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‘I have wounds that I’ll never lose.’ The state’s top political leaders of color press for change across all levels of government

Front row left to right: state Representative Russell Holmes, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and US Representative Ayanna Pressley, with other elected officials of color in Massachusetts government, stood on the State House steps to voice their support for those protesting against police brutality and racist violence against Black Americans.
Front row left to right: state Representative Russell Holmes, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and US Representative Ayanna Pressley, with other elected officials of color in Massachusetts government, stood on the State House steps to voice their support for those protesting against police brutality and racist violence against Black Americans.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said he was a teenager when, on a trip home from Providence, he found himself lost in an unfamiliar town around midnight, made a U-turn, and immediately saw the lights from a Massachusetts State Police cruiser pulling him over.

“Are you stupid?" Arroyo said the trooper asked, before telling him to get out of the car, patting him down, and pointing his gun at him. The trooper, he said, then repeated the question.

“Everybody here can express a story or a time in which they were made to feel unsafe or not human or they felt disrespected by law enforcement," Arroyo, now 32, said Tuesday, surrounded by the state’s top elected Black and Latino officials outside the State House. He ultimately was let go with a warning. “I don’t have a scar on me. I didn’t have a bruise. But I have wounds that I’ll never lose.”

Mobilized by the social unrest gripping the country, the state’s top political leaders of color gathered Tuesday to urge action across all levels of government, their words underwritten by a docket of resolutions, policies, and legislation they say are designed to transmute anger into change, increasing police accountability and chipping away at structural racism.

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As a group, they also sought to give voice to pain they say has been on display as thousands have marched across cities nationwide in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Today we are going to be precise and prescriptive because the hurt and harm and the injustices that have been put on us were very precise, were very prescriptive, were very targeted,” Representative Ayanna Pressley said outside the State House’s front gate, nearly 30 other elected officials of color around her.

Pressley calls for police accountability
Representative Ayanna Pressley is being joined by several state leaders to discuss reforms in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and others. (Photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Pressley, along with Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, introduced a resolution in the House to condemn police brutality, racial profiling, and the excessive use of force. The resolution also calls for specific policy action at the federal level to improve oversight and independent review of police departments.

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Pressley said that throughout too much of the country’s history, legislation had been used to discriminate against communities of color. She called for a reversal of that trend.

“If hurt and harm can be codified in lawmaking, then healing and justice should be codified in lawmaking,” Pressley said.

Several lawmakers began Tuesday at the African Meeting House on nearby Joy Street, before making the roughly 9-minute march in silence to the State House in honor of Floyd. Once gathered on Beacon Street, the group of federal, state, county, and local leaders stood quietly for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck.

All the while, one of the city’s busiest thruways remained remarkably silent. No passing cars beeped their horns or blared music, aided by the slimmed traffic wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Save for the tweeting of a bird or walk signal, no one spoke.

The event, organizers say, was a way to recognize the anger that has spilled into the streets, with protests sprouting around the country for more than a week.

City Counclior Ricardo Arroyo emotionally recounts an encounter with police
City Counclior Ricardo Arroyo emotionally recounts the time a Massachusetts State Police trooper pointed a gun at him.

In several instances, including in Boston on Sunday, peaceful demonstrations of thousands devolved into violence, leaving businesses destroyed and sparking clashes between police and looters — all while cameras roll.

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City and state officials, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker, have denounced the violence while offering support for those who peacefully protested the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. The Black community, Walsh said Monday, “is in real pain.”

Kim Janey, president of the Boston City Council, said she was “angered” by “the few individuals who used the downtown protests [on Sunday] as an opportunity to wreak havoc” — individuals she said might have been “interlopers” coopting the larger movement.

Another protest, organized by Violence in Boston Inc. and Black Lives Matter Boston, was held Tuesday night at Franklin Park. Several officials highlighted the legacy of organizing in Boston’s Black communities and emphasized that that legacy is not one of violence.

“Our organizers are community builders, not destroyers,” Pressley said. “The only thing we seek to destroy and to actively dismantle is systemic racism.”

Janey called this a “critical time” in the country’s history.

“I’m thankful for this community, for this village. I’m grateful to those who have taken to the streets,” Janey said. “Roxbury has a rich history of community organizers and activists who have worked for many years to build up our community, and we’re not about to let anyone come and tear it down.”

The State House gathering, dotted with calls for people to vote, reflected both the gains officials of color have made in some Massachusetts elected offices, and the ways they remain outnumbered in others.

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The Boston City Council features the most people of color in its history, welcoming this year its first Afro-Latina immigrant in Julia Mejia and electing Janey to president, the first in decades to represent Roxbury. Suffolk County’s top elected law enforcement officials, District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins, are both Black. Pressley became the first Black woman elected to the US House of Representatives in Massachusetts history after she beat a longtime incumbent in 2018.

But in a 200-member Legislature, just 13 lawmakers make up the Black & Latino caucus. Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz is the upper chamber’s lone member, and none are part of Democratic leadership in the House or Senate.

The leaders used the event to press state leadership, the vast majority of whom are white, to reconsider ideas that have been discussed for years but languished. Among them is legislation that would create a certification process for police, and another establishing a state office of diversity.

Laced throughout the news conference were threads of frustration and calls for a louder voice at the table of power.

“It is now a time for our colleagues to listen to Black people," said state Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat. “When we have as few people of color in the State House as we have, our agenda just doesn’t seem to move the way we’d like it to move."

Holmes nodded to the fact that Senate President Karen E. Spilka, who is white, attended Tuesday’s press conference.

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“We really call on the speaker,” he said of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, with whom he’s clashed throughout the years. “This is nothing personal. But it always offends me when folks get bothered by the fact that I bring you facts. And so we are bringing you facts.”

DeLeo, in a statement, said he watched the press conference online at the “organizer’s suggestion,” and is committed to working with the caucus “in the long-term to develop policies” and ensure reforms from a 2018 criminal justice reform bill are fully implemented.

“We must have difficult conversations about race, bias, and accountability. We must work together. And we will,” DeLeo said.

Those who gathered at the State House made clear they would be little satisfied with promises alone.

“Until you have policy on the floor,” said Arroyo, “you do not get to just say, ‘I hear you, I see you’ — and go about your day.”

John R. Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore