson and others as he dealt with his family crisis. Now, after a month in Amherst, he’s working on ways to help others who are experiencing difficulties in their lives, in situations that have previously been handled by the police.

His ground-breaking program, called Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service or CRESS, has been endorsed by the Town Council, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and other leaders of Amherst’s government. At the same time, the program faces some challenges as it seeks to become what Bockelman calls “a third leg of public safety” along with the Police and Fire Departments.

Earl Miller is the first director of CRESS, Amherst’s new community responder program.

“Mr. Miller knows our regional community and has lived through many experiences. He knows first hand what it takes to help and be helped,” Bockelman wrote to the Town Council. “Mr. Miller has written about racism and the movement to undo psychiatric oppression.”

CRESS will respond to nonviolent calls with an emphasis on approaching community members through an anti-racist and behavioral health lens, according to Miller’s job description. It’s estimated that a third of the calls that police have responded to could be handled by the unarmed CRESS responders.

“They will respond to situations that don’t involve violence or serious criminal activity such as minor disputes and disturbances, loitering, mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespass, truancy, wellness checks, youth and schools,” his job description reads.

CRESS was one of the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group, which was formed two years ago, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Miller said he watched all of the working group’s meetings.

He will be hiring an assistant and eight responders, who will undergo training in de-escalation of conflict, mediation, and CPR. They will then work in shifts 24/7, except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 9 a.m. He said he hopes to have the program staffed by mid-June.

Miller, 35, is a native of Holyoke and currently lives in Agawam. He previously worked for the Department of Mental Health and the Center for Human Development in Springfield. He has two daughters, 11 and 14, and the younger one already loves Antonio’s and will be in the Adventures camp here this summer.

“He’s had a huge impact already,” Bockelman said.

Kinsey Memorial Garden at the Jones Library

For example, he met with Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, who sometimes has to deal with people who cause disturbances. Miller asked when these disturbances most often occur so that the responders can walk through the library at those times. He spoke of writing a grant to hire a social worker for the library, helping to staff the future teen room, and arranging for a mobile health clinic, Sharry said.

“He also talked about restorative justice,” she wrote in an email to me. “I explained that our dream is to never have to trespass anyone ever again; those are the people that need us the most. He agrees, but also said there does need to be a line; if someone hits someone else, that calls for a one year time out.”

Miller has also spent some time in the high school, where a series of fights in hallways and bathrooms recently prompted five parents to ask the Police Department for help. He met with Principal Talib Sadiq and spoke at an assembly, and also spent time at the middle school. “I want to provide a model for kids when conflict happens,” he said. He shook every hand in one lunchroom.

He has also met with Police Chief Scott Livingstone, who has pledged to work collaboratively with CRESS. “The Police Department is committed to making this as good as it can be,” Miller said. “Folks over there want to be part of the solution.”

One of the challenges CRESS will face is developing clear guidelines for the dispatchers who answer calls for help and will have to decide whether to send a police officer or a community responder. In some cases, the response will be clear, but there will be “a ton of gray area,” Bockelman said. Domestic disturbances might seem to be CRESS’s turf, but they can be dangerous even for police, and the responders need to feel safe, he said.

Dispatchers will need clarity on whether to route calls to the Police Department or to CRESS.

Another challenge will be operating an entirely new program with few models or clear ways to measure success. Miller, who will be based in the Bangs Center, must cooperate with the Police Department but also answer to the working group, which wanted more funding and coverage for CRESS.

Miller was asked if CRESS is “set up to fail.” “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought that,” he said. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

If CRESS is to become a long-term alternative to the police, a year from now there will be a funding challenge. The current $936,000 budget includes only $130,000 of town money, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments, money that’s unlikely to be available again. This is not a “defund the police” program, and Bockelman said he expects no decline in demand for the Police Department’s services.

The debate over continued or expanded funding for CRESS could be happening at the same time as a vote on raising taxes to help finance construction of a new elementary school. Major financial commitments to a new fire station and public works headquarters are also on the horizon.

Amherst Regional High School

“There will be difficult conversations ahead, but we’re all in this together,” Miller said.

He received a warm reception from 40 people as Bockelman introduced him at a public get-together at the Bangs Center Friday. “The reason I took this job is I saw the work you put in and I agreed with the mission because it was meaningful to me,” Miller said.

