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‘This burning rage ... is real’: DA Rachael Rollins speaks out on race

“We have been saying this for decades, and you didn’t listen to us.”

“This burning rage that you are seeing — when you turn your TV on, or you hear in my voice — is real. People are fed up,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Monday.
“This burning rage that you are seeing — when you turn your TV on, or you hear in my voice — is real. People are fed up,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Monday gave a frank and emotional assessment of the response to the the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police, offering her view that the nationwide protests are grounded in the life experience — and anger — that she shares with millions.

“This burning rage that you are seeing — when you turn your TV on, or you hear in my voice — is real. People are fed up,” said Rollins.

“And to the white community that is now waking up to see this rage, we have been telling you this forever,” she continued. “We have been saying this since Colin Kaepernick took a knee. We have been saying this for decades, and you didn’t listen to us.

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“You didn’t care until you saw a video.”

Rollins, whose mother was the daughter of immigrants from Barbados and whose father was Irish-American, made the impassioned remarks outside City Hall at a news conference with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Police Commissioner William G. Gross, as local officials addressed the violence late Sunday that marred hours of peaceful protests earlier in the day.

“I am exhausted,” Rollins said as she took the microphone, adding a moment later. “We have looked around the country and seen police officers — people that Black lives pay taxes to fund these positions — shoot us in the street as if we were animals.”

Rollins paused and appeared to become emotional, then added, “I feel . . . as if my heart certainly does go out to the officers and civilians that were harmed last night. And we never wish that upon anyone. Those police officers showed up to do their job. They were pulled in on mandatory overtime. We don’t know what their opinions are with respect to what people were saying or doing. We would never wish them harm.”

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Rollins, who was elected on a platform of criminal justice reform, went on to praise Gross and Suffolk Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins, two other top law enforcement figures who are Black and who have expressed solidarity with Black Americans protesting racial injustice.

“We should be proud that we have a commissioner in Boston who uses his voice to say this is unacceptable, that we have a sheriff in Suffolk County that uses his voice to say this is unacceptable,” Rollins said.

But she said that not all police officers may share Gross’s understanding.

“I want to remind you, the commissioner is management,” she said. “And the commissioner is not the rank-and-file police officers that go out every single day and interact with our overwhelmingly poor Black and brown communities. And people are fed up and exhausted.”

Rollins suggested that the violence that struck Boston late Sunday was the result of both anger over the recent deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police or vigilantes, and frustration with countless other events in which Black Americans are singled out and treated with disrespect or cruelty.

“This is not just about George Floyd. Or Ahmaud Arbery,” she said, referring to the 25-year-old Black man from Georgia fatally shot by a white man in February while Arbery was jogging.

She went on to discuss the experiences of Christian Cooper, the Black New York bird-watcher who last week asked a woman to leash her dog and was reported in her 911 call as a “threatening” “African-American man,” and of Omar Jimenez, the Black CNN reporter arrested while covering unrest in Minneapolis.

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“Although Omar and Christian lived, it is a small glimpse into a CNN reporter being arrested and a Black man who happens to really like birds being criminalized by an entitled white woman who called the police and thinks that you are her personal servant,” she said.

“People are disgusted and outraged, and they should be,” she continued. “And it is completely ironic to have to say to you, ‘Please don’t be violent. Please keep your voice down. Please be silent and comply with all of the police’s requirements,’ when in fact, it’s those very people that murder us with impunity. But that’s where we are right now.”

Rollins said her staff is working with Boston police to prosecute people who “disgraced George Floyd’s memory by looting, and burning police cars, and throwing objects and debris. And in fact, even shooting at officers, I am told, in a drive-by situation. That is unacceptable. You will be prosecuted and held accountable.

“But I will also say that buildings can be fixed,” she continued. “And I am happy that those officers, I hope, will make it out of it, as will the civilians. There are lives that were stolen and people that were lynched and murdered. And they are never coming back. I hope that you take a minute to reflect what a terrible, terrible situation we are experiencing right now.”

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Rollins has at times courted controversy with her statements on race and class. She touched off controversy early last month when she expressed frustration with “privileged” white defense attorneys who don’t return calls from their “poor, Black and brown” clients in an appearance on public radio.

Rollins later walked back her remarks, saying she had been frustrated with a particular attorney and hadn’t meant to insult “the overwhelming majority of court-appointed lawyers who work tirelessly for their clients.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.