Sunday, May 19, 2024

A protest erupts during a Thursday meeting about the Jan. 4 death of Sayed Faisal.(Photo: Marc Levy)

Anger, grief and protest dominated a Thursday meeting city officials called about the police shooting of Sayed Faisal on Jan. 4. Few questions were answered and protesters repeatedly interrupted the speakers – City Manager Yi-An Huang, police commissioner Christine Elow and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan – with shouts and chants.

As the meeting at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School auditorium was about to begin, an organized chant of “Justice for Faisal” broke out and continued for several minutes as the officials on the stage waited. People in the audience heckled and called out questions as officials spoke, while others waited in line behind microphones to ask their own questions. The “Justice for Faisal” chant returned periodically, sometimes drowning out officials.

Before long, protesters who had raised a large banner reading “Justice for Faisal” in the audience carried it forward and stood in front of the room, putting the officials on stage and the banner in the same picture. One man climbed onto the stage holding a sign. The banner and sign remained that way, with Ryan, Elow and Huang ignoring the situation, until the end of the meeting.

It was a continuation and even escalation of the anger and tension that has gripped many residents since a police officer shot Faisal, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant, in a backyard on Chestnut Street in Cambridgeport. He died at a hospital. Police said Faisal had been seen cutting his wrists and injuring himself with broken glass and a large knife and ran from them when they arrived beside his apartment building at 625 Putnam Ave. According to police, Faisal refused to drop the knife after an officer fired a “less-than-lethal” foam-tipped projectile called a sponge round at him. Police said he was shot after he continued to move toward officers holding the knife.

The Thursday meeting draws a crowd to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, questions grew more pointed and interruptions increased as the event progressed. When Ryan described the expected investigatory process, including an inquest by a judge designed to make it more independent, an audience member shouted: “Why don’t you charge the officer with murder?” Ryan continued to speak while people yelled, “No justice, no peace.”

An emotional Elow said she has a son the same age as Faisal. Addressing the Bangladesh community, she said: “You have lost one of your sons.” From the audience came: “Your hands are culpable.” When she said the police department will “continue to focus on the overall health, safety and well-being of our community,” one person commented: “He murdered a kid” and another said: “No one trusts you.” Each official onstage was told to quit their jobs. One or more members of the audience squeezed toys to make a persistent duck noise as officials spoke, mocking their earnestness and solemnity. The noises were most insistent when Elow spoke.

At one point, Huang, the city manager, observed: “We are having a community meeting and a protest at the same time. I understand that.” It didn’t assuage the crowd. The retort: “This [meeting] was for you to pretend you were doing something.”

Faisal, who came to the United States with his family in 2015, graduated from Somerville High School and studied computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, from the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2022. Some of his friends said he was taking a “gap year” and working at CVS, and had shown no signs of mental illness. After his death, the Welcome Project, a program to train bilingual high school students to become professional interpreters within their community, said Faisal had been “one of our most valued and treasured students” during his four years there, and had helped paint a mural along Somerville’s Mystic Avenue.

Complaints for Cambridge police

A speaker shares her family’s experience with police as city officials Brian Corr, Police commissioner Christine Elow and City Manager Yi-An Huang listen – joined onstage by protesters. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Though Bangladeshi and Muslim organizations have led the protests, several questioners Thursday were black residents complaining of mistreatment by Cambridge police. The most prominent, Ken Reeves, a former city councillor and mayor, said the Cambridge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he heads, is investigating. The Black Response Cambridge, the organization of young people formed to shift police funding to social work after the police killing of George Floyd, publicized a demonstration at Cambridge City Hall.

One black man said he had often been stopped by Cambridge police while carrying on with his daily life and doing nothing wrong. “What are you doing to stop this?” he asked police commissioner Elow.

When she began talking about a police department project to “interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline” for teenagers, the man interrupted. “Stop!” he said. “I’m not in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“What about people doing their everyday life? What are you doing to stop harassing us?” he said. “I’m not in need of police,” the man concluded, “but I’m being policed.”

People at the Thursday meeting asked several questions that have been a theme in the reaction by the Bangladeshi community and others, particularly why police could not have disarmed Faisal without shooting him at all; why they had not shot to disable instead of to kill; and why the officer who shot him was on paid leave. Speakers didn’t answer these questions, except to say that putting an officer involved in lethal force on paid leave while an investigation is going on is a city police policy. Similarly, when questioners demanded the officer’s name, Elow said it is city policy not to identify him until the investigation ends.

District attorney speaks

Middlesex County district attorney Marian Ryan speaks with media Thursday after the meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Still some new information emerged: Investigators have not yet had a “complete conversation” about Faisal’s death with his family, Ryan said, because seven days after it occurred “the family is not in a place” to hold one.

That’s one reason authorities are not releasing facts they’ve found, Ryan said – because they don’t want relatives to hear about them before they’ve disclosed them to the family.

Ryan also said her office changed procedures in 2018 around investigating police-involved deaths. Instead of the DA investigating and deciding whether to charge an officer on its own, a judge conducts an independent inquest into the death and makes a finding on whether there was criminal conduct, and, if so, who is responsible.

If the judge decides an officer acted criminally, her office will take the case to a grand jury and charge the officer, Ryan said. In an inquest, “people know that what’s being said is being said under oath,” she said. “It’s designed to be a process that helps a community.” So far, there have been three inquests, with one resulting in charges, Ryan said. One more began Wednesday and a fifth is scheduled in February, she said. It will take at least seven to eight months to complete the process in Faisal’s death, mainly because of the time required to get reports from the medical examiner and other forensic information.

The website for her office includes all records of the inquest after the case concludes, Ryan said. Other Massachusetts counties and most other U.S.  jurisdictions leave it up to the district attorney whether to prosecute a police officer, she said.

Protests and meetings

Ryan’s spokesperson, Meghan Kelly, confirmed Thursday that police weren’t the only ones who responded to a 911 call from a neighbor reporting that Faisal had jumped through a first-floor window, shattering it, and was cutting his wrists and injuring himself with broken glass and a large knife, later identified as a kukri. Paramedics also showed up.

It is not known what they did and how or if they were involved in the chase as Faisal reportedly ran through the Cambridgeport neighborhood.

The Bangladesh Association of New England – members say Cambridge is home to 70 percent of Bangladeshis in Massachusetts – has led reaction to Faisal’s death. It has held two demonstrations at City Hall, the second attracting 400 people. The organization plans another protest in Harvard Square at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The City Council plans a special meeting from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss “protocols, processes and training” of the police department. Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, herself a South Asian immigrant, spoke briefly at the Thursday meeting, saying Ryan has “full jurisdiction” over the investigation and the Cambridge police are cooperating. “To Faisal’s family and friends, my heart breaks with you,” she said.