THE PRESS CONFERENCE in front of the State House started with a moment of silence – 8 minutes and 46 seconds to be exact, the amount of time George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was pinned under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin as he died.
Massachusetts lawmakers and elected officials of color, along with some of their colleagues, gathered in front of the State House on Tuesday to announce a 10-point plan to address law enforcement violence and advance racial justice. The plan features four initiatives at the state level, four at the federal level, and two at the municipal level. There is some overlap between the three levels.
“Today, we want to be brief but determined to advocate for peace and offer solutions, concrete solutions, to change institutional biases that have all allowed for some to have more power over others and have left us, many of us, behind,” said Rep. Carlos González, chair of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
González said the caucus will push for the creation of an independent special prosecutor position designed to review cases of police misconduct across the state.
The caucus is also backing three pieces of existing legislation filed by Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston that would allow decertification of police officers for misconduct and abuse, establish diversity guidelines for all state agencies, and create a commission to assess the presence of institutional racism in the criminal justice system.
A fourth piece of legislation, soon to be filed by Rep. Liz Miranda of Boston, would require local police departments to adopt statutory limits on police use of force, including choke-holds like the one that killed Eric Garner in New York City.
The caucus is also calling on the Legislature to review all local and state law enforcement protocols on police conduct and training around cultural competency, use of excessive force, racial profiling, and police suspensions.
“We support the collection of statewide data on all incidents involving police use of lethal force and the cost of municipal lawsuits paid due to police misconduct,” said González. He added that body cameras should be used by police to record interactions.
Holmes noted that many of the policies being recommended by the caucus have been proposed for many years. “Our agenda doesn’t seem to move the way we want it to move,” he said, giving a nod to Senate President Karen Spilka, who was present at the rally. He called on House Speaker Robert DeLeo to bring legislation to the floor.”These are bills we’ve been bringing year after year,” Holmes said. The civil service bill and police decertification, he said, are issues he’s discussed with Gov. Charlie Baker “10 times, continually.”
Holmes, the longest serving Massachusetts state representative of color, was demoted from the position of vice chair of the Legislature’s Housing Committee in 2017 after he said it was time for the Black and Latino Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus to join as a voting bloc to help choose the next speaker.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the sole member of the caucus in the state Senate, urged lawmakers to move on legislation.
“In that lonely role, I know a lot about the importance of allies,” Chang-Diaz said. “Today, I want to both call on our allies to look at this list of policy actions that we’re putting forth and identify what risks are you willing to take to advance these bills.”
On a local level, the caucus is asking that municipalities declare racism a public health crisis, something that City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo is proposing in Boston.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he wants municipalities to create their own civil review boards and commissions with subpoena power to investigate allegations of law enforcement wrongdoing.
“I also take pride in the many police officers that we took and fired from the police department, men and women that did not hold up the professionalism of police in our community,” said Rivera.
At the federal level, US Rep. Ayanna Pressley said she is pushing for nonbinding congressional resolutions to condemn police brutality, racial profiling, and excessive use of force.
Pressley said the last time a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives on the issue of police brutality was by Rep. Danny Davis in 1999 in the 106th Congress. “That resolution never made it to the floor,” she said. “We’re now in the 116th Congress. I can’t even begin to approximate how many black lives we have been robbed of in that time.”
The task force is also calling for the federal government to improve oversight of individual state and local law enforcement officers and their departments, for the Justice Department to investigate individual instances of police violence and sue police departments violating civil rights, and all levels of government to reduce use of force on historically marginalized communities.
Arroyo emotionally recounted his own encounter with police as a teenager on his way home from Providence. He said police officers pulled him over, pointed a gun at him, and asked if he was “stupid” because he was lost.
“In that moment, time stopped for me,” Arroyo said tearfully. “I looked at him and said “yes.”
Arroyo said the officer gave him a verbal warning and let him drive home.
The situation is not abnormal for people of color, said Arroyo, who added that lawmakers at all levels have failed to address these sorts of situations.
“To them I say this: You will not have peace, true peace, until you have policy on the floor,” Arroyo said. “You don’t just get to say ‘I hear you, I see you’ and go about your day.”
He suggested white legislators support their colleagues of color in concrete ways. “Raise up your colleagues. Lift them up when they’re stripped of chairmanships, when they’re stripped of having bills on the floor, when resolutions about the value of our lives, when resolutions about police brutality can’t go up for a vote. Where is your voice? Use it.”