Saturday, April 20, 2024

Members of the Bangladeshi community protest at Cambridge City Hall on Thursday include family of Sayed Faisal. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Anguished members of the Bangladeshi community demanded justice and accountability at a City Hall demonstration Thursday to protest the Wednesday police killing of 20-year-old Sayed Faisal of Cambridge. Police said they shot Faisal when he rushed toward them carrying a machetelike knife, which he had been using to injure himself.

It was the first time in more than 20 years that Cambridge police killed someone and the first time since 2015 that an officer fired at a person. In the 2015 incident, the officer and the suspect both shot their weapons but neither was hit, Cambridge police spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said. The previous police-involved fatality was in 2002, he said.

The demonstration Thursday was organized by the Bangladesh Association of New England, based in Medford. About 50 people, including Faisal’s father, crowded into the first-floor City Hall lobby and later gathered in front of the building on a raw, damp day. Many said they knew the young man and his family, who lived at Putnam Green, an affordable-housing project at 625 Putnam Ave., Cambridgeport.

The demonstrators were shocked and saddened, with some angrier than others. Iqbal Yousuf said roughly 70 percent of Bangladeshis in Massachusetts live in Cambridge – estimated by one community leader as 5,000 to 6,000 people – giving them a sense of comfort in a diverse city. “Cambridge holds the largest Bengali community in Massachusetts, and you’re always [feeling] safe and welcomed in the city. Now it’s time for the city to show and prove” that the community’s trust is justified, Yousuf said.

Yousuf said community members don’t believe police shot Faisal because of his ethnicity. “We know that Cambridge police have done so many good things, particularly the Marathon bombing …They have sacrificed, their members have sacrificed their lives,” he said. But “things should be transparent, and we need to investigate why such a young boy has to [lose] his life. What prompted this incident?”

Another speaker, though, drew cheers when he said that “this is not the first time that a proud black body has fallen to the white supremacist institution, which is the police in this country. We need to keep in mind that the police and the resources they have is not for the protection or security of citizens like you and me. The institution is there to support and protect the institutions of white supremacy and white killings.”

Pervin Chowdhury of Medford, president of Bangladesh Association of New England, said “Police are supposed to save lives, not kill someone,” and that if police were not held accountable for Faisal’s death the Bangladeshi community would “shut down the city.”

Chase and a confrontation

The window Sayed Faisal reportedly jumped out of Wednesday. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

The incident began around 1:15 p.m. when Faisal jumped through a first-floor window in his apartment house, shattering it, according to a statement by police and Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan. A resident in a neighboring building called 911, saying Faisal had a machete and was cutting himself with the knife and with broken glass.

Faisal ran from police when they showed up, holding what was later identified as a kukri knife, the statement said. Live Boston 617, which identifies itself as a nonprofit group organized to support first responders such as police, posted a recording it said was of police communications during the incident.

The recording has one officer describing Faisal initially as a “skinny Asian kid” wearing gray sweatpants. Police dispatchers first identified him as white.

During the chase Faisal continued to injure himself and at one point held the knife to his own neck, according to the recording, which did not include details of the final confrontation with officers. There was a report of “shots fired” about 10 minutes into the recording.

Police said that when they cornered Faisal at 59 Chestnut St. and he didn’t put down the knife, they shot a foam-tipped projectile at him – but it didn’t affect him. Warnick identified the “less-than-lethal” weapon as an Exact Impact brand “sponge” and said it is the only alternative weapon Cambridge police have. In 2020 police had a launcher that shot rubber bullets. Although a “sponge” might sound benign, police procedures for using it warn it can be lethal if fired from less than 5 feet, and recommend caution if fired from less than 45 feet.

Police have said they have a team of specially trained officers to deal with people in psychological crisis, including two social workers. The team, called the Clinical Support Unit, doesn’t respond to situations involving violence, Warnick said. “Even in other communities” where both police and civilian experts respond, “clinicians often stand back from an evaluation if a scene is not considered safe for them and there is a significant threat level,” he said.

A new city Community Safety Department, which sends civilians to people in crisis in some instances, won’t send them to scenes involving violence, emergency services director Christina Giacobbe said at a recent City Council committee meeting. In any case, the department won’t operate until next month or March.The head of the Heart citizen group that wanted to take on that job didn’t respond to an email Thursday, and its website doesn’t include a phone number.

Call for transparency

Police near the scene of Sayed Faisal’s death on Wednesday in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Brandon Constant)

Protesters questioned why Cambridge police did not have body cameras that would have confirmed what happened to Faisal. ”The city of Cambridge, they don’t have [police] body cameras?” Chowdhury said. “I can’t believe that.”

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon and councillor Patty Nolan observed the protest, and Mallon said she had spoken to organizers as a representative of Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who is out of the country. Councillor Quinton Zondervan arrived in time for the latter part of the protest.

Former police commissioner Branville Bard Jr. supported equipping police with body cameras, and councillors have discussed it for the past two years, with no change. Warnick said changes won’t happen “without support from the wider community.” Zondervan has questioned body cameras because of a potential threat to privacy; Mallon has supported cameras.

Street cameras are also banned in Cambridge as part of an anti-surveillance policy adopted by the council, but police often find video from businesses with security systems and homes with smart-home devices such as doorbells equipped with cameras.

“A chill guy”

A friend of Sayed Faisal breaks down at a Thursday protest at Cambridge City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Protesters also questioned the police description of Faisal as being in psychological crisis. Faisal, who came to the United States with his family in 2015, graduated from Somerville High School, three of his friends said. He attended the University of Massachusetts, Boston, from fall 2020 to spring 2022 and was studying computer engineering, a university official said. During the protest, it was said he worked at a CVS.

His friends said he was taking a gap year. Far from being disturbed, he spent New Year’s Eve with the three friends and was in good spirits, they said. “He was a chill guy,” said Aman Khali, 21. He played cricket and soccer with his friends and talked on enrolling in the U.S. military, they said. One friend, though, said Faisal tended to hide his feelings. A speaker later in the rally referred to Faisal as being in a mental health crisis and “suicidal” without visible reaction from those standing around him, including Faisal’s father.

Khali said Faisal had texted him Monday saying he was planning “outdoor activities” but didn’t answer a phone call.

Sara Barcan, the executive director of Homeowners Rehab Inc., the affordable-housing agency that owns Putnam Green, said Faisal’s family moved in in the fall of 2020 and that there have been “no prior incidents” involving the family. “Our hearts go out to his family as they are processing this,” she said. Police said Faisal was not known to them before Wednesday.

The property manager wrote to tenants offering the opportunity to see therapists at the Riverside Community Care trauma center, Barcan said. Group or individual sessions will be free. The letter gave contact information, but management has not set up any sessions, she said.