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More than words: It's time for action on police reform

If we don't want to be the next Minneapolis or Kenosha, we need to stand up and address systemic change 

September 4, 2020

By Keith Mahoney, Vice President, Communications and Public Affairs

The Boston Foundation has the privilege, one that we hope we have earned and that we do not take lightly, to have a voice in the civic life of our community.  With this privilege comes the responsibility to speak out when we see a wrong, and to work to be part of the movement to right it.  Often, that work starts by issuing a statement, but statements have two fundamental flaws in times like these. First, the sheer number of them we have seen over the past three years, calling out injustices in immigration, equity, and racial justice, can create a numbness that makes each statement feel less powerful. It saddens me to look back on this long list, and it makes me heartsick to know that for every time we and others have spoken up, there are many other occasions we could have, and did not.

Second, and more troubling – statements without action are ripples on the water. They make no difference on their own, and even worse, can be the sort of performative allyship that only serves to paper over problems and preserve the status quo. 

I felt this way when I watched the news coverage around the police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and in the “whataboutisms” and character smearing of Jacob Blake in the days that followed.  Then I thought about the stalled police accountability legislation here in Massachusetts, and reflected on the words of someone who has every reason to be cynical but keeps working, organizing and driving for change – Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, Inc.  She said, “We’re one situation away from a Ferguson happening here. Are we going to wait until that happens or are we going to ensure that it doesn’t happen?” 

"And to pretend we are immune from the extrajudicial killings perpetrated on Black men and women by law enforcement is a White privilege that is as dangerous as it is misguided."

When I wrote to legislative leadership on behalf of the Foundation last month, I quoted Paul Grogan’s statement following the death of George Floyd, “Leaders everywhere, not just those from organizations that focus on equity and social justice, must speak out clearly, emphatically, and, most importantly, follow their speech with action.” 

While the speech has happened, the action has not – at least not in the Legislature.  And to pretend our region is immune from the extrajudicial killings perpetrated on Black men and women by law enforcement is a White privilege that is as dangerous as it is misguided.  We will continue our advocacy for our Commonwealth to adopt real reform, including but not limited to:

Abolishing qualified immunity, and barring decertified officers from serving as “consultants” in law enforcement or corrections related industries,
Banning chokeholds and limiting the use of tear gas and no-knock warrants,
Adequately empowering and funding civilian oversight boards,
Collecting and sharing demographic and incident data,
Training law enforcement on implicit bias, diversity, equity and inclusion, and de-escalation tactics.

Beyond our own advocacy, we hope to help lift up the voices that are leading this effort, and support the work to which they have dedicated their passion and talent.  They are voices like those of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, the ACLU, Brothers Building, and many others who crafted the 10 Community Demands for police reform, which can be found here.  While we state our sympathy and outrage over events in Kenosha and so many other places, the real work is to collectively advocate for and drive real change here, in policy and action. We must also elevate those leading the multiple movements toward equity and justice. Because while our silence would be complicity, their actions can speak louder than any words.