The situation in Ferguson has spurred a great deal of concern all over the country about the “militarization” of police, along with racial unrest and crime. Clearly, the story has people thinking about their own communities and whether or not a similar situation might break out there at any moment. Such was the case in Ithaca, New York this week, where a group of (mostly) students suddenly realized that the city was in line to receive a grant from the U.S department of Homeland Security for their SWAT team and rushed out to make sure everyone knew they wanted nothing to do with it.
In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where law enforcement have been criticized for their use of force with military tactics and equipment, residents in Ithaca stood together Wednesday against the same capability in their city.
The city has been issued a $100,000 grant from the U.S department of Homeland Security to be used for the city’s SWAT team. The city’s common council is expected to approve the grant on Sept. 3.
So are the police about to get an MRAP or a tank or a truckload of discount teargas? Nope.
As of now the grant will be used to fund SWAT training and to buy a robot that could be used in different ways.
In order to appreciate the irony of this protest, you need to understand a little more about Ithaca. It’s an upstate New York college town. (That sentence probably looked like it needed something else, but if you live around here it tells you a lot.) It’s basically like a slice of San Francisco was snipped out and dropped into the northeast. Having done a few political campaigns around here, I can tell you that Ithaca is one of those places that you take a Republican candidate to once just to say you went, and you don’t bother going back. And you really don’t need to, because you already know all 8 registered Republicans in town and you can meet them all at one stop for coffee.
The city – to put it kindly – does have a couple of things in common with Ferguson. Ithaca has roughly 29,000 residents, while Ferguson has 21K, so they are in the same ballpark for size. They are also both in America. Beyond that… well, let’s look at some of the differences.
Ithaca: The racial makeup of the city was 73.97% White, 13.65% Asian, 6.71% Black or African American, 0.39% Native American, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.86% from other races, and 3.36% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 5.31% of the population.
Ferguson: The racial makeup of the city was 29.3% White, 67.4% African American, 0.4% Native American, 0.5% Asian, 0.4% from other races, and 2.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.2% of the population.
One of these towns doesn’t exactly sound like a hotbed of racial unrest. Honestly, I was shocked that Ithaca managed to rack up 6.7% for black residents. But there’s more to community identity than race, right? Let’s look at some of the crime statistics they are surely both dealing with. Starting with the big one – murder – between 2006 and 2012 Ithaca managed to rack up a grand total of zero murders. In Ferguson, during the same period (and with about 64% of the population) they scored 13. The assault totals were on par, with Ferguson recording 362 in that six year period while Ithaca saw 189. (And you could probably decimate that number if you subtracted the college bar fights.)
The point is, Ithaca is probably about one of the safest places you could be in the country and there is so little racial diversity that worrying about a police state cracking down over the color barrier is like preparing for a drought in Seattle. And yet, these kids certainly do seem to have a lot of time to protest. And they love to protest a lot. Just a quick scan of their protest news turned up:
– Protesters Picket Ithaca’s Hobby Lobby
– Ithaca group walking to Syracuse to protest US drone missiles
– Protest for Living Wage at Ithaca McDonald’s
– Protesters in Ithaca Picket Business Over Birth Control
Really, kids. The SWAT team getting a robot probably isn’t going to turn your college town into a police state / war zone. In fact, most of the time your cops are probably more in danger of you boring them to death. And if you were smart, you’d be very grateful for that fact.