“Getting real” about race and policing

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“Beyond consciousness raising, what is going to make you hurt enough to actually act?”

This was a question that our Racial Justice Program Manager, Paula Lima Jones, posed to the audience last¬†night at WBUR’s “Community Conversation” on gun violence, police-community relations, and race.

Paula and her co-panelists were given the nearly impossible charge of making sense of the senseless violence that rocked the national consciousness last week. While an “answer” is far from clear, the sixty people in the room certainly benefited from hearing the insights of Richard Claytor, who works with fathers, William Gross, the Boston Police Department Superintendent in Chief and the first black Chief on the force, Segun Idowu, leader of the group advocating for body cameras on Boston Police, Paula Lima Jones who runs our Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity, and moderator¬†Jos√© Mass√≥, ¬†host of¬†¬°Con Salsa!¬†radio.

We share these insights with you here, in the hopes that they inspire you to care and take action even after the names of Alton Sterling and Fernando Castile are replaced by new tragedies. 

On Boston’s¬†historical context

Boston natives Claytor¬†and¬†Chief Gross¬†and long-time resident Mass√≥¬†remarked that the Boston of the 1970’s and 1980’s¬†is not the Boston that you see today. Back then, the police were not only more flagrantly and frequently targeting people of color, but further weren’t doing their job of keeping neighborhoods of color safe.¬†Claytor¬†brought up the reign of terror in the 1980’s of a drug dealer in Roxbury who called himself “God.”¬†He also shared that he attended over 60 funerals of young men of color from his community in just one year around that time, until he just couldn’t attend anymore. Chief Gross echoed having to make so many house calls to notify mothers that their sons had been killed. Claytor said that communities of color needed the police to protect them, and that isn’t what happened. Chief Gross also observed that nowadays when he has a heated interaction with a citizen who is “speaking passionately,” he is glad because back in the 1960’s people of color who spoke up would have faced fire hoses or dogs turned on them.

Claytor and Chief Gross also observed that racially-based violence is significantly less prevalent now. Bringing up the infamous Boston busing years, Claytor recalled having bus windows broken going through South Boston, because Southie residents knew there were black students on the bus. Chief Gross shared that back then you wouldn’t see interracial couples, and that at one point he even stopped an interracial couple to ask if they were okay or needed protection. But these days, he said, you see couples and families of all races mixing together, though Lima Jones and Idowu questioned whether that actually represents true progress.

On policing today – and body cameras

Chief Gross stated that policing in Boston is better today because police are told to use empathy, sympathy and respect when dealing with the community, acknowledging that people may be responding to past negative experiences. “You never dismiss anybody’s pain, ” he said. “That’s mistake number one.” He said that BPD¬†employs a community policing model that is focused on working with the community, including institutionalizing neighborhood visits and cross-cultural communication in the police training academy. Because of that, he says, traffic stops and arrests are actually down in Boston. He also emphasized that BPD is diversifying its force, but that it is difficult because veterans of foreign wars receive preference, and veterans of color often don’t apply for the police force due to negative stereotypes of how people of color are treated.

In regards to body cameras, Chief Gross¬†argued that the police shouldn’t force video filming on the community if the community isn’t ready for it. He even took out his cell phone and pointed it at the crowd for a demonstrative effect. Idowu countered that the police have been told by the community that the community does want police body cameras and the transparency and accountability that comes with them. He detailed the complex research process that the Body Camera Action Team has gone through to draft an effective policy, and shared that the current policy proposed by BPD lacks key elements like clear consequences for officers who do not use their cameras as directed. Idowu reported that the timeline for implementation keeps getting pushed back, but that body cameras are inevitable.¬†

On the role of white people

While Claytor remarked positively about the number of white people in the audience and¬†that 30 years ago, “you couldn’t get this many white people to come to Roxbury,” the other panelists had a more mixed response to the participation and role of white people.¬†In response to Claytor’s comment, Idowu expressed a concern that once white people start coming to neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, gentrification happens, communities of color are forced out, and the neigborhoods could become a place where people say “black people used to live here.”

Idowu stated¬†that he and other people of color can’t tell white people how to dismantle the system, as they instead have to focus on surviving it. Instead, he said, white people who want to be allies need to think about how to make systemic change through actions, through donations, through organizing, and then take the lead on recruiting other white people to do that. Similarly, Chief Gross said you can’t be “BFAD,” or “black for a day,” where people will come out and be involved in a march or protest but then not do anything for the cause the next day.

Lima Jones stated that in fighting racism, it is all hands on deck and that everyone needs to “find your lane and stay in it,” working in the area and community in which¬†you personally can be most effective.

On how we move forward

All panelists emphasized that while conversation has some value, just talking is not the answer.¬†Idowu remarked that, “we need to get real about race,” and that people are tired of the talk and have waited long enough for their rights. He quoted a Chinese proverb that “you don’t climb a tree to catch a fish” to describe how just talking can be a fruitless effort to achieve real system change. He referenced the police protest going on simultaneously down the street, how he wished he could be part of it, and that he¬†hoped that this conversation was not something that people simply felt good about having and moved on from.¬†Chief Gross similarly remarked¬†that some people come out and are involved for two weeks after a¬†tragedy happens but then disappear from the work, and that he hoped this audience wouldn’t follow that pattern.¬†

While¬†Lima Jones emphasized that sometimes talk is good¬†and that some communities haven’t had conversations about race and policing, she asked, “What is going to make you leave here tonight and not just think, ‘That was a good conversation?’ We’ve been talking about this for a long time.”

Masso closed with sharing that each day he prays to be brought together with other people who are working for the phyiscal, mental, economic, spiritual, cultural, and social health of others, and these panelists exemplify that. He is certainly correct, and we hope that more people will join their ranks in doing this important work day-to-day, not just after the latest tragedy. 

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The panel in a lighthearted moment (L-R): Richard Claytor (Richard Claytor Consulting), William Gross (Boston Police Department Superintendent in Chief), Paula Lima Jones (YW Boston Racial Justice Program Manager), and Segun Idowu (Boston Police Camera Action Team). Not pictured: moderator José Massó (¡Con Salsa!).