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Facing criticism, Holyoke’s acting mayor says
‘I did a poor job explaining’ executive order on racism

June 2, 2021

HOLYOKE — A week after rescinding former Mayor Alex B. Morse’s executive order declaring racism and police abuse “public health concerns,” acting Mayor Terence Murphy responded to community outcry over the decision at a meeting that featured criticism from the public and several city councilors.

Murphy appeared visibly shaken at times during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, at one point briefly stepping away from his computer.

“I did a poor job explaining this order, and because of that, it appears some in the community believe I don’t think racism is and police abuse are serious problems,” Murphy said. “Let me state unequivocally, racism in all its forms and police abusive practices in all their forms are inherently wrong and need to be eradicated to every extent possible.”

Morse issued his executive order in June 2020 amid a national reckoning on racism and policing that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Murphy, in rescinding Morse’s order on May 26, said many elements of it were never acted upon, including a proposal for a citizen police advisory committee to make recommendations for local reforms. Murphy’s order said Morse’s action “has no immediate benefit,” and added, “It is my expectation that all city departments consistently treat everyone with respect as we serve the public regardless of race or ethnicity.”

Murphy said Tuesday that the main purpose of his order was to “clarify the status of Juneteenth as a holiday.” Morse’s order established June 19 as a paid holiday for city workers. The date — which commemorates the day Black Americans in Texas finally received the news of the Emancipation Proclamation — was subsequently declared a state holiday.

“My purpose with the executive order was simply to clarify the status of Juneteenth as a holiday and to file a specific order to establish June 19 as an official holiday in the city’s code of ordinances,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he was advised such a declaration required a new executive order.

“If that was the wrong way to do this, I accept full responsibility. I should have sought more information, and I should have sought more advice,” he said. “Obviously, the timing was not good. The timing was based on making it an official holiday.”

Councilors, residents speak out

Many in the city took exception to Murphy’s order, issued as the nation marked the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder. Several city councilors voiced their displeasure with Murphy during the meeting, while a few defended him. A public comment period also saw blunt pushback from over a dozen residents.

Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez, who is not running for reelection, said the episode “opened wounds,” including her own family’s experiences with institutional racism. She said her children experienced the racial divide in the city’s schools, and that racism is the “elephant in the room” no one speaks about.

“This is a public health issue as a whole, across the board, no matter how you see it,” she said.

Councilor at Large Rebecca Lisi, a mayoral candidate, described Murphy as nice and decent. “I have seen him work to make the city more inclusive,” she said. “But being a good guy does nothing to address the institutional nature of racism.”

Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos said when he was 16 years old, he “froze” when a Holyoke police officer approached him. He recalled the officer slapping his older brother in the face.

Decades later, Anderson-Burgos said the fear still resides in him. “It’s a mental and physical issue to a community who has been repressed, pushed down, strangled, and kept down to the floor long enough,” he said.

Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon said she believed Murphy acted “with good intentions.”

“I don’t think the steps he took were intending to harm or hurt anyone or to dismiss the issues that we are all aware of that we have within the city, particularly as it relates to our educational system,” she said.

Vacon added that executive orders “come and go” when the writer “comes and goes.” She said lasting change goes through the “messy process” of the City Council and its committees, “engaging in uncomfortable debate” and where “respect and kindness are paramount.”

Councilor at Large Howard Greaney also said he believed Murphy’s intentions were not negative, and that future discussions should include “concrete examples” of racism in Holyoke.

“I plead with members of the community that we all get together, we sit down, and we have conversations that can iron out these issues, so we all understand one another as human beings and move forward to make our city a much better city,” he said.

Paul Hyry-Dermirth, a former assistant superintendent with the Holyoke Public Schools, was among several residents who spoke during the public comment period.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us in Holyoke to own and engage the degree to which racism had and continues to have an impact on our institutions and people of color who live in Holyoke and beyond,” he said.

Hyry-Dermirth said he couldn’t understand why Murphy rescinded Morse’s executive order.

“We have ongoing work to deal and address structural racism in our cities and our country,” he said. “That’s what (Morse’s) executive order says. I don’t think it’s a particularly complex matter.”

Resident Josh Knox suggested that Murphy withdraw his order and reinstate the police advisory committee. “The rescinding is a form of white supremacy because it’s diminishing the lived experience of nonwhite folks at the hands of police officers,” he said.

Knox added, “I’m white, I never felt my life threatened by a police officer or felt disrespected or dehumanized in my interactions with police officers. My Black and brown friends tell me they do.”

‘Trying to make things better’

Murphy said he respected the comments from the public, and said it was never his intention to imply racism is not an issue in the city. He pledged to meet with residents who spoke during the meeting.

The acting mayor also said he remains committed to working with the Board of Health and local medical centers to collect information on the causes of health disparities. And he said he hopes to work on the relationships between the police department and the community.

“To create improved relations as a community as a whole and the police department, I would hope to establish a community-police relations board,” he said. “That board would consist of concerned citizens as I know there are many out there.” The proposed board would also include police officers who could offer perspective.

Meanwhile, Murphy said he has “failed at times,” but that he “will continue to try to build a united community in Holyoke with a goal of a better quality of life for all of our residents.”

Murphy said he ran for mayor in 1983 with little chance at winning. He focused his campaign on bridging divides in the community. He continued his efforts through coaching and serving on the council and city boards.

“I have tried every day to treat every one of those people the right way, and I would continue to do that,” he said. “My intentions are not to do harm; my intentions are trying to make things better.”

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