Last week more than a thousand people rallied in the shadow of Boston Police Department headquarters. Under a banner reading, “MASS ACTION AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY,” also the name of the group which organized the event, protesters harangued authorities for policies and attitudes that hurt communities of color. Demonstrators of various backgrounds chanted, “JAIL THOSE KILLER COPS,” and mourned the one-year anniversary of the loss of Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in a Texas jail cell after being brutalized by her arresting officer during a traffic stop. Afterward, they took to the streets. Peacefully.
The “Unity March Against Police Terror,” as the rally was officially billed, also drew impassioned speakers, among them the mother of Burrell Ramsey-White, a 26-year-old from Dorchester who was killed by a cop after a traffic stop in 2012 (the family still contests the circumstances as confirmed by the police and the Suffolk County District Attorney, who both claim findings show that Ramsey-White brandished a gun). Listening to her and others who have dealt directly with police violence in Boston, it struck me that there are two wildly diverging narratives around the issue—on one side, the claim is that the Hub stands far apart from all the controversy around unjust police practices around the country; on the other side, represented at the massive rally last week, people have attempted to spread news about problems in Mass for years, but are generally told that their concerns are fraught.
There are no absolutes in this discussion. Certainly not every local law enforcement officer believes that Boston cops are safe above the fray, while not all people of color and their allies feel that certain groups are targeted. Though my sympathies are clearly with the Black Lives Matter movement, I am both white and not a cop, and don’t purport to speak for any of the aforementioned groups (full disclosure: I am a victim of police brutality, though at the hands of New York City officers). With that said, as an observer and chronicler of these dueling Boston narratives for more than a decade, I feel compelled to identify them in detail. Because while I hear lots of talk about getting people together, on the same page, and other niceties, in reality I see the distance between sectarian scopes widening.
In the blue view, for example, Boston is the bright exemption when it comes to rampant bad behavior on the force, and police here typically respect the civil rights of residents. In a contrary view, and according to a 2014 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts as well as a 2015 study by researchers at Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the University of Massachusetts, “the Boston Police Department has engaged in racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices that have disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities.” (Another font of information on the topic is Roxbury activist Jamarhl Crawford, who hosted a forum last year titled, Black & Blue: The Relationship Between the BPD & Communities of Color.)
There is also polling that reflects these rival black and blue scenarios, and that reveals some of the granular philosophical rifts afoot. While 73 percent of respondents in a poll done by the MassINC Polling Group (and commissioned by The Boston Foundation) view police favorably, broken down by race, only 65 percent of black residents have that opinion compared to 82 percent of whites. Similar trends emerge when people are asked about whether police treat “minorities” (their word) fairly, and when faced with the question of whether race relations have improved over the past decade. As for the blue view, it’s safe to say that it’s reflected in the 38 percent of residents who don’t believe that racism remains a serious problem in Boston.
Ask those who see these issues through the window of the black community, and they will tell you that it’s bad when cops use lethal force. Impugn anyone who has a blue hue, however, and you’ll learn that killings have historically begotten ceremonies and awards to honor the shooters. Like when, despite mounting tension in Missouri following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, then-Mass Governor Deval Patrick and the State Police pinned a medal on three Lynn officers who shot and killed Denis Reynoso, a veteran of the Iraq War who was reportedly suffering from PTSD.
There are also contradictory economic arguments. From the black viewpoint, it appears that too much city money is spent on policing, while not nearly enough resources are set aside for schools and to help resolve root strains like poverty that lead to crime. As proof, one might note that nearly 250 Boston cops made more than $200,000 last year, while nearly two-dozen officers made almost three times more in overtime alone than more than half of Boston families reported in overall income. Blue is always out for green though, with the latest pay hike going to detectives, who earlier this year were awarded a retroactive 29 percent raise covering all the way back to 2010.
According to blue, or at least to BPD Commissioner William Evans on the WGBH show Boston Public Radio last week, “there’s no one easier to work with” than his department. Through a black lens, his claim fails to withstand scrutiny. As was recently reported by Britni de la Cretaz in DigBoston: “As the city prepares to roll [its body camera] pilot program out, [BPD brass has] deliberately avoided the community members who want to help them get it right.” Namely, the Boston Police Camera Action Team. According to activists, writes de la Cretaz, “This means that the body camera pilot program has been created without the input or approval from the voices in the community who know the most about the issue.”
It’s all about perspective. On the blue side they have helicopters—of the law enforcement type, as well as those belonging to the privileged news outlets which reprint law enforcement press releases. They have a unique view of events that are transpiring, like last week’s protest, though such an angle appears to be insufficient in terms of detail or nuance. From the other side, however, which is closer to the ground, it’s clear that such assemblies are not just faceless mobs, but rather rich collections of concerned individuals with legitimate messages. One that caught my eye near BPD headquarters: “AM I THE NEXT HASHTAG?”
As you can probably tell, there is no problem at all with police violence in Boston. So long as you are wearing blue blockers. Otherwise, when peering through a different lens, the story is more black and white, and it’s a lot less flattering.