Board of Selectmen: hearing airs racial tensions

A regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, January 5, started at 7:05 pm in the sixth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. While North Korea was testing its first thermonuclear bomb, the board conducted a public hearing about what it called “diversity issues involving the town”–also an explosive catastrophe, at least on a local scale.

A standing-room-only audience of around 200 gathered in a hearing room with only about 100 seats. For many Brookline residents it was an evening of despair–airing incident after incident of racial discrimination, targeting and harassment–lasting more than two hours.

Commission statement: At its meeting the previous evening, the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission had reviewed testimony and reports it received about racial issues affecting the Brookline work force. Alex Coleman, chair of the commission, read a statement to the Board of Selectmen that the commission had authorized.

Dr. Coleman said the commission, which began in January, 2015, “spent the last year trying to move forward.” Hopes for progress had been dashed at a December 16 meeting, when two Brookline police officers testified in open session that their department was afflicted with racial tensions, from which they personally suffered. Town government, according to the commission statement, has “a culture of institutional racism” that “the Board of Selectmen…allowed.”

The statement read by Dr. Coleman called on the Board of Selectmen, “as the elected leaders of the town, to exercise your responsibilities and duties, as commissioners of the Police and Fire Departments…to stamp out this culture. This is a matter of extreme urgency, which the Board of Selectmen needs to address with actions, not words, now.” Members of the board listened but did not comment.

Police testimony: Prentice Pilot, one of the two African-American police officers who spoke out on December 16, told the Board of Selectmen he had worked on the force for 17 years. He recalled another minority police officer who “went to the chief about racial incidents” a year ago, apparently joining Officers Pilot and Zerai-Misgun then, but got no action. In response to his recent complaint about a racial insult, he said, “the chief had a preliminary investigation” but called it “inconclusive.”

After his recent testimony to the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission, Officer Pilot said, the commission “asked Selectman Greene to get more of the story…I haven’t heard anything from him.” Mr. Greene, the first African-American ever elected to the Board of Selectmen, became the board’s delegate to the commission and was present when Mr. Pilot testified on December 16.

Officer Pilot said a recent report on the racial climate in the Police and Fire Departments, sent to commission members, offers “insights from the Police Department leadership: no major incidents” in the department. “The chief,” he said, “had a free diversity report when the three of us went to him in December of 2014.” Applause from the audience lasted most of a minute.

Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, the other African-American police officer who spoke out on December 16, described “the chief’s assurance” of respect in the department. “He gave me his assurance a year ago,” said Officer Zerai-Misgun. “Nothing has changed…All you say is that you’re waiting…Nobody has contacted me.” He told the Board of Selectmen, “It is not a safe environment there. The chief failed me last year…Now you’re failing me today.”

Lee Smith, an African-American former police officer in Brookline, told the board about experiences starting in April, 1998. He also left a much longer version of his remarks in writing. As a beginning Brookline officer, he said, after he wrote a parking ticket a superior officer “chewed me up,” telling Mr. Smith, “That ticket belongs to a friend of mine.” Mr. Smith explained that there was a covert system of marking tickets to indicate they were supposed to be discarded and ignored, which he had not followed.

At a “diversity meeting” held more than 15 years ago, Mr. Smith said, fellow officers ridiculed the training, “complaining, ‘why do we have to be here for this?’” Written materials were distributed at the training, according to Mr. Smith. “I saw guys ripping it up, tossing it in the trash.”

Harassment complaints: Leslie Epps, who operates Finesse Florist on Washington St., told about experiences as an African-American living in Brookline and running a retail business. “I’ve experienced such racism,” said Ms. Epps. “I have filed complaints. These complaints have disappeared. There has been intimidation: ticketing my vehicle falsely, targeting my shop.”

Ms. Epps described herself as “keynote speaker” at the most recent Martin Luther King Day event in Brookline. Now, she said, “I have stress disorder…at the hands of Brookline police.” Not one to give up. Ms. Epps told the Board of Selectmen, “This is my country. I will not be moved…I am looking for restorative justice.”

Cruz Sanabria of Rice Street, a Marine veteran and a public school teacher in Boston, who was a member of the former Human Relations Commission, described harassment from neighbors and antagonism from Brookline police officers. In one incident, he said, he was falsely cited for a crime.

According to Mr. Sanabria, he was charged with “assault with a dangerous weapon…It was dismissed.” Mr. Sanabria told the Board of Selectmen, “The horror I went through is worse than anything else I have had in my life…You put me in a position that I shouldn’t have been in. Why? Because I’m Puerto Rican.”

Reactions: Brookline residents who are not members of a minority had strong reactions. Bob Miller of Copley St., a Precinct 8 town meeting member and a teacher at Heath School, told the Board of Selectmen, “I’ve heard talk about racism in Brookline,” calling it “an issue that can destroy the town that I love.” He urged “the strongest possible actions to let it be known that this will not be tolerated.”

Pat Bartels of Wolcott Rd. said her family “moved to Brookline because we believed it was going to be a caring and liberal community.” Her two children, she said, are graduates of Brookline High School. “Their friends were from Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Korea…from all over the world…Those are the values they shared.”

Shifra-Lilith Freewoman of Longwood Ave. was less forgiving. In Leslie Epps’s shop, she said, “She treated me like gold…It breaks my heart. Everybody black that I know has encounters with police in this town.” The problem, according to Ms. Freewoman, has been that “words don’t translate into clear action.” She told the Board of Selectmen, “If this board can’t do it, then let’s elect another board.”

Years ago: Andrew Leong of Marion Terrace described his experiences inside the Brookline Police Department many years ago. He is a professor of law at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “We are sick and tired of more studies, more training,” said Prof. Leong. “I did that training 27 years ago.”

At the time, he said, “a black officer told me, ‘I’m so glad you came and spoke…All those racist things [are] happening to me on this police force.’” Referring to Officers Pilot and Zerai-Misgun, Prof. Leong said, “They are risking their jobs. What do we want? We want them to be on paid administrative leave.” Applause from the audience again lasted for most of a minute.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, January 6, 2016


James Pearson and Tony Munroe, North Korea says successfully conducts first H-bomb test, Reuters (UK), January 6, 2016

Statement to the Board of Selectmen on institutional racism in the Brookline work force, Commission for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations, Town of Brookline, MA, January 4, 2016

Lee Smith, Statement at Brookline Board of Selectmen hearing, January 5, 2016

Diversity Commission: police and fire department report, Brookline Beacon, December 20, 2015

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