More than 50 years after hundreds of thousands of people flooded the Washington, D.C. protesting racial inequality, a small group of civil rights activists stood on the front steps of the Massachusetts State House Friday calling for the passage of several bills that have stalled in the Legislature, including a police reform proposal banning no-knock warrants and other policing tactics.
Roughly three dozen Black activists gathered outside of the Massachusetts State House Friday afternoon, sharing stories of discrimination in housing, economic relief, education and police encounters — not just historically across the country, but recently in the Bay State.
“Fifty-seven years later, we still look at the indignities and the injustices that Black people in this country continue to face,” said the Rev. Rahsaan Hall, an attorney and director of the racial justice program of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. ”Fifty-seven years later, and we’re still struggling for jobs. Fifty-seven years later, and we’re still struggling for quality education. Fifty-seven years later, and we’re still struggling for economic development in our communities. Fifty-seven years later, and we’re trying to tell y’all Black Lives Matter. We’ve had enough.”
Nearly 450 miles away, thousands of demonstrators returned to the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for Black activists to cash a check in the “bank of justice.” On Friday, demonstrators demanded racial equality, pushing for major reforms to the criminal justice system.
The anniversary comes days after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer, now identified as Rusten Sheskey, shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake as police tried to detain him. Blake is paralyzed from the waist down, according to CNN. Authorities say police responded to a 911 caller who said her boyfriend, Blake, was on the premises and wasn’t supposed to be there. Authorities also said Blake admitted he had a knife, but didn’t say whether he had tried to use it.
Blake’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said he didn’t have a weapon in the car. Crump told CBS News that Blake was trying to de-escalate a fight between two other people when officers arrived and tased him before the shooting.
Kenosha police came under scrutiny again after not arresting a young, white man who was captured on video fatally shooting two protesters with a semi-automatic rifle Tuesday night. The man, later identified as 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, was taken into custody Wednesday on intentional homicide charges.
In Boston, speakers spent nearly three hours saying the names of those injured or killed in police custody, from Blake to Breonna Taylor in Louisville to to Terrence Coleman in Boston and Eurie Stamps in Framingham. They also called for state legislators to pass several bills that would address some of the racial and class disparities that have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of demonstrators braved sweltering temperatures in the nation’s capital on Friday to demand an overhaul of the country’s criminal justice system and push for racial equality.
The event, called the Commitment March, was held at the Lincoln Memorial, the same site where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for those same reforms decades ago in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Rahsaan Hall went on to describe the evolution of the police reform bill that’s sitting in conference committee, a month after the Senate and House passed their versions. The House and Senate bills would create a process to certify police and decertify problem officers, as well as ban no-knock warrants, limit the use of tear gas and, to varying degrees, limit qualified immunity for officers.
Lawmakers blew through their self-imposed July 31 deadline to enact a reform bill. Negotiations have continued quietly throughout the past month over some differences in the House and Senate versions and language that Republicans opposed — chiefly about qualified immunity. One big question that has fallen on partisan lines is whether limit qualified immunity for police officers or to take it out of the bill so it can be studied.
Police unions have come out in full force against the House and Senate bills, opposing limits to qualified immunity, bans of no-knock warrants, bans of tear gas and other restrictions. MASSCOP, a union representing 4,300 officers in the state, urged Gov. Charlie Baker in an Aug. 15 letter to avoid signing an “unreasonable and radical proposal” when it reaches his desk.
“The majority of police reform measures contained in the bill being deliberated are constructive and positive. But we ask you: Please amend those pieces that make our jobs more difficult and unsafe, and threaten our ability to raise a family, own a home and provide an education for our children,” the letter states, an allusion to the qualified immunity limitations proposed that officers argue would expose them to frivolous lawsuits alleging misconduct.
Rahsaan Hall countered the claims of police unions that the bills propose killing qualified immunity altogether, noting that it only seeks to limit the doctrine. He also took issue with the characterization that the bill could expose an officer to the point where he could lose his house if he is sued for alleged misconduct.
Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing, an organization that strives to end incarceration for women, blasted the Legislature for continuing debate on police reform that the public has expressed interest in for years. She also raised concerns about versions of the bill that avoid regulating corrections officers.
“The police are using to prevent, using scare tactics to scare us all into continuation of a failed and sham system of public safety,” James said. “Public safety for whom?”
During the debate on the policing bill, some House Republicans argued the Legislature was reacting rashly to a police killing that happened hundreds of miles away. Organizers at the rally on Friday, however, referenced allegations of police misconduct in Massachusetts as examples of how Black lives are mistreated locally.
They mentioned Stamps, Sr., a 68-year-old grandfather was killed by police in 2011 as officers executed a drug warrant at his Framingham home. The warrant was directed at his 20-year-old stepson.
There’s also Coleman, a 31-year-old Black man with schizophrenia in the South End. He was fatally shot by Boston police in 2016 after his mother called 911 for an ambulance. Authorities said Coleman had a large steak knife, but his mother, Hope Coleman, said he wasn’t holding a knife, WBUR reported.
“Every single person needs to understand that police reform is more than a hashtag. It’s more than window dressing. It requires every single one of you to do the work,” said Sophia Hall, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, who represents the Coleman family.
On Friday afternoon, Hope Coleman was in Washington, D.C., for the national march, Sophia Hall said.
Organizers also called on the Legislature to pass a bill that would extend and expand the eviction moratorium, increasing protections from renters, homeowners and some landlords. A Boston Public Schools teacher questioned the logic behind state guidance suggesting schools reopen but improve circulation by opening windows when some classrooms don’t have windows and not all windows in classrooms can safely be opened.
James of FJAH called out the Legislature for not moving on a bill that would eliminate phone call fees at Massachusetts prisons. State prisons contract with companies that charge up to 12 cents a minute on in-state calls and up to 16 cents a minute on out-of-state calls with higher rates at county jails.
She said lawmakers told her they don’t think they can get to it this session, which has been extended past July 31.
“The no-cost bill is still viable and we expect it to be passed as a way to make the basic conditions of people’s lives better now,” James said. “The stalling of this simple bill by legislators and sheriffs across the commonwealth is yet another example of law enforcement organizing themselves to pushback and thwart the passing of the most basic reforms.”