On the eve of Father’s Day, two events brought Black men together to reflect on experiences of racism, surviving trauma, and speaking to the youth.
At Roxbury Community College on Saturday afternoon, a powerful conversation took place among some of the city’s most dynamic Black men, from business leaders to the wrongly incarcerated, from religious figures to law enforcement officials.
“I won’t say this is an overdue conversation” said William Watkins of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, “because we’ve had these conversations in the barbershops.”
With such conversations halted due to COVID-19 restrictions, another played out over livestream Saturday afternoon as 26 men, seated in front of a stage set up with images of Black Americans killed in racist incidents, shared stories of arrests, incarceration, criticism, and empowerment.
In the conversation moderated by attorney Michael Curry, a member of the NAACP’s board of directors and former Boston chapter president, one point of wide agreement was how common it was to have negative experiences with law enforcement.
Manny Lopes, CEO of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, said he had been arrested three times.
“My story is not unique,” he said during the first half-hour, which was mired by glitches in the livesteam audio, “particularly for the brothers that are in the room today with us.”
He remembered being a 21-year-old arrested and charged with possession of a stolen vehicle because he was renting a nice car. Officers surrounded him and his friends and threw them to the ground. They refused to believe him even when he showed them the rental contract, he said.
After spending a night in jail before being bailed out and asking “why me?” he said, “it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it’s just being Black in America.”
Amari Paris Jeffries, who leads King Boston, the organization working to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.‘s legacy in the city, including a monument on Boston Common and a center in Roxbury, said he had also been arrested three times, he said. Once, he was arrested for being in a double-parked car while his wife, who was the driver, ran into a restaurant in downtown Boston.
Kevin Williams was wrongfully arrested for a murder and spent weeks in jail. Darrell Jones was wrongfully convicted and spent 32 years in prison. “In that 32 years I was in prison, I wasn’t hearing these conversations,” he said.
But also part of the conversation were Black law enforcement officials: Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross, Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers President Sergeant Eddie Crispin, Transit Police Chief Kenneth Green, and Suffolk Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins.
The sheriff spoke forcefully about the criminal justice system, explaining how the system was built on a history of slavery.
“When people say to me the criminal justice system is broken in its entirety, not just policing, and needs to be fixed, I counter by saying the criminal justice system was built to be punitive ... and was meant to have outrageous punishments” upon people thought of as property.
“And so until we can change that dynamic ... this will continue to go on.”
In the morning, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute virtually assembled a group of men who have lost family members to violence and those who help communities heal from that violence.
“This is not the place to answer your questions,” said Tina Chéry, founder of the institute, in response to comments from viewers as the event, ”Reset 2020,″ was taking place. “This is a space for the men. There is no right or wrong; this is their message. We want to show you Black men are here. That’s it. Black men are here.”
Lawrence Stevenson, one of the advocates at the peace institute, whose brother was fatally shot in 2017, spoke about learning to respond to trauma without turning to violence.
“And as now I’m an adult and as I’m going through the world as a man and I want something different for my life than violence, I’ve got to ask myself: what does that healing process look like for me?”
But while the peace institute has often had such conversations about trauma and healing, some at the afternoon session expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to have such a broad-ranging conversation from the many perspectives of Black men.
L. Duane Jackson, a managing member of Alnea Capital, recalled moments when his perspective and presence in a room of power made a difference. “The alignment of your voice with a person in power changes the paradigm. And that’s what this is about.”
“I wanted to say thank you because I’m never seen this before. In 50 years [in Boston], this is the first time I’ve seen [this] spectrum of personalities and people and incomes and education and life experience.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.