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BART Director Says He's Distressed by 'Villainization' of Police — and of Robert E. Lee

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BART board memnber John McPartland speaks during a public meeting held via videoconference on June 25, 2020. (Screenshot bart.gov)

BART Director John McPartland leaped at the chance Thursday to support a potentially groundbreaking initiative that would steer the transit agency's police officers away from dealing with people experiencing homelessness, mental illness or other issues that don't require an armed response.

It's unlikely anyone monitoring the BART board meeting, a nearly six-hour marathon conducted via teleconference, anticipated that McPartland's declaration of support for police reform would include a defense of the career and accomplishments of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Or that another director would coax McPartland to "walk back" his comments.

McPartland, who represents an Alameda County district, seconded director Bevan Dufty's police reform initiative. Dufty, whose district includes much of San Francisco, framed it as an effort not only to change the focus of policing on BART but to spare officers from having to deal with situations for which they're not trained.

McPartland said he wanted to "jump on board" with Dufty's idea, and started by saying past and current problems with police stem from training and policy problems, rather than with individual officers.

But as a retired Army officer who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he said calls to defund police amount to the same kind of "villainization" he felt when he returned from wartime service.

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And then, as both he and Dufty said later, he "went off the rails."

With no segue, McPartland launched into a critique of recent incidents in which statues of Confederate military figures and others have been pulled down.

Among the statues that now face removal is one in Richmond, Virginia, celebrating Robert E. Lee, a slaveholder who betrayed his oath to defend the U.S. Constitution by resigning from the Army to lead Confederate forces in the Civil War.

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, in early June 2020. The state has announced its intention to remove the monument, one of a series of Richmond memorials to leading figures of the Confederacy.
The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, in early June 2020. The state has announced its intention to remove the monument, one of a series of Richmond memorials to leading figures of the Confederacy. (Ryan M. Kelly/AFP-Getty Images)

"Robert E. Lee was an exemplary general who was a West Point graduate," McPartland said. "The United States military tried to make him the commander in chief of the Army, and he turned them down, not because of racism, but because of family — the priorities that we have are God, family and country — and he ended up becoming a general that ended up simply doing his job, and he’s being villainized."

In fact, the quality of Lee's generalship is now widely questioned. And one recent critique of Lee's legacy summarized him this way: "Even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are Black. Lee’s elevation (to heroic status) is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one."

McPartland added: "If we continue to tear down monuments in the South, what we are doing is we are attacking the families and the belief system of the conservatives of this nation. ... Instead of trying to unite and heal, the actions that are going on right now — instead of doing it in a legislative fashion, we’re doing it in a riotous fashion of tearing down monuments — what we’re doing is polarizing and galvanizing the opposition (and) that’s going to make it a lot tougher to unseat the existing president."

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That wasn't the end of it. During a later discussion of steps the BART Police Department has already taken to improve practices and hold officers more accountable, Dufty asked McPartland to reconsider what he had said.

"I love you a lot, and I would just be grateful if you could just take a moment and let’s walk back because I don’t think this is a time to think about statues or any of those things," Dufty said. "And I think in your heart, I know you know that. So I apologize, I know this is a little untraditional at a BART meeting, but I just would like people to know the John McPartland that I’ve come to know."

The exchange ended in agreement.

"Yeah, I need to walk that back," McPartland said. "I’ve been very troubled and haven’t been sleeping well because of this. Part of it is because of the villainization of law enforcement and my personal experience coming back from the war."

He went on to say his deepest concern is "the violence that’s going on and the division that continues to spread us apart." He concluded by saying, "I went off the rails. I represented myself badly."

"And god bless you for being willing to say that, John," Dufty said. "That’s all the moment requires is to say I made some mistakes here and I want to do better."

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