Residents Call for ANC to Retract “Inaccurate and Racist Letter”

Constituent Letter Asks ANC 6A to Rescind Support for MPD Funding

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Commissioner Mike Soderman (6A03) is shown in a screenshot from the June 11th meeting of ANC 6A. Other attendees are pictured at top. Webex recording/ANC6A.org

A group of Hill residents say they are outraged that their Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) voted to approve what they call a “factually inaccurate and racist letter” written in support of full funding of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

They are calling for ANC 6A commissioners to retract the letter and “correct the record”.

“I was flabbergasted,” said ANC 6A04 resident Laura Furr, “that this was the choice that they made given what I think had been pretty robust outcry about this in the District and in Ward 6 in particular.”

The conflict raises questions about public participation in virtual meetings, what constitutes public input and whether views held by democratic representatives are representative of their constituents.

A Modest Budget Increase

At the end of the June 11th meeting of ANC 6A, the commission voted 7-0 to send a letter to DC Council supporting what it called “a modest budget increase” in the budget for MPD and the opposition of the commission to calls to defund the police. The letter, dated June 14, argues that a fully-staffed and well-trained department are essential to a safe and just community.

“Defunding MPD would make it less likely the Department could hire and retain the best, brightest, and most ethical officers,” reads the letter, “or that the Department would be able to provide expensive, but necessary training in nonviolent response, implicit bias, and other training necessary to help ensure MPD is as progressive and anti-racist as possible and that they are able to do their work to work to do their part to help ensure the black lives matter here in DC.”

The letter also supports efforts to build mental health and prevention services for those in crisis, noting that “[o]ur MPD and FEMS Responders are all too often the only agencies willing to respond to the around the clock crises and needs that arise in DC.”

ANC 6A covers an area in Northeast roughly south of Benning Road, north of East Capitol Street and between Eighth Street NE and RFK Campus.

Constituents say they learned about the letter from the Hill Rag report on the June meeting.  “I was disappointed and angry that following weeks of protests against MPD violence, led by Black DC residents, as well as an unprecedented surge in support for defunding the MPD, my ANC would write such a letter,” said ANC 6A resident Madeline Gitomer.

Gitomer said she and other constituents attended the next monthly meeting of ANC 6A, held July 9th, to voice their concerns but were placed on mute and not given time to speak. “After that meeting, a few other attendees and I discussed writing a letter to ensure the ANC knows that their hastily-written, uninformed, and harmful letter does not speak for us,” she said.

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” ids=”24141,24142″]“Racist and Inaccurate”

Gitomer is one of six signatories to a letter addressed to ANC 6A commissioners, which expresses outrage that the letter was approved. In addition to calling the document “racist and inaccurate,” the constituents write that the commission’s letter is “misleading and does not represent the views of ANC 6A residents” and expresses concern about the process followed by the ANC in voting to support the MPD funding.

In the letter, residents take issue with the ANC 6A representation of police as necessary for public safety, pointing to video evidence obtained by ACLU DC of MPD officers firing tear gas at protestors, and to MPD kettling and mass arrests of protestors on Swann Street NW June 1.

“These are only some of the reasons that of the more than 16,000 people who signed up to testify at the June 2020 hearing on the MPD budget, 99 percent supporting decreasing MPD funding,” reads the letter. “We, as residents of Ward 6, and you, as Commissioners in Ward 6, have a responsibility to hold the MPD accountable.”

The letter also argues that “ANC 6A actively silenced residents in the monthly ANC 6A meeting by not allowing for public comment,” calling it “a clear abdication” of the DC Official Code.

Gitomer said that if residents had been allowed to express their views, they would have offered a needed counterpoint. “If they had taken the time to listen to and solicit input from their constituents, they would have heard stories about Black community members being targeted by MPD,” Gitomer said, “[a]nd even if they didn’t, data released by the MPD itself in March confirms this lived experience.”

Ward 6 is the most quickly gentrifying ward in one of the most quickly gentrifying cities in the nation. The Black population around H Street has dropped from 77 percent in 1990 to 45.2 percent in 2010, and this trend appears to have continued in the years since. The role police play in that gentrification needs to be acknowledged as well, said Kris Garrity, a 6A01 resident who signed the letter.

“In ANC 6A there’s H Street NE, a historically black community,” Garrity said. “We mention gentrification in the letter because complicit in gentrification is the way in which the police is used by white people to regulate public space and in particular, black bodies in public space.”

ANC 6A has also dealt with spates of violent crime.  In a two-week span between Sept. 21 and Oct. 5, 2018, eight people were shot, seven fatally, in five separate incidents in the northeast area in and on the periphery of ANC 6A. Commissioners worked with Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) and with MPD to address the increase in crime.

A Commitment to Future Notice

ANC 6A Chair Amber Gove (6A04) said that as far as she was aware, the consideration of the June 14th letter was the first time that the ANC had both proposed and voted on new business during a meeting during her nearly 3 years as a commissioner and more than a year as Chair. Usually, Gove said, business is confined to that on the agenda posted 24 hours before a meeting.

