Ex-Cop’s MLK Message: Zinnias, Marigolds Stop Violence

Allan Appel PhotoGiving a new definition to “flower power,” a star community gardener and retired cop said the time has never been so ripe for social change since the 50 years of that eponymous generation.

He cautioned that pursuing such change requires tenacity and a refusal to give up hope.

West River Neighborhood Services Corporation leader Stacy Spell delivered that message, by turns and inspirational, to a packed room of 50 at a “master’s tea” convened at Yale University’s Pierson College.

His talk Monday was one of several “Chewing the Fat” speaking programs organized by the Yale Sustainable Food Project on food justice for Martin Luther King Day evening.

Spell recounted the slow beginning of his effort through chess and public flower planting to reclaim “the boat,” the triangle (pictured on the calendar) where Derby Avenue and George Street meet in West River.

It had become a open air drug market. That was three years ago.

Today “We had so many eyes out there no one could do a drug deal let alone shoot someone,” he said.

“There is power in the flower. When you drive down a street and see flowers where there might be garbage, it works, it creates a bonding, peace, it shows anyone that someone cares,” he said.

“Those flowers and those plantings have led to a drastic change in violence, ownership [by residents of the public space], but we’re still not there,” Spell added.

Click here for a story about how Spell helped reclaim crime-plagued West River through public chess matches; here for how his program of area cleaning, planting, and peace activities are revitalizing that part of town and earned him the Independent’s Man of the Year honor; and here for a story on area’s new thriving Little Red Hen garden.

The mostly young people in Monday’s Yale audience audience—from the many organizations with whom Spell partners—were intrigued about where Spell gets his equanimity, his drive, and the, well, elixir, of his personality after having chased bad guys and seen much ugliness for years as a street cop.

He said that even as a police officer he saw and did things his own way: He cuffed those he arrested only if necessary so they could preserve their dignity;  he was the only officer sporting dreads in the department; he always came home to the peace of his wife, family, trees, and garden. He was also an activist—out not to confront but to bring people together by leading, for example, a black and Latino officers organization.

Retirement unleashed the activist full time. “I’m one of the fortunate ones. I was able to retire [still] with joy. I’m still an altruist. A lot of my brothers [go off to] Florida, Kentucky,” Spell said.

He also said his faith, his wife, and a meditation practice under-gird what he does, keep the vision and hope alive.

He equanimity gets tested. He spoke of a day last year when his wife, Virginia, who commutes on a crowded Metro-North trains to work in Stamford, asked to sit on a seat besides a middle-aged white man. The man had rested a newspaper on the seat.

“I don’t want your black skin touching me,” the man responded. Spell said his wife didn’t make a public fuss, but later called him in tears.

“It reminds all of us we have a ways to go,” Spell said, citing the salient fact that no one in the crowded railway car raised a voice of outrage or offered assistance.

“Just as [with] the racial slur, there’s not enough of a moral outcry” on food and social-justice challenges, like the prevalence of “food deserts,” he added.

He said he hopes he was not an anomaly in a being a police officer who has turned from gun power to flower and vegetable power.

“I hope there is something in my words to inspire you. These flowers [in West River] stopped the shooting, stopped the drug dealing. When residents take ownership of community, they create change. You’re young. You have the power. There has not been this synergy to make change since the 1960s,” he said.

As the question-and-answer session wound down, Spell suggested creating a program to recruit retiring officers to become planters for peace.

It’s not as if Spell has an empty plate; yet he left with a twinkle in the eye. After all, he had begun his MLK remarks quoting not MLK but Albert Einstein: “The problems we face will not be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.”

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posted by: Trustme on January 21, 2014  10:28am

Stacy Spell, is a good man.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on January 21, 2014  10:30am

What a hopeful message, and what a fine human being.

And what a revolting episode on the train.  Very sad that nobody spoke up ... on the other hand, in today’s political climate, you have to be worried that someone with that attitude may also be packing heat, and ready to “stand their ground” against some “perceived threat,” and the better part might be to let it go.

posted by: HewNaven on January 21, 2014  1:49pm

Spell is a great leader. We need 100 more like him.

posted by: John Fitzpatrick on January 21, 2014  2:07pm

I’m so happy to read that the room was packed. Stacy is someone worth listening to and learning from. I know because I have.