An unarmed black teenager shot dead on a Missouri street. A distraught community protests the killing at the hands of a white police officer. Violent clashes follow between protesters and police, who use tear gas, rubber bullets, and wooden pellets.
Halfway across the country in Boston, black leaders and residents reacted Thursday with anger and sharp questions about the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb and the aggressive police response to tense, daily protests.
“It’s an outrageous shooting,” said Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard Law School professor. “People have just had enough and are not yet over what happened with Trayvon Martin,” an unarmed black youth killed two years ago by a Florida crime watch volunteer.
Ogletree, who is black, called for continued rallies but without the violence of Wednesday night, when protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at heavily armed police in Ferguson, Mo.
“There needs to be a lot of noise — nonviolent but forceful — to make it known that we can’t afford to lose another black child,” Ogletree said.
Echoing concerns in Ferguson, blacks in Boston and around the nation are questioning whether an overwhelmingly white police force is prejudging people of color in a Missouri town where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black.
Ferguson police have said the officer who shot Brown was assaulted in his cruiser and that a struggle ensued for his weapon. A friend of Brown who was there said Brown was shot on the street with his hands raised. Authorities have not identified the officer.
During lunch at Haley House Bakery Cafe in Dudley Square, some patrons said police treat black men with less dignity than others. “There’s this notion that young black folks are criminals, lack morals, don’t have respect in general for law and order,” said Andre Plummer, 52. “So, police departments around the country seem quick to resort to violence.”
Sheila Emerson, a 68-year-old mother of five, said she thought of her children as she saw reports of the tear gas and rubber bullets. Her children have been stopped by police while driving, often for no apparent reason, she said.
“I feel like my people are being picked on all the time, to be honest,” Emerson said.
Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, expressed concerns with what he called the militarization of police, leaving a “force that looks like ‘Miami Vice’ ” to confront the protesters.
“In a community of that size, there should be a conversation happening without the overwhelming display of police power,” he said.
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said in a statement that “the unfortunate incidents” in Ferguson and one in New York in which a 43-year-old black man died in a police chokehold “remind us of the importance of our obligations to our residents and neighborhoods in the city.”
In Boston, an ongoing dialogue aims to improve relations between the police department and minority communities, said Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. The Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts has also been involved in that dialogue, he said.
“They are tough conversations. It’s not always a love fest,” said Superintendent in Chief William Gross, the first African-American in that position. “But at least we’re having conversations before things happen.”
Gross said the department is committed to avoiding the problems in Ferguson.
“Will there be bumps in the road? Yes. Will there be controversial interactions and arrests? Yes. But will the strength of the partnerships hold true?” he asked. “So far, they have.”
Gross would not critique the Ferguson police but did say he was confident that Boston police would find “a peaceful resolution” in such a situation.
Three factors that contributed to the crisis in Ferguson — lack of diversity on the police force, the complaint review process, no sensitivity training for officers — are areas Boston must set right to avoid a similar fate, Curry said.
Only three members of Ferguson’s 53-member police force are black. “When you don’t have diverse perspectives around the table, you get flawed results,” he said. “How do you perceive these young men with braids who are sagging with swag?”
As a college student or a criminal, he wondered.
US Representative James Clyburn, one of the highest ranking blacks in Congress, said Thursday that the situation in Missouri is the result of a growing climate of racial tensions manifesting since President Obama’s election.“It’s clear to me that this is not happening in a vacuum,” he said at a book signing event at Roxbury Community College.
As dusk fell Thursday evening, hundreds gathered on Boston Common and raised their hands in solidarity as they joined in a national moment of silence. They held aloft posters beseeching, “We Are Human Too,” “No Justice No Peace” and “Stop the Brutality.” It mirrored protests across the country.
In the shadow of the State House, Tanisha Milton, 37, sat atop the Common steps.
“I’m out here to let the people in Ferguson know that we’re here,” she said. “The people in Boston care.”
Leondra Hawkesworth wore on her shirt the face of DJ Henry, a Pace University student from Easton who was shot to death in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., by police in 2010.
“It becomes tiring and painful to see so many young black people killed,” said Hawkesworth, 24. “There’s no solution. There’s no justice being served.”
The crowd broke into chants: “Justice! For Mike Brown,” “No Justice! No Peace!” Later on, Alexis Martinez, 28, took the megaphone.
“Don’t come at me today telling that this is not about race,” she said. “That’s . . . exactly what it’s about!”