Fifty years after Malcolm X was assassinated in a New York City ballroom, about 200 activists gathered a little more than a mile from the Roxbury home where the civil rights leader once lived to discuss police violence, gentrification, and racism, concluding with a walking vigil down Malcolm X Boulevard.
“This is an incredibly important historical moment right now, and there’s a particular urgency to embracing the revolutionary legacy of Malcolm X,” said Sofia Arias, an International Socialist Organization member who delivered the opening remarks at the town hall meeting, held at Roxbury Community College on Saturday.
Arias told the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot to death three months ago by police in Cleveland, and his mother, who has told media she arrived on the scene and was directed to choose between accompanying her son to the hospital or staying with her 14-year-old daughter, who had been put in a police car after rushing to help Tamir.
“I think that ultimately represents the ultimatum that America has always given black people,” Arias said. “Either we murder you every 28 hours, we gun you down on the streets for existing as a black person, or we lock you up.”
The activists attending the town hall came from a wide array of groups, including Black Lives Matter Boston, We Are The Ones, Coalition for Police Accountability, Boston Youth Organizing Project, and 4 Mile March Boston. Police were not welcome, and twice the meeting stopped while organizers called out that any officers in the crowd should leave so a “candid conversation” could be held. There did not appear to be any officers present.
On Feb. 21, 1965, 39-year-old Malcolm X, who went by the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, was gunned down inside the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem as he was preparing to address his followers. The Muslim leader had moderated his militant message of black separatism but remained an advocate for black unity, self-respect, and self-reliance. He had recently left the Nation of Islam when he was killed. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted of his murder.
Speakers at Saturday’s town hall called for activists to carry on Malcolm X’s legacy and build on the grass-roots protests that swept the country after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed black men killed by white police in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., last year.
Other killings, including that of Tamir Rice, have added to outrage that has spilled into the streets in Boston and other cities in the form of marches and die-ins.
“The fight’s not over in Ferguson. We’re part of that fight,” Brock Satter of 4 Mile March Boston said. “We need to build a massive movement.”
Much of the discussion revolved around racism in policing, and many called the entire criminal justice system fundamentally corrupt.
“We don’t have a ‘criminal justice system’ in the US, that’s propaganda in those words,” said Carl Williams, an American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild member who said he was speaking as an individual. “We have a system of racial control.”
Williams called for activists to monitor police, courts, and prisons, and in response to a question from the audience, called for “jury nullification” — when a jury acquits a criminal defendant regardless of whether they feel the defendant has broken the law.
Speakers at the town hall also discussed the problems posed by gentrification, poverty, and an unequal education system.
After the town hall, which lasted for more than two hours, about 50 activists walked outside into the snow, carrying lit candles protected from the wind by paper cups. They moved slowly down the sidewalk on Malcolm X Boulevard chanting, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
At the corner of Malcolm X and Elmwood Street, they lit and released a paper lantern, which rose into the air, blew to the east, and disappeared.
Marchers moved into the street and continued walking as traffic drove around them.
“Long live Malcolm X,” they chanted. “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.”