By Anna Gorski
SOMMERVILLE, MA – Structural Racism, and how it impacts health, public safety, education, jobs, housing and other aspects of society, was the focus of panel discussion here featuring Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
The panel is part of a series of upcoming related events hosted by the City of Sommerville on racism and policing, as well as a series of ongoing small group listening sessions with Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Sommerville.
The moderator noted that while structural racism has moved to the forefront of national conversation, for many African Americans structural or systemic racism has always been front and center as a topic in their lives.
Because of George Floyd, America has been “awakened” and for the first time in American history a mayor in Somerville declared racism a “public health emergency.”
Congresswoman Presley has a long history of political activism and is the first women of color elected to congress from Massachusetts and first African American woman elected to the Boston City Council. She had fought for equality during her time on the Boston city council, but now that this conversation is nationwide, the focus has shifted.
“I didn’t begin this work when I was elected; I was born into this work.” Pressley recounts, adding that “full liberation and emancipation is work from cradle to grave.”
Pressley defines structural racism as “hate hurt and harm legislated and codified by law, so pervasive and systemic that you cannot escape it”
Systemic racism in America, she said, is seen in unequal education, healthcare, housing, and especially in the criminal legal system. Disproportionate hate, hurt, and harm that Black people face is precise, as seen in the GI bill, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, and redlining.
Pressley calls this moment “a tipping point” or “a reckoning.” She describes how the movement is centuries old, but the “moment we are living in right now” is new and full of young people that can implement real change.
“We need to be actively anti-racist to dismantle structural racism, and to legislate healing and justice in the same way that we legislate the hurt and harm was put on our communities” she said.
Pressley is a staunch opponent of qualified immunity and introduced the End Qualified Immunity Act in June 2020 with representative Justin Amash. She argues that although real justice will never be achieved for these families whose loved ones are gone, society still needs to hold people accountable.
While officers resigning or getting fired for their failures is respectable, it does not constitute justice, she said, adding that protections offered by the supreme court and codified case after case, families do not see justice, contribution or
Pressley uses the examples of lawyers and doctors who have consequences for their malpractice, and recourse for their negligence; something police officers completely evade for most of the time.
Rachael Rollins is the first female district attorney in Massachusetts history and has been fighting for criminal justice reform and a more equitable system for people color her entire career.
Rollins argues for economic justice, stating that canceling student debt would be a huge step in the right direction.
Black students borrow more and are the average Black student has 30 thousand dollars of debt because Black families have been denied the opportunity to build generational wealth compared to their white counterparts.
Collins argues that structural racism is in all aspects of our life, yet “black culture is the most culturally appropriated” in America.
Collins’ “list of 15”, which includes 15 types of non-violent crimes that should not be prosecuted, is something she has been adamant about implementing.
Because of coronavirus, police all over the country have been interacting with communities and interacting with low level crime at lower rates.
“COVID 19 proved my list of 15 works” says Collins.
Black and Brown communities have disproportionate interactions with the police, and are prosecuted and arrested for crimes at much higher rates than normal.
For George Floyd, his counterfeit check was a misdemeanor, but Floyd was “tried, convicted, and sentenced to death all in the time span of 8 minutes”.
“If police stopped interacting with poor Black communities for low level non-serious crimes, Floyd would still be alive” Collins says.
“We need policies where police are not deployed when people are under the influence or having a mental health crisis or engaged in behavior that is a societal failure, not a job for police who we are asking to do too much,” she said.
Collins’ seemingly radical ideas are finally being taken seriously as the COVID crises proves that her list of 15 “is not so crazy”.
In comparison to the “awakening of America,” Black people have been awake for 401 years. It is no question that the American criminal justice system is broken, and the police force itself was built to be punitive and oppressive, she said.
Pressley argues for a “radical reimagining of our system and of our country,” where police officers are not forced to bear the responsibility of social workers in schools and addiction specialists by administering Narcan.
“There is a role for first responders in our society, but not every part of society,” Presley states, arguing for law changes and budget changes first and foremost.
This moment in America has to be a continuation for the movement. No more thoughts and prayers, but action.
Mayor Curatone says that as a white progressive human being and politician, his job is to be a listener and set the table for conversation.
“George Floyd is a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said, about the centuries long oppression of Black and Brown people in the United States.
Curatone concedes, “We all need to own the work”.
The panel also included the voices of Mayor Yvonne Spicer from Framingham, MA, Councilman Will Mbah, and Student Leader Floreisha Bastein.
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