At a time full of strife and conflict, it’s nice to look around in the near distance and see comforting signs that disagreement doesn’t necessarily require disrespect.
Conversations are taking place all over America on the need for police reform. It’s a discussion that’s also happening on the South Fork, and it continued last week at an Express News Group Virtual Sessions forum, which brought together police chiefs and local activists to talk face to face, virtually, at least.
In many places, the recriminations on both sides meet with defensiveness, and the temperature rises. But this discussion was cordial, productive and enlightening. That’s largely because everyone at the table came with strong opinions, but also with respect.
That’s also true of protests held on the East End. As a recent article documented, activists reached out to the police when protests were planned, with both sides committed to allowing a crowd of citizens the chance to call, loudly, for change, but not allow the event to curdle into something counterproductive, destructive. Again, cooperation born from mutual respect was the key.
At last week’s Virtual Sessions event, Westhampton Beach Village Police Chief Trevor Gonce offered, “We’re listening, we’re engaged … We want that accountability. We want that transparency in our operations.” Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki noted, “Progressive police departments are constantly reforming. They’re always looking to be better, and there’s always ways to be better.”
And, on the other side, Willie Jenkins, a co-administrator of Black Lives Matter of the East End and an organizer of many of the local protests, had no qualms about voicing his concerns, pointing to inequities, and challenging the chiefs and their departments. But, face to face, he also said this: “I respect everything you guys do, and when something happens, you guys come and you fix it, and most of you guys do your job with such bravery and pride, and it is awesome.”
Both sides are saying the right things. But in this instance, it suggests something more: that there’s real hope of progress when the entire enterprise is built on mutual respect. It’s a level of engagement that should be applauded, and seen as an example for other communities.