Police mass outside a rally held June 7 on Cambridge Common. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Our police department is better than many, which we can appreciate as the country undergoes upheaval coast to coast in the form of people of all colors rising up against police brutality and systemic racism. With even Nascar banning the Confederate flag and military leaders seeking to remove the name of traitorous generals from the bases where we train our soldiers, this is an important moment for people and their police. A Monmouth University poll shows 76 percent of us “consider racial and ethnic discrimination to be a big problem,” up 26 percentage points in less than five years, and that includes 71 percent of white people in the survey. A sociologist told The New York Times that the involvement of white people in the current work for justice is “utterly different from anything we’ve seen.”

It seems curious, then, how far out of his way our police commissioner went Wednesday toward trying to divide black from white in Cambridge.

Trying to discredit the hundreds of calls that came in during a Monday public comment session about stripping his department of some money and redirecting it toward human services, commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. called out the number of white voices he heard by saying, “I did not hear authentic voices on Monday night. I heard a bunch of people looking for their ‘I’m a black ally’ receipts, hoping that they could somehow use it to pay off white guilt.”

The Cambridge Observer posted a clip:

Bard, who is black, compared the calls Monday with the rally on Cambridge Common the previous day: “I was at the rally on Sunday afternoon, and I heard nearly 3,500 authentic voices, many of whom were black and brown.”

But anyone who was there with him on the Common knows there were many white faces too, and that it was at that rally with “authentic voices” where organizers exhorted people to call in Monday. Little did they know that the voices would turn inauthentic overnight.

By focusing on the white voices calling for change and branding them unworthy of being heard, Bard drained attention from – and demeaned – the black voices making similar critiques with even greater moral authority, and calling for the same things. That includes the esteemed Moses family, whose letter was introduced by Malaika Moses with praise for the councillors who introduced the motion striking at Bard’s budget: “We’d like to thank councillors [Quinton] Zondervan and [Jivan] Sobrinho-Wheeler for their courageous stance that the city budget is a moral document that reflects what we as a city truly value.”

What was even more surprising about Bard’s cynical attempt to deflect attention from the council motion was that it came only a month after a police superintendent under Bard’s command accidentally went public with an online complaint about a U.S. representative being “another liberal fucking jerk” – this in one of the most famously liberal cities in the United States, jeered or embraced depending on the speaker as “the People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Does this police force actually understand, respect or even like the city it patrols?

Though that errant tweet May 3 may be disconcerting in the contempt it reveals for the majority of Cantabrigians, surely we’ve all dabbled in regrettable rhetoric in online conversations we think are private. Bard’s comments were scripted, though, and read out purposefully and with intent to a City Hall chamber full of officials (some attending virtually) and an audience of potentially many hundreds of residents.

This is the same city leader and enforcer of laws who found a business owner guilty of criminal “threats” against fire inspectors while sitting as a license commissioner – even after hearing the inspectors themselves give testimony under oath that they knew the threats weren’t physical, but more about the likely filing of a complaint with their managers. Bard refused repeatedly to explain or justify his vote. The ACLU is now suing because of Bard’s judgment.

The conversation about the police budget picks up against Monday, surely with cooler heads. But it will be hard to shake questions about why Bard wrote and decided to speak those insulting but presumably heartfelt words. And, increasingly, about the judgment he shows.


This post was updated June 15, 2020, to correct a statement that the ACLU was suing the city; it is suing a state agency over the License Commission’s finding of a “threat.”