Protest draws thousands to hear the challenges of reforming police, education, other institutions
The institutions of Cambridge and the city itself drew an unflinching look Sunday at a peaceful protest on Cambridge Common, with speakers talking in turn about the treatment of people of color at the hands of police, schools, hospitals, the church and in the halls of finance.
Some 2,000 people turned out for the three-hour gathering of mourning and activism, which spoke throughout the names of victims of police and white supremacist violence such as Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. The latest triumvirate of the slain was prominent in colorful art that was raised above a largely black-clad crowd: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, whose nearly nine minutes dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked days of nationwide protests and got solemn recognition Sunday: Late in the event, organizers called for silence for the same amount of time that Floyd lay dying.
Update on June 10, 2020: There were 3,500 people present at Sunday’s protest, Police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. told the City Council, upgrading the estimate provided at the event by other officers.
The protest was put together over the past week by activists of color and the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force in consultation with police and the offices of the mayor and city manager. It was led by residents and youth activists Niko Emack and Elijah Booker, and the youth of Cambridge heard numerous calls to action throughout.
One came as Bishop Brian Greene of Pentecostal Tabernacle asked the crowd who among it knew the name Darnella Frazier. Only a couple of hands rose.
“If it were not for the 17-year-old black girl, you would have never heard about George Floyd,” Greene said, affirming that it was Frazier who took the video of Floyd’s death on Memorial Day that has led to a renewed international movement for racial justice and against the militarization of police. “This 17-year old girl had the presence of mind to take out her cellphone and did a great thing – and started a revolution simply because she decided not to just sit there and watch something happen. She decided, at 17 years old, to make something happen.”
“You are created to do great things,” he told the crowd, where many raised their hands to identify themselves as being 22 or younger.
But speakers – and audience members emboldened to speak back at them – agreed there was much to do just in “our community, our petty Cambridge bubble,” as School Committee member Ayesha Wilson referred to it in her turn on the dais: where a comprehensive report on closing the academic achievement gap was written in 1987 without impact, a black-focused curriculum has been shelved and students of color continue to be directed toward deceptively named “college prep” classes, as opposed to Advanced Placement classes that are full of white faces.
Nearby Harvard University also had much to answer for as the home of eugenicist Louis Agassiz, the “broken windows” theory of policing and other racist structures, said Tony Clark, of My Brother’s Keeper.
Another prominent adult speaker was police commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr., who is black, who praised his own department for already being near full compliance with the “8 Can’t Wait” reform proposals for police nationwide. “One principle – the duty to intervene and stop excessive force by officers – our policies fell a bit short on. Our policy mentioned that you could be held criminally and civilly liable for failing to intervene, but our policy did not require that you actually intervene. That is, until tomorrow morning, when my formal amendment goes into effect,” Bard said.
The announcement drew cheers, but Bard was also heckled from the crowd as he credited the department with being at the top in terms of training to combat racial bias. Emack had to remind the crowd of the “positive vibe” wanted for the event – though he earlier acknowledged that the audience and perhaps even the list of speakers was short several people who stayed away because it was organized with police and other officials.
“As much as I would love to go rogue and lead the revolution, I don’t have that privilege. Neither does Elijah and neither does any of the other African Americans and [My Brother’s Keeper]. We can’t rebel against the city when there’s still so much work to be done,” Emack said.
But the issue did not go away.
When Isaac Yablo took the stage, it was as “a tired black man” but also as a researcher who said he had devoted his life to studying manipulative tactics used by police to control communities of color. “Some of those tactics include hiring a black police commissioner. On a city level, sometimes that entails [electing from among city councillors] a person of color female Muslim mayor,” Yablo said, referring to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who had given brief remarks earlier. “Unfortunate, that’s not enough … The problem is not with the intentions of the police commissioner. The problem is the system police officers work under every single day.”
“Today, speaking directly to the police, I’m not here to attack you. I’m just educated to know when you’re bullshitting,” Yablo said.
People in the crowd identified the lack of Cantabrigians in the police and fire departments as a problem, and Yablo agreed the city “would be farther along” if people of color raised here were able to stay and and serve.
The gentrification of the city and squeezing out of residents of color was reflected also in the lack of small businesses. “We need more black-owned businesses in Cambridge. Gentrification is at an all-time high in this city, and small businesses cannot exist or flourish here. We need to bring down the rent of these buildings,” Jordan Poindexter said.
Nellisha Leonce, one of many Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduates who attended and spoke, and now at Howard University, said that some might think that since black people built America, it was their right to tear it down. “Wrong,” she said, urging people to instead build up the community: “Find a black business this week, and put your dollar toward the black establishment. And not just this week.”
Poindexter said she was entering the health profession, in which health disparities – including the Covid-19 cases that were affecting far more people of color than white people – stood out as another example of institutionalized racism.
She was followed by Tia Tucker, a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and one of several people roaming the Common in the distinctive long white coat of the doctor. “I’m one of the very few black female physicians in this country, and I want to celebrate that so bad. In some places my ascendance in this capitalist nightmare is evidence that there is no racism,” Tucker said. “But I want to remind myself and I want to remind you guys, once I take this costume off … this is who I am.” Taking off the coat, she spoke of being as vulnerable to police harassment and brutality as anyone.
When the Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer of First Parish in Cambridge Unitarian Universalist stood to speak, it was with a similar message, noting that generally Unitarian Universalist ministers don’t wear the distinctive collar of the clergy – but he did, because “when I go out in my black skin, in my relatively youthful face, without this collar, I am a target. I am a target for police brutality. I am a target for profiling. I’m a target for all kinds of lousy questions and abuse. No one knows the letters R-E-V reverend is in front of my name without this collar,” Dyer said.
As the church’s first black minister in 387 years, he said, he got reminders “all the time that the most important part of what I just said is ‘black.’” And he noted that while he’d walked over from the church that formed the Harvard Square backdrop for the protest, his question for the audience was: “Where is the church? Where is the church?”
“If we preach about acceptance, why hasn’t the world changed yet?” Dyer asked, answering his own questions by saying church was not the building, but the people who had to make the change on their own.
The leadoff speaker was the Task Force’s Ty Bellitti, who was blunt in signaling to the gathered youth the immensity of reforming all these aspects of society: “I want you to know that we see you. We hear you, and we love you. And we failed you,” Bellitti said. “Unfortunately, the pain you’re feeling is the same pain folks have felt for centuries. This pain and trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next, and I want to let you know that we adults are sorry and we will do better. We must do better.”
Protests have been held before, he said.
“This is not new. However, I feel this is different. I feel like we’re on the brink of extreme reform,” he said, though insisting we must “stop lying to our children and ourselves. When we tell them that we’re doing the best we can, look at us. Look at us as a nation, as a people. Is this really the best we can do?”
“If so, we need to get in the backseat and let the young people drive,” he said.
The Sunday event was preceded by protests Saturday, including a march and nine-minute die-in through Cambridge that was captured in Porter Square by Jane Roberts, an editor and fact-checker at the Cambridge-based nonprofit Undark Magazine.