'We Continue To Have A Racism Crisis': Advocates Say Clashes Shouldn't Overshadow Focus Of Protest

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Black Lives Matter protesters congregate on Boston Common. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Black Lives Matter protesters congregate on Boston Common. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That's how long white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd before he lost consciousness and died.

"We have experienced symbolically knees on our neck for so very long," said Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the NAACP in Boston. "And really the pain and stain of racism has been felt by so many of us. And in the case of George Floyd, like so many others, it leads to our death."

That’s why tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Boston over the weekend. The protests were peaceful, but after they ended, some people clashed with police. Sullivan said the actions of a few people shouldn’t overshadow the focus of the demonstrations. She and other advocates say it's critical to address the larger issues of systemic racism and inequality that sparked the demonstrations.

Some of the same disparities that led people to protest police brutality are also reflected in the current pandemic, Sullivan added.

"We've got a public health crisis. We have an economic crisis. And we continue to have a racism crisis," Sullivan said. "All three of them are disproportionately impacting communities of color, low income people, working class folks."

Sullivan said beyond the protests, the NAACP is focused on policy and legislative solutions — including calling for stronger civilian oversight of Boston Police and a review of police use of force.

"It is important for us to remember that if we want peace, we must first seek justice," she said. "Justice begets peace."

Other organizations are focused on justice too. The ACLU is looking at how to raise the bar for when police can use force. Rahsaan Hall, the director of the racial justice program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said now is a good time for lawmakers to take action.

"There is an opportunity to introduce legislation that puts serious restraints on the use of force by police officers by changing the standard by which an officer's actions are judged from whether or not it was reasonable to whether or not it was absolutely necessary to use deadly force," Hall said.

There's currently a bill before legislators that would expand the state's civil rights act and hold law enforcement more accountable.

The ACLU is also calling for legislation that would require police officers to be licensed, Hall said. They would also face losing their license for violating certain standards.

Hall said more investments also need to be made in local communities because law enforcement often deals with the symptoms of larger social issues.

"There's this narrative out there that the only way that communities can be kept safe is by having a robust police presence when in reality, the many things that police are responding to and dealing with are things that grow out of people's struggles with substance use disorder, dealing with poverty or people struggling with mental health issues," Hall said.

He also pointed to other disparities: access to jobs, education and therapy for trauma. And the death of George Floyd, he said, is a very visible reminder of the need for change.

"There has to be a push for people to understand that we're not going to keep tolerating being killed in these streets with lack of accountability," said Monica Cannon-Grant, an activist who runs the non-profit community organization Violence in Boston.

Cannon-Grant is organizing a vigil in Roxbury on Tuesday to remember people who have been killed by police. She says the event will also highlight proposed federal legislation aimed at increased oversight of police, such as a recent resolution on police brutality introduced by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

"If me, as a regular citizen, is responsible for committing murder and will be charged and indicted, then we want the same actions to happen for police officers," Cannon-Grant said. "A job title should not obscure you from accountability."

Advocates say they'll continue to fight for more accountability, justice and racial equality.

This segment aired on June 2, 2020.


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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