Police Commissioner William G. Gross came under withering criticism Thursday for meeting with controversial US Attorney General William Barr, prompting Gross to repeatedly defend his decision to visit with the nation’s top law enforcement official to discuss race and police relations.
Speaking in a harsh and at times emotional tone, Gross struck back at city councilors and public officials who sharply criticized him for agreeing to meet with Barr, who has been met with a wave of criticism amid the anti-police-brutality protests sweeping the nation.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to talk to anybody,” Gross said at a news conference Thursday evening. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to hide from a conversation with anyone.”
Gross said he gave Barr his views on police reform as commissioner and “as an African-American male.”
He said he told Barr, “Black and brown people and people of color are dying at the hands of the executive branch of the United States and the judicial system.”
Some city councilors turned to social media to denounce Barr’s visit to Boston, which apparently many did not know about in advance. It became widely known when the Department of Justice tweeted a photo of Barr and Gross together.
Councilor Michelle Wu wrote on Twitter, “Racism Is A Public Health Crisis . . . aka don’t welcome the person who dismisses systemic racism & creates/enforces racist policies through abuses of power!!! This is a disgrace to our city & a breach of trust to our communities.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey slammed her federal counterpart in a tweet.
“We are in court against Bill Barr constantly, and I can tell you this man does not care about justice or the people of Boston,” Healey said.
Late Thursday night, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Dorchester Democrat, demanded her own meeting with Barr in a tweet.
“So AG Barr let’s skip the pleasantries. Next time you set foot in my district I demand a face to face meeting where you look me in the eye and explain why you tear gassed peaceful protestors. Understood? I will have counsel present,” Pressley wrote, linking to Healey’s account.
So AG Barr let’s skip the pleasantries. Next time you set foot in my district I demand a face to face meeting where you look me in the eye and explain why you tear gassed peaceful protestors. Understood?— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) June 19, 2020
I will have counsel present @MassAGO
Barr has been widely criticized in recent weeks for his order to remove peaceful protesters outside the White House for a presidential photo op and the Justice Department’s decision to seek the dismissal of criminal charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
It was unclear whether Barr had other business in Boston on Thursday. He did not meet with US Attorney Andrew Lelling, according to Lelling’s spokeswoman. The visit was not listed on the Justice Department’s daily schedule provided to the press. The department did not immediately respond Thursday evening to an inquiry about Barr’s schedule.
Gross said Barr had requested the visit to see how Boston police operate and ask Gross’s opinions on policing issues nationwide.
Gross was aware of the political controversies around Barr, he said.
“But I know this too: People are dying out there. Civilians. Police. And as a Black man who’s a student of history — from W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — you never, ever run and hide from a conversation,” he said. “Because you’re supposed to have hard conversations when it is affecting the lives of the people of your community.”
“A lot of people know me. I’ll talk to anyone,” Gross said, noting he’s spoken to prisoners at MCI Concord about restorative justice. “I talk to people about race. So anyone that knows me, that puts out something negative without even calling me so I can . . . contextualize it, shame on you.”
Gross said there has been too little progress since the Jim Crow era of government-sanctioned discrimination and segregation.
“If nothing’s changed from then to now, people are going to shout, ‘Our lives matter!’ Black lives matter,' " Gross said. “It doesn’t mean they’re militant. It’s that the voice needs to be heard.”
Gross said he told Barr the nation needs police reform.
“You have to review your rules, your regulations, and your policies because we work for the people,” he said. “And right now the people do not trust us.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued a statement that did not address the Gross meeting specifically but denounced Barr and the Trump administration.
“In Boston, we believe in justice and equity, and protecting everyone in our community,” Walsh said. “I am working every day to combat the injustice and systemic racism that is at the root of so many of our challenges.
“Attorney General Barr and the Trump Administration do not share Boston’s values or my values,” the mayor’s statement said. “His actions and general lack of respect for people and their rights are a danger to our city and the future of our country.”
A spokeswoman for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association declined to comment on the visit.
Earlier in the day, a Justice Department spokeswoman announced the visit on Twitter after the fact, including the photo of Barr and Gross standing side by side and smiling, which sparked controversy on social media.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell tweeted, “Defund whatever the hell this is.”
In an e-mail to the Globe, Campbell added, “At a time when the public already feels a deep mistrust of police, to see our Police Commissioner shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who has enabled a lawless, racist president is not just disappointing, it’s disturbing.”
Wu issued a statement tying the Barr visit to Walsh’s recent declaration that racism was a public health crisis.
“It flies in the face of declaring racism as a public health crisis in Boston to welcome the federal architect of racist policies that tear apart immigrant families and perpetuate trauma,‘' Wu said.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who recently shared a personal story of being pulled over as a teenager by a state trooper who pulled a gun on him, also responded to the photo, writing, “Yeah, that’s gonna be a no from me.”
City Councilor Julia Mejia said in a tweet, “Growing up, I lived in fear with my undocumented mother. Barr’s presence in Boston is alarming & traumatizing but we can’t allow it to hinder or intimidate us.”
Growing up, I lived in fear with my undocumented mother. Barr’s presence in Boston is alarming & traumatizing but we can’t allow it to hinder or intimidate us. Now as the chair of the Civil Rights Committee, I can use my voice to ensure that #AllMeansAll feel safe in Boston. https://t.co/rDsQ7H37ux— Julia Mejia (@juliaforboston) June 19, 2020
Many other Twitter users criticized or questioned the visit. A tweet from the grass-roots progressive political group Act on Mass called Barr a “well-known racist” and said the visit was “unacceptable.”
Geoff Diehl, a former Republican state representative, lauded the visit, tweeting simply, “Outstanding!”