Mayor Martin J. Walsh pledged Thursday to listen deeply to Black residents and make Boston a national leader in battling racism, a promise that city leaders of color said must be followed up with immediate action, as demonstrators once again took to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic inequities.
Speaking at a news conference outside City Hall, Walsh vowed Boston would lead "in healing the wounds of our history and building a more just future.”
Walsh cautioned against quickly moving on from social justice priorities once the initial controversy passes.
The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old handcuffed Black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, “is painful to watch," said Walsh, who noted that after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of Michael Brown, “nothing happened in Boston and we turned the page."
“We can’t turn the page,” he said Thursday.
Several city councilors said that listening and aspiration must be tied to significant and quick reforms to police practices, procurement, and planning in the city, which has a racially troubled history.
“It’s not good enough. I don’t need pledges, I don’t need hashtags, I don’t need ideals,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards of Walsh’s pledge. “He has the power to make immediate and complete change right now.”
One proposal that Edwards favors is requiring the Boston Planning & Development Agency to assess plans with an equity lens, which would help prevent “another Seaport from happening.”
The Seaport is one of the city’s whitest neighborhoods and is considered to be a prime example of how the city’s Black residents and businesses missed out on the considerable wealth created by Boston’s building boom.
On Thursday, Walsh encouraged "everyone who is white to listen, listen to your Black neighbors, listen to Black Bostonians who are protesting.”
However, Councilor Michelle Wu said, “It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re going to listen.’ ”
She said the city could enact procurement reform so that public contracts reflect the goal of closing the racial wealth divide. She also called for changes to the city’s development system so that “true community-centered planning” and equity were a focus.
“It’s a time of action, and we have plenty of ideas to act on, we just have to do it,” said Wu.
Walsh’s plea followed several days of protests in Boston and around the country over the death of Floyd.
Walsh invoked his recovery from alcoholism, citing the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“What we’re dealing with in Boston is about wisdom, wisdom to listen, wisdom to understand," said Walsh, who took office in 2014. "If you don’t understand right now, listen.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell called on Walsh to review Boston police’s use-of-force policies, and make changes to them within 60 days.
In a news release, Campbell asserted that Boston police should take steps to meet a number of recommended standards. She said, for example, that police are not required to deescalate situations where possible or required to stop excessive force used by other officers or report those incidents immediately.
“Now it’s time to go beyond words, and commit to real action,” said Campbell in the statement.
Boston police said Thursday that rules and regulations that govern the department already cover procedures and conduct that Campbell outlined. Walsh, in a statement responding to Campbell, said, “Now is a time to roll up our sleeves and get some real work done, not separately as the Mayor and City Council, but together as one government.”
Walsh’s office pointed out that earlier this year, the city put out a request-for-proposals seeking a consultant to help with developing and executing racial equity training for all 18,000 city employees, including Boston police and fire.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo supported the goal of making the city a national leader in the fight against racism but added that it is “imperative we ask what has the mayor done, and what will he do, to make that a reality?"
”Until there is an action plan to make that real, and accountability to that plan, we will never achieve that goal," said Arroyo.
Bishop John Borders, of Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist Church, said there needs to be “real intentionality” as to how contracts are awarded to small businesses in the city, how the banking system works for minorities, and how much funding and support community health centers in Boston receive.
Borders said he hoped Walsh could bring people to the table who make decisions in those arenas.
“If we really want to make the city an equitable place, we have to deal with the economy,” said Borders.
Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, welcomed the mayor’s commitment Thursday, though he wanted to hear more about his planned initiatives and priorities, saying the city’s Black community has been struggling to push its agenda for years.
“I’m happy the city is catching up to what Black people have been saying for generations, but at the end of the day it’s substance over symbolism,” he said. “In lieu of statements we want policies, we want you to follow through on the demands of organizers and activists. People have been declaring what they want, and loudly, for many, many years.”
Idowu had been at the forefront of the community push for the city to adopt a police body camera program, which is yet to be fully implemented, and more recently his organization has been advocating for Black businesses to have a fair share of the hundreds of millions of dollars handed out in city contracts. Last year, a City Council review found that less than 1 percent of the city’s $664 million in contracts in 2018 went to minority- or women-owned businesses.
“We always care about the day after, the day after they say ‘Black Lives Matter,' or that ‘we care about fighting racism,’ because the day after is the hard part — where you have to do something,” Idowu said.
Tanisha Sullivan, head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, similarly pressed for the city to lay out an agenda, pointing to reforms her organization has been advocating for for years: A civilian review board, with subpoena power, that can hold police officers accountable and training reforms.
She called for the removal of uniformed officers in schools, and an increase in restorative justice practices — criminal justice reforms that she said would root out systemic racism and confront police abuse.
“We are a nation in mourning. It is important to remember Black people have been mourning for generations,” she said. “Any person, any organization that wants to lead on dismantling systemic racism must do so through intentional legislative action and policy reform specifically designed to dismantle racism. Until that happens, there will continue to be symbolic knees on the necks of people of color in this city and across the nation.”
There have been protests in Boston for several days. On Thursday, there were demonstrations in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
A peaceful protest Sunday in Boston was marred when some people turned to violence and vandalism.
“Sunday night was a tough moment," Walsh said. “But this is a good week for our city. We cleaned it up, we’re helping small businesses get fixed up, we continue to listen to our Black community and push for equity and justice in all that we do."
Earlier this week, Boston police’s largest union accused Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins of recklessly labeling all police officers murderers and “implicitly” condoning violence against them, prompting Rollins to chide the labor group for what she said was its white “fragility.” On Thursday, Walsh was asked who was right.
“There’s no right side,” he said. “It’s about, we need to listen.”
Travis Anderson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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