Thursday, June 20, 2024

Protesters outside Cambridge’s City Hall Annex on Tuesday. (Photo: Adri Pray)

Cambridge officials met with student leaders and representatives from the Party for Socialism and Liberation on Tuesday over the group’s demands in response to the Jan. 4 fatal police killing of Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi man experiencing a mental health crisis.

According to a PSL press release, City Manager Yi-An Huang and Public Safety Department interim director Elizabeth Speakman declined to release the names of the officers involved because their actions are not considered an act of “egregious misconduct.” Huang also acknowledged that he had been advised to “wait out” the movement, making it clear the city thought agreeing to a meeting would effectively end its protests, the group said. Some protests seeking “justice for Faisal” have disrupted City Council meetings.

Along with releasing the names, the Boston-based group demands that the city release an unredacted police incident report, fire all involved police officers immediately and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Organizer Matthew Kennedy said Huang delayed discussion of the group’s demands during the meeting, deflecting by asking questions about the group’s solutions for reform.

“We want reforms but we also want accountability. In our ideal system, there’s going to be accountability for when officers murder people,” Kennedy said in an interview. “We went through all four of our demands, asking basic yes or no questions. They kept giving us the run-around and eventually we decided to end the meeting because it was not going to be a productive discussion.”

He felt “insulted” when the meeting adjourned without the release of further information and didn’t think the officials listened to their concerns. “They kept veering away from the main topic of discussion,” Kennedy said. “They really thought very little of us, and I’m really hurt by that.” The meeting was held in the City Hall Annex on Broadway to accommodate the large number of participants.

Broader set of goals

In a statement Wednesday, Huang said his meeting the previous day with four Boston PSL organizers and 13 students from area colleges had mixed results for him too.

“I appreciate their passion and activism and the opportunity to have dialogue. We have a shared urgency to make meaningful improvements in policing, especially regarding how to respond to people in crisis,” Huang said. “I’m disappointed that Boston PSL is only interested in firing police officers without process and was uninterested in conversation about the how to achieve the change we all desire.”

Huang’s focus was important change made with city councillors, police commissioner Christine Elow and the community, he said, citing a review of law enforcement policies, procedures and training “with independent experts, implementing body cameras, using alternative responses, assessing less-than-lethal options, developing a procedural justice dashboard and strengthening the city’s mental health resources.”

Cambridge city councillor Patty Nolan said Tuesday that withholding an officer’s name until a charge is levied or an investigation completed is a long-standing if unwritten policy and “good governance.”

“That we should have an explicit written policy is exactly why the city manager, based on a request by the City Council, has already executed a contract for an outside group to come in and review our police practices,” she said in an interview. “It would be irresponsible to meet the demand of releasing a name now and an unredacted police report in response to one instance instead of having a discussion and dialogue with the entire community about what such a policy should look like.”

Investigations are underway

Immediately after Faisal’s killing, community members were concerned investigations wouldn’t be done until 2025. Instead, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan finished her investigation quickly, allowing a judicial inquest to begin Feb. 23. Alongside this, Cambridge police are holding an internal review and contracted the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum to conduct an independent review.

While there will always be concerns about how fully transparent the justice system is, Nolan said, Ryan is one of the most progressive district attorneys in the country and it is only once the investigation has closed that the city will know what consequences are appropriate.

“PSL’s demand of prosecuting the police officers to the full extent of the law? Well, we will certainly do that if laws were broken. We need to let the justice system play itself out,” she said. “I’m glad the city manager reached out to the PSL to sit down, which is what this administration does. It’s a welcome culture shift to engage in dialogue with people, including people who in my view are being irresponsible in their demands.”

Students from several schools

While the meeting took place, dozens of PSL members, community members and students from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Emerson College and more gathered in front of Cambridge City Hall to hear speeches before traveling down the block to the City Hall Annex to rally again. Tuesday marked the second consecutive show of community support organized by PSL this week, as Cambridge City Hall served as the location for a similar protest on Monday.

Samuel Evans, a first-year visual media arts student at Emerson College who attended both rallies, believes consistency is key to long-lasting change. While he said he was disappointed by the lack of answers for community members, he’s optimistic that the size and energy of the movement will force the city to reconsider its decisions.

“The city wants to do the least amount of work and ruffle the least amount of feathers possible,” he said. “They don’t really care about our moral arguments or our financial arguments or any of the good arguments we have.”