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Boston Prides Itself On Its Progressive Image. Let Me Tell You What I Know

Thousands of Protesters March up Washington Street on their way to rally at the Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Thousands of Protesters March up Washington Street on their way to rally at the Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In my senior year of high school, I was hell bent on getting back to Boston.

My mother and I moved to Atlanta in 2001, when I was 10, and by the time I graduated from high school in 2009, I was ready to be back in Massachusetts. So, I packed my stuff and moved north. I remember feeling a glow, a happiness at the thought of being in a more liberal city. The racism I experienced throughout middle and high school in Georgia was enough for a lifetime.

At the tender age of 18, I didn't realize that I was in love with a mirage. I was aching for a memory that was never real.

When we moved away, I was too young to really internalize the tense run-ins with the Boston Police Department or recall the time detectives questioned my mother as they intercepted us on our walk home from my bus stop. What I remembered was Boston in the summers, when my grandfather would take me down to the esplanade for free concerts. I longed for the days of getting beef patties and ginger beer from Lenny's on Blue Hill Ave. with my father.

When I moved back, I was convinced, somehow, that Boston was the place for me.

A few years after returning to Boston, I moved into my childhood home in Mattapan. Memories resurfaced as new ones formed. A year after that, I had my first re-encounter with Boston police when they stopped and questioned me and a co-worker, another person of color, as we were closing up and leaving the fro-yo shop where we worked in the Fenway area. As an adult, I could clearly see the darkness smiling up from the seams of the city. It was a darkness hurriedly covered with term after term of Democratic mayors and seemingly liberal politics.

Police motorcycles block protestors way on Tremont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Police motorcycles block protestors way on Tremont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Boston is the kind of city that points to places like Ferguson, Missouri and Detroit and says, "See. We haven't done that yet." With the appointment of Commissioner William Gross in 2018, the first black man to ever lead the Boston Police Department, that rhetoric tightened. The city, in all of its liberal glory, seemed to shout, "Progress."

The thing with illusions is that they last as long as you want them to. When I see stories of police brutality, not just on the news but from personal acquaintances, across the country, I think to myself that despite its liberal reputation, Boston is no different. Perhaps this city is just better at maintaining that illusion. Down South, racism is much more overt and direct. But in the liberal North, it's buried beneath microaggressions and couched in progressive language.

Boston's past and present are inextricably entangled with systemic racism. The history of the city's police department is no different. In an essay about the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: "As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated and usually denied."

Boston is the kind of city that points to places like Ferguson, Missouri and Detroit and says, "See. We haven't done that yet."

It was only four years ago that Boston police shot and killed Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old Black man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. (His mother, Hope Coleman, filed a federal lawsuit against the city in 2018.)

In 2016, Boston police union officials attempted to block the body-worn cameras program in court. Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled against the union.

That same year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that black men may have cause to run from police, based on a 2014 report from ACLU that found Boston police disproportionately stop black people. This ruling was in response to the 2011 case of Jimmy Warren, who was racially profiled and falsely arrested by BPD.

In 2018, my boyfriend, his brother, their cousin and I were surrounded by more than 10 Boston police officers as we mourned in a cemetery. We were detained and searched as we stood on a family member's grave, all based on a false tip.

I know countless others in my community who have similar or more frightening experiences with the police that range from harassment and intimidation to physical abuse. My father has a story. My grandfather has a story. My cousins and friends have stories.

Despite the traumatizing incidents communities of color in Boston have with the police, there's still pervasive rhetoric that what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor doesn't happen in cities like ours. It just hasn’t happened yet. The police don’t make me feel safe.

We cannot measure the "benevolence" of our police department based on the number of riots that have happened in our city.

In the last several days, millions of people in 140 cities across the country have protested the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Last Friday, Mass Action Against Police Brutality brought out hundreds of people to Peters Park in the South End to protest police violence. I attended, breaking my own self imposed quarantine for the first time in months. It felt beautiful. Yes, there was the constant buzz of anger and of sadness. But there was also an indescribable feeling of communion, of hope and solidarity with everyone around me. For the first time in months, I really felt like I was alive.

On Sunday, I watched thousands of people in Boston march, peacefully, to the State House in solidarity with the protests across the country. On Tuesday, another demonstration will take place in Franklin Park, organized by Black Lives Matter Boston. I know, as all the other demonstrators know, that we are risking our lives in the midst of a pandemic. But it isn't hard to risk your life when you have something to say.

Peaceful protestors hold signs during a protest in Boston on Friday, May 29, 2020 (Arielle Gray/WBUR)
Peaceful protestors hold signs during a protest in Boston on Friday, May 29, 2020 (Arielle Gray/WBUR)

We aren't just standing in solidarity with other protestors across the country. We are holding our own police force, our city and our state, accountable.

When we narrow the conversation in Boston to what the police department hasn't done, and applaud them for not doing the things we’ve seen happen in Minneapolis and New York and Ferguson and elsewhere, we overlook and ignore the police violence that has happened here. With those rose-colored glasses on, we are only diminishing the brutality and fear that so many are experiencing already. On Friday and Sunday night, Boston protestors called for the defunding of the police. There were calls to reinvest those funds into our communities. There were also chants to abolish the police force altogether. There are many ways to make change, but until change is made, police violence will continue.

If we fail to speak out nowwe become complicit. Until the next tragedy happens. This isn't about the track record of one particular police department. It's about the racist systems that all police departments are shaped from.

We cannot measure the "benevolence" of our police department based on the number of riots that have happened in our city. We cannot base it on how many black and brown bodies BPD has or hasn't put in the ground.

That is a useless, arbitrary and violent form of measurement.

And it always, always requires a loss of black life.

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Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the Arts Engagement Producer for The ARTery. She manages its social media, events and curated content.

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