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Take down Columbus; scrap New London's war machine

New London is very fortunate, in these tumultuous times, to already have in place a well-organized nonprofit working with the city's youth to help them fill leadership roles in the search for social justice.

Hearing Youth Voices, supported by a consortium of Connecticut philanthropic organizations, has for years been tackling issues like problematic school absenteeism policies and the hard-to-crack schools-to-prison pipeline.

But the youth-led, New London-based group had probably its finest moment Saturday, when it mobilized 1,000 protesters for a peaceful march through New London, adding the city's booming voice to the national anguish and call for change in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

As inspiring as the organization of the weekend protest was, Hearing Youth Voices' draft of a petition demanding change in the city was even more impressive.

As of Tuesday afternoon more than 4,700 signatures were on the online petition, and the number was growing by the hour.

I understand the signatures are uncertified and not necessarily by city residents, but there are more of them than there were voters in the city's last mayoral race.

The petition demands strike me as generally appropriate and constructive. They need to be taken up promptly.

For instance, abolition of the institutionalized, police-influenced Police Community Relations Committee called for by the petition is long overdue. The call for replacing it with an independent community police review board is timely and pitch-perfect in tone at this moment.

There are some other demands that could be met easily and quickly to send a strong message that we have indeed reached a moment in which systematic racism, especially in policing, must be addressed.

Take down the Christopher Columbus statue on Bank Street. Communities around the country already have done this. Let's have a quick removal vote by the City Council.

The statue was spray-painted during the weekend protest, and city public works and police moved quickly afterward to clean it up and investigate who did it. Why does a city that tolerates so much illegal blight care so deeply about vandalism to something that so deeply offends so many of its residents?

An even better example of the city being tone deaf is the armored military-grade, land-mine-crushing Cougar, complete with gun turret, which the city keeps stockpiled in the public works garage.

In light of the petition demand to demilitarize the police department and a new bipartisan effort in Congress to end the program that sends military surplus like the Cougar to municipal police departments, I reached out to New London police Chief Peter Reichard. I wondered if he still thinks it is a good idea, post-Floyd killing, to have a war machine in the city's arsenal.

He wrote back in an email that the heavy vehicle was intended for use with evacuations and to protect officers in active-shooter situations. He said it came to the city at no cost and that police should have better explained plans for its limited use when it was acquired.

I'd like to see them drain the oil and gas from it and push it off the back of one of the Long Island ferries. It's a new world. Send it back to the battlefields it came from.

There are other reasonable ideas that should open a community dialogue, including adjusting the amount of fines to income and encouraging community service for petty offenses.

The petitioners reasonably demand oversight of the police union contract, which tends to be a broad blueprint for policing. More community input is needed.

The petition also asks for a diversion of city funds from police to support schools and residents who are black, brown and poor. The city certainly should look anew at its spending and priorities with these ideas in mind.

Are we spending too much on policing? One commenter on the petition suggested a comparison of the condition of police cruisers to city schools.

The mayor and City Council have their work cut out. I trust they are up to it. Thankfully, it seems less is needed here than in so many other places.

We've all been asking ourselves over these tough weeks what we can do to begin to end racism.

The young people of New London have some good ideas, and we should listen and act.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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