Video of the virtual meeting, available on the ANC website, shows that Gove initially questioned whether late additions to business are permitted and learned they were, under both ANC legislation and ANC 6A by-laws. “This particular item was also of an exceptionally urgent nature,” Gove said, “as we received a request for comment from Councilmember Allen [Ward 6-D] the day before our meeting and the Council was expected to vote on the Monday after.”

“Going forward in my role as Chair, I commit to ensuring we don’t vote on new business that is not in the agenda package,” Gove added.

A representative for Allen’s office noted that the councilmember did send an update to Ward 6 ANCs containing budget information and some thoughts on his approach in the budget to calls to defund the police. “While there wasn’t a specific request for feedback, Councilmember Allen regularly gets and welcomes feedback from ANCs whenever he shares an update,” said Allen’s Communication Director Erik Salmi.

On June 24, Allen, who is also the Chair of the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, proposed a $15 million reduction to MPD funding in the 2021 budget. That reduction was part of the budget package that passed in a second vote July 21.

Commissioner Mike Soderman (6A03) put forward the motion for the letter, which was seconded by Commissioner Marie-Claire Brown (6A01). He said that timely consideration of the issue was necessary, given that the commission meets monthly and the budget hearings took place the following week, also referencing the email from Allen as an impetus. “It is not unprecedented, especially when time is an issue, to have last-minute business come up for review,” he said.

Soderman said he disagreed with accusations of a lack of adequate consideration of public opinion. “All of the commissioners that I have the pleasure to work with are constantly in touch with their constituents and are constantly getting feedback,” Soderman said, noting that commissioners receive constant emails, phone calls, and comments from constituents met in the street. “To state otherwise is just a bust.” He said that requests for “a respectful police presence” are the most common received by commissioners, topped only by concerns related to transportation.

He said that he cannot speak to what action other commissioners might take in future meetings, but he stands behind the June 14th letter.

Not Fully in Compliance

Director of the Office of the ANC (OANC) Gottleib Simon said that DC Code specifically requires that each commission set aside a portion of each meeting to hear the views of residents on issues of concern or on proposed areas of concern that affect the Commission area, and that community views should be “adequately considered” in positions taken by the commission. That time can be alloted per item, or per meeting, he added.

He said nothing in DC Code forbids last-minute additions to business considered at an ANC meeting.

“The problem was they were not fully in compliance with the requirement for public comment,” Simon said. However, he said that the failure to do so does not compromise the legality of the letter as there are no specific metrics to measure “adequate consideration.”

The OANC Director noted that, given incidents of so-called ‘zoom bombing’ early in the pandemic, OANC has recommended that all participants are muted on admittance to virtual meetings. He said that a virtual meeting does not place additional limits on public comment. “No more than would be the case in an in-person meeting, where no one is given the right to speak without recognition by the chair,” Simon said.

Laura E. Furr is a constituent who helped craft the letter to ANC 6A. She disagrees with Simon, arguing that there would be opportunity to make constituent views known at a physical meeting that are impossible in a virtual meeting, given the ability of commissioners to mute participants and turn off cameras. “[At in-person meetings] there would have been calls to hear and have comment,” Furr said. “Even if we were not heard, people could have had signs, for instance, that everyone could have seen.”

Consequences to Confidence

While there are no repercussions identified in the code, Simon said there can be consequences. “They [repercussions] are in terms of the confidence placed in the commission by the public, and the confidence in the validity of their views by the public officials that they send those views to,” Simon said, adding that the most powerful corrective held by constituents is the November election, when ANC commissioners will be on the ballot.

Another consequence is the public reaction. In addition to the letter, local non-profit Serve Your City DC, currently acting as the hub for the Ward 6 Mutual Aid efforts, returned a $3,000 grant approved by ANC 6A during the June meeting, saying that support for the funding of MPD was “inappropriate.”

Constituents said they hoped the letter forces commissioners to re-examine their statements about the role of MPD in the community and to reverse course on support for full MPD funding.

“If it does not, I hope this letter helps the community realize that these Commissioners do not speak for us, and we should elect new ones,” said Gitomer.  “My ultimate goal is that the Commissioners retract their letter and send a second letter to the City Council acknowledging the harm that the MPD causes many of their constituents.”

Soderman, the commissioner who moved the letter, said he wanted his position to be clear. “I support the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said, noting that he has participated as a protester. “I hope in my heart that this country is able to make solid progress and real strides so that we don’t have established white power and blatant racism within our country.”

“I also support and believe that our police force is one of the most progressive police forces in the United States, and wouldn’t be without proper funding and training of this police force, which the vast majority of our constituents request,” he added. “I don’t believe that you have to choose one or the other.”

ANCs do not generally hold meetings of full commissions in August. A Community Listening Session will be included on the agenda of the August 24th meeting of the ANC 6A Community Outreach Committee meeting. That agenda, and the connection details will be posted at least week in advance at anc6a.org.

You can read the full text of the constituent letter here.