Saturday, June 22, 2024

A protest marking six months since the killing of Arif Sayed Faisal is held Saturday in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Adria Pray)

A demonstration Saturday in Harvard Square marked six months since the killing of 20-year-old Cambridgeport resident Arif Sayed Faisal, and the first since a June 26 memo from police commissioner Christine Elow saying the city was barred from identifying the Cambridge officer who shot him. 

Faisal, while suffering a mental health crisis Jan. 4 and holding a large knife to self-harm, was shot when he moved toward police with it in hand, police said.

Saturday’s demonstration, organized by members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Bangladesh Association of New England and the Boston South Asian Coalition, repeated calls for justice for the 20-year-old Bangladeshi University of Massachusetts at Boston student that are complicated by the memo.

The memo cites a protection order levied by an inquest judge that prohibits information from the case, including the officer’s identity, to be disclosed to the public until an investigation is complete; the district attorney files a certificate of no prosecution; a grand jury returns a no bill; or a judge in a Superior Court determines that no criminal trial is likely. The memo also blocks the release of the name on the grounds of a federal right to privacy.

The couple of dozen demonstrators on Saturday said they opposed the ruling.

“The police are so much more powerful than individual citizens, so they should actually have extra transparency, extra accountability, because they are in possession of so much lethal force in society where none of the people in the society have access to that kind of lethal force,” said Somnath, a co-founder of the Boston South Asian Coalition who asked that their last name be withheld. “The idea is not for harm to come to them. The idea is to hold them accountable, know the history of the [individual].”

Police officials have said only that the officer involved in the shooting is a seven-year veteran of the force with no complaints on his record. The officer is on paid leave from Cambridge police duty while investigations are underway.

Four demands

The protest organizers and other groups have united around four key demands: releasing an unredacted police report about the shooting; and identifying, firing and prosecuting all officers involved. 

Over the past months, it has been primarily the Party for Socialism and Liberation, with a membership that includes many students and educators, that has been most vocal and prominent in calling for those goals. The PSL has demonstrated in front of Cambridge City Hall, disrupted City Council meetings and met with the city manager.

“[The South Asian organizations have] been around and haven’t always gotten as much credit as they deserve,” PSL organizer Matthew Kennedy said.

Alongside chants calling for a reformed policing system, demands for justice for Faisal and for the identification of the officer, organizers such as Suhail Purkar, a member of BSAC and PSL, criticized the implementation of body cameras the Cambridge police had adopted in the wake of the killing. “This itself is a half measure. I don’t see Cambridge police with body cameras yet, by the way, and it’s been six months of their half measure,” he said.

“What assurances do we have?”

According to several organizers at the rally, Purkar has been the key liaison between BSAC and Faisal’s parents since the beginning of the movement. Faisal’s parents are supportive of the rallies and demonstrations hosted to raise awareness of their son’s case, he said. An aunt and uncle were in attendance at Saturday’s protest.

“What assurances do we have from the City Council that not only will we get justice for Faisal, but that this will never happen again? They refused to even agree to the basic demand to release the names this time around,” Purkar said. “The only reason they even addressed it is because there are hundreds and thousands of people who are demanding justice.”

Some city officials have come out in support of the demonstrators’ goals in recent months. Cambridge city councillor Quinton Zondervan filed a policy order in May advocating for the release of the names of the officers involved. 

Skeptical over official story

Elow and city solicitor Nancy Glowa acknowledged in June the public interest in the name of the officer and that the shooting was an unfortunate incident that would be learned from, but said the judge’s order must be followed.

“I really felt like if that was the barrier, they would have said that a long time ago, because if you look at the meeting itself the commissioner was surprised,” Kennedy said of the judge’s ruling that bars identifying the officer who shot Faisal. “They’re going to find any excuses that they possibly can to not lose. It’s very clear they don’t want to do this.”

Kennedy hopes the council sees the continued demonstrations as a collective, communal effort to seek justice.

“It’s just a mystery to all of us how a young man who was harming himself was being chased by the police. And, in a few minutes, became a threat to the community, became a threat to five big police officers,” Somnath said. “How does that [become] a threat to the community where he had to be shot five times in the chest?”

This post was updated July 9, 2023, to correct the name of organizations at the protest, add an attribution for police officers’ recounting of Arif Sayed Faisal’s actions Jan. 4 and say that Faisal’s parents haven’t attended each demonstration. It was updated July 10, 2023, to note an aunt and uncle of Faisal attended the Saturday protest.