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A week of violence and renewed calls for reform

Boston activists hold rally, march in Roxbury

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
A week of violence and renewed calls for reform
Demonstrators rally in front of the Area B police station in Dudley Square during a demonstration organized by Mass. Action Against Police Brutality.

Two demonstrations calling for peace and an end to police abuse were held Saturday. The first demonstration, held at 11 a.m. in front of the Bruce Bolling Municipal Building, preceded a forum on police-community relations. Participants in the second, sponsored by Mass. Action Against Police Brutality, rallied in front of the Boston Police Department’s Area B substation before marching to Grove Hall.

Also last weekend, several black churches held prayer vigils in support of peace. Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Pastor Miniard Culpepper, who held a prayer vigil and attended Saturday’s march, said the prayer vigils are important.

“There has to be a spiritual component to any movement,” he said. “The spiritual power enables the movement people to go beyond what their human power would allow.”

Demonstrators gather at the Dudley Square bus terminal.

A week of bloodshed

The events of last week — two police shootings of black civilians, the shooting death of five police officers in Dallas and the demonstrations that followed — put the issues of police abuse and gun violence back into the national spotlight.

The responses of elected officials and the mainstream media underscore significant shifts in the national conversation on race, policing and gun violence, with President Obama calling out racial profiling as an “American issue.”

As has been the case with many of the prominent police shootings of blacks in recent years, cellphone videos played a prominent role in last week’s events, pre-empting the police officers’ skewed recollections of the events leading to deadly force.

In the first incident, a Baton Rouge police officer was caught on cellphone video shooting and killing a black man who had been caught selling illegal DVDs. The footage of the officer pumping a slug into the man’s body as he lay on the ground while subdued under the weight of two other officers elicited horror and outrage.

In the second, a black woman live-streamed on Facebook the moments after an officer fatally wounded her fiancé who had just reached for his wallet, the blood stain on his shirt spreading as he lay dying while the officer continues to aim his weapon, shouting orders through the car window.

Then, in an act that garnered the most news coverage and official response, a lone sniper targeted police officers during a Dallas demonstration against police brutality Thursday, killing five and wounding eight other officers and two civilians.

What’s different?

Two years after the Black Lives Matter movement kicked off in response to the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, elected officials and the news media seem more willing to speak directly to the racial dimensions of police abuse.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton last week said race played a role in the shooting of 32-year-old cafeteria manager Philando Castile, the man shot in front of his fiancée and her four-year-old daughter after she was pulled over for what police allege was a broken tail light.

“Nobody should be shot and killed in Minnesota for a taillight being out of function,” Dayton, said during a press conference last week. “Would this have happened if those passengers and the driver were white? I don’t think it would’ve.”

Speaking from Poland, where he met with European Union officials, President Obama cast the police shootings as an American issue, rather than a black issue.

 “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin they are not being treated the same,” he said. “That hurts and that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue. This is not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about. It’s incumbent on all of us to say we can do better than this. We are better than this.”

A day later, as the nation reacted to news of the shootings of the Dallas police officers, Obama issued a statement denouncing the violent act and highlighting the need for gun control.

“When people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic,” he said. “And in the days ahead, we’re going to have to consider those realities as well.

Moving forward?

The surge in cell phone videos and social media sites on which people can upload and live-stream videos has led to a greater recognition of the higher rates of blacks shot and killed by police. Major news outlets including The Washington Post and the British newspaper The Guardian are maintaining tallies of police shootings and documenting the names of shooting victims and the circumstances under which they were killed. The enhanced news coverage of these shootings, combined with video evidence that often contradicts official police accounts, has undeniably changed the discourse around policing in the United States.

Add to the mix the Black Lives Matter movement that has given voice to a new generation of activists and amplified the voices of journalists, bloggers and commentators. The conversation around police violence against blacks has evolved substantially since Michael Brown was gunned down in 2014.

Yet, at the national level, the volume of the shootings continues apace. Police departments in major cities like New York, Chicago and Boston are operating under the same rules and regulations that have governed policing for decades.

On Beacon Hill, members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus have sponsored a number of criminal justice reform bills, prompted in part by the growing awareness of police shootings across the country.

Among the bills caucus members are advancing are measures that would require police departments in Massachusetts to collect and report data on the race of pedestrian and motor vehicle stops, mandate independent investigations of all officer-involved shootings and require the decertification of police convicted of certain crimes.

But the measures have been assigned “to study” in their respective committees, a move that usually signals slow death for bills.

“It’s moving slow,” said Rep. Evandro Carvalho, speaking during a Boston rally against police violence Saturday. “We’re going to try to use this momentum to push the bills.”

While police reform bills are stuck in a legislative purgatory, Gov. Charlie Baker is advancing a bill that would make assault and battery on a police officer a felony. Civil rights activists say police officers commonly level assault and battery charges on people they already have beaten as a “cover charge” to deflect attention from their misdeeds.  And a pair of Democratic state reps are advancing legislation that would make crimes against police officers hate crimes.

While the hate crimes bill has garnered media attention, coming on the heels of the Dallas shooting, state Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz said police reform remains an important priority for the Caucus.

 “I think everyone feels like there needs to be space for grieving, but the time for talk is over,” she said. “There needs to be action.”

At the local level activists have for more than a year called for Boston Police Department officers to be outfitted with body-worn cameras. Mayor Martin Walsh has agreed to implement a limited pilot project in which 200 officers will volunteer to test the cameras.