The case for local reparations

By Michele Miller

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Four days later, Civil Rights Warrior and Congressman John Conyers Jr. took to the floor of Congress to insist on a national day of recognition to honor his memory. It took 15 years of struggle before the day was finally celebrated as a federal holiday.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Credit Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Three years later, in 1989, Conyers introduced H.R. 40 – The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act – and that struggle has gone on even longer. Last April the bill finally made it out of committee, the culmination of decades of work, mostly by Black people. The 40 in H.R. 40 has significance that goes beyond the order in which it was introduced to Congress. It’s meant to remind us we’ve never made good on the country’s promise to give formerly enslaved African Americans 40 acres (the mule would come later), following emancipation. 

Special Field Orders No.15, issued on January 16, 1865 by General William T. Sherman (with the approval of President Lincoln) came at the urging of 20 Black leaders, mostly ministers, in Savannah. Here is the section of the order that addresses the land grant: 

” ..each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”

The order was accompanied by other specifics identifying the territory that was being granted and ordering that it would be settled and governed entirely by Black people. By June, 1865, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land’” and a Black governor – Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston –  had been appointed. 

Credit Michele Miller

In a devastating turn of events, in the fall of 1865, the order was revoked by President Lincoln’s successor, a supporter of the southern white supremacist establishment, Andrew Johnson. The land was returned to its former slave-holding owners, and 40,000 Black freedmen and their families were left without a home.  

(A little known fact is that three years prior, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act made reparations to the owners of enslaved people for their “loss of property” by granting them the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s dollars for every slave who was freed.) 

Why does a broken promise to formerly enslaved African Americans in 1865 matter now? 

So much of the focus of whites has been related to the harm suffered by African Americans as a result of slavery and post-slavery structural racism. We’ve read eye-opening opinion pieces and books, listened to illuminating podcasts, and even talked to Black friends and co-workers about their experience of being Black in America. I bet most of us in Amherst can appreciate the magnitude of these crimes against humanity and can sympathize with the physical, mental, and emotional consequences for people of African descent. 

Credit Getty Images

But how much have we thought about what Black people have lost as a result of broken promises by white government leaders and racist federal policies that excluded Blacks from accessing land and other wealth-building resources? What would America look like today, and what would the financial condition of the Black community be like, if Sherman’s order had stuck? 

Some economists have estimated the value of 40 acres and a mule for those 40,000 freed slaves to be worth a staggering $640 billion today. 

To add to the repugnant and unequal treatment of Black people, between 1862 and 1935, The Homestead Act provided mostly white people (99.73%) up to 160 acres of free land. According to Shawn Rochester, in his book “The Black Tax,” this equates to roughly $1.6 trillion in value today (the equivalent of giving $500,000 to $1 million per family). Further, Rochester tells us it’s estimated that up to 93 million Americans today are direct beneficiaries of this government-enacted wealth-building program. 

Dr. King poignantly encapsulated this in a 1967 interview, saying  “Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.”

Reparations, apart from racial justice initiatives, are the way forward for the U.S. to pay the debt owed to African Americans.  White support and follow-through are essential to this process, not only in word, but in deeds. No more broken promises. No more racist policies that favor whites. No more.

Credit Urban Institute analysis, via MR Online

No matter how robust a reparative justice initiative is, it’s impossible for a locality to settle the debt owed to Blacks. It’s the responsibility of the federal government to settle up – financially and morally – with African Americans, and that’s the goal of H.R. 40. 

In Amherst, however, we can begin a process of healing the wound and giving folks an experience with making reparations that will, like other social movements that begin locally (think marriage equality), support the national movement. While financial reparations are necessary at the federal level, locally we can create an opportunity for Black residents to design a reparative plan that comes in many forms and, importantly, benefits all residents. 

What that program looks like and who will be eligible is still a mystery and, ultimately, can only be decided by the African heritage community of Amherst.

According to N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), reparations can be made to an individual through “direct benefits” like housing assistance, educational scholarships, and business grants. And, to the Black community as a whole through “collective benefits” aimed at collective repair and healing. Examples they give are African-centered education, community trust funds, community wellness initiatives, and ending racially based public policy. 

To ensure these benefits hold up to legal challenges, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly will develop a narrowly defined harm report which links specific harm that occurred in Amherst, like racial deed covenants that existed on some of our streets, to determine the impact for Blacks who currently live or have lived in Amherst. This information will help to inform the Black community as they design the Reparative Justice Program for Amherst.

In May 2021 the Town Council voted to create a reparations stabilization fund and to form a committee to study and develop reparation proposals for people of African heritage in Amherst. This is one of several actions the Town has taken to further the goals of the resolution to “End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity for Black Residents” adopted by the Town Council December 7, 2020. 

Michele Miller is a member of the Town Council from District 1 and is chair of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly.