It feels like a one-two punch for many in Boston’s black community.
First, a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict a police officer for shooting to death an unarmed black teen. Nine days later, a grand jury in New York declined to indict a police officer for choking an unarmed black man to death.
There had been optimism that this time things would be different despite a history to the contrary. Rodney King. Danroy “DJ” Henry. Trayvon Martin. All were African-American males whose assailants — white men in positions of authority — were not convicted, and in some cases not charged. And now: Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Those who have watched such violent episodes over and over again say their hopefulness has given way to fatigue — and fury.
And yet hope persists because, civil rights leaders, ministers, politicians, police officers, and youth leaders say, defeatism is not an option.
“What’s really at stake is the soul of the nation,” the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou of First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain said as he traveled from Ferguson, Mo., to Boston for Thursday night’s protest on the Common.
From the White House to City Hall, the country finds itself trying to heal the festering mistrust between the black community and the criminal justice system, exposed recently by Brown’s death on Aug. 9 and the nationwide protests — some of them violent — that have erupted since. Demonstrators have shut down highways and closed malls while rallying around the statement “Black Lives Matter,” which has dominated social media.
Those in Boston’s civil rights community are trying to revamp the “Ten Demandments,” a local call to action sounded 22 years ago after four Los Angeles police officers were found not guilty of the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.
“We are pitting the community against law enforcement with these types of grand jury decisions that are coming down,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “People are losing faith. These are all cumulative cases that are in our spirit and our head.”
The justice system, he said, must be overhauled. Specifically, he argued, special prosecutors must be used to investigate police use-of-force cases; body cameras must be worn by police officers; surveillance cameras similar to the “Shot-Spotter” gunshot detection system should be installed in high-crime areas.
“The system is not working for us, so it is our duty to destroy it,” Williams said. “This whole Commonwealth was founded and predicated on protest politics. This country has been predicated on us voicing our opinion on those things we need to change.”
Right now, some young people in Charlestown and Dorchester say what needs to change is the sense that police officers are above the law.
The decision to not to charge New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s death sends the message that police can abuse their power, said 18-year-old Nueseline Goncalves, a student at Charlestown High.
“It made me feel like there’s no hope,” she said.
One of her classmates, Keisha Fertil, said police are seen as heroes while young black men are reflexively seen as suspect, something Jeff Ramos said he knows all too well.
The 19-year-old said he often feels the gaze of officers when he walks home at night after basketball practice, even though he pulls his pants up and tries to look as nonthreatening as possible.
“When I see police, I get on my toes,” he said. “I try to look away.”
Ramos said he worries that he might be confused for a suspect and find himself in a dangerous situation. He said he knows that most officers are fair, but that it’s hard not to see them all in the same light.
“Instead of authority figures, I see them as bullies,” he said. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
Akim Callendar, 23, works security and has no criminal record. But in the eyes of the police,
he’s always a suspect, he says. “We’re a menace to society,” he said. “That’s how they see us.”
That feeling of being viewed suspiciously by police doesn’t extend only to civilians; some black officers in police blue feel it, too.
Larry Ellison, a 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, said he, too, is approached differently if stopped by police who don’t know he’s an officer of the law.
“I’m still a black male,” he said. “Being a police officer doesn’t take that away.”
Ellison, who is president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, says his approach to policing is to treat people as if they were members of his family.
“You can always go in like a lamb and come out like a lion if need be, but you can never go in like a lion and come out like a lamb,” he said.
The recent grand jury decisions and community uproar haven’t made his job any more difficult, he said, but they have served as a reminder to do better.
“You can’t have communities that feel underserved and somewhat under siege,” he said.
Like Ellison, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said people need to engage in open and honest conversations about race in order for reconciliation and transformation to occur.
“This is a burden and walk that we all have to do, and it begins with the willingness to have a conversation about the unconscious bias that all of us carry,” Pressley said. “It is an unconscious bias informed by culture, media, and by personal experience. And we cannot unpack that if people are not even willing to be honest that they are carrying that.”
The Boston Police Department knows the dangers of unconscious biases, which is why it tests for them, she said. Still, Pressley said, more must be done to improve community policing, strengthen trust between police and communities of color, and reform the justice system.
But such measures can seem hollow in the face of what can seem like overwhelming injustices such as Garner’s death, which was ruled a homicide and captured on video, Pressley said.
“I’m grappling with what to offer that is meaningful and will ease this heartache and this pain,” Pressley said.
People can march, protest, dialogue, and vote but above all, said the Rev. Arthur T. Gerald Jr., pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, people must pray.
There is no time for defeat, he said. The struggle continues and there is work still to be done.
“The cry of the people,” he said, “is ‘Where’s justice?’ ”
Kendrick Jackson, 24, who works with teenagers at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, has been trying to help the teenagers he works with come to terms with what has happened while wrestling with it himself. His hope is that the media attention around Brown’s and Garner’s deaths — and the refusal of grand juries to charge the officers criminally — would awaken the public’s consciousness about racial injustice.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “Somewhere, there has to be a line.”