To the editor:
(Plain Press, April 2017) There was much to learn from the community roundtable on Cleveland police reform and consent decree held on March 22nd at the Urban Community School in Ohio City. But, it might not have been obvious. That is because people tend to focus on content instead form, “substance” instead of procedure. But, procedure largely determines substance and outcomes, and for that reason is imperative to monitor.
In fact, it is good to view public meetings as an anthropologist would see them, that is, as a “ceremony”, in this case as a legally mandated ceremony of validation. Especially here, whether it was merely a matter of going through the motions.
Firstly, is the issue of who is invited to the ceremony– and who is not. That would certainly affect the outcome. I myself learned of the meeting only by chance through a flyer at the library posted inconspicuously on the day of the meeting. How the other eighty some participants were informed, I do not know. But the control of the flow of information is real power, and I couldn’t help but noticing that there were less than twenty African Americans present, and this for an issue greatly divided by race. Also interesting, was that to attend the meeting one was required, for some reason, to write down one’s name, telephone number and e-mail. But why not also a brief questionnaire on race, age, gender, education level, and income level which is common even to employment applications and marketing surveys? It is important to know how representative these public forums truly are.
Secondly, one should ask who leads the meetings. In this case, some of the roundtable “facilitators” were members of the police department. One African American gentleman commented to me that this, in itself, would have a chilling effect on free discussion, especially since the topic was the consent decree and police misconduct.
I was disappointed that the copy of the “Settlement Agreement” we were given was only two partial pages of a document that literally covered hundreds of points. And more importantly, the agreement’s case number was absent from its place on the form, and the judge’s name was absent from its place of the form. There was no internet link given. Again, the control of information controls outcomes.
Finally, and this might seem like a small point, but is actually a “merely formal” point of huge significance, and that is how one is addressed at meetings. We were all given name tags where we were identified only by first name. To use a big anthropological word, “interpellation”, we were named not as responsible and active citizens, say “Mr. Grossman”, or Mr. Smith, but merely as a more passive “Bruce” or Joe or Jane. One’s child ego-state was invoked, not one’s adult ego-state. This was especially brought home because the site of the “ceremony” was, after all, an elementary school, and that in the introductory remarks we were told that this was a “teachable moment”.
So, the questions should be asked, was this public meeting truly a town hall gathering of the community, who is invited, how they are invited, who controls the meeting, who sets the agenda of what are proper points of discussion, is the setting of the meeting consistent with its gravity, and how are the participants addressed— or was the public meeting merely ceremonial?