The new civil rights movement

Where do we go from here?

MONICA CANNON-GRANT ORGANIZED the largest Boston demonstration to date against police brutality toward blacks, a march that drew tens of thousands of people to Franklin Park earlier this month. Nearly a month after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests across the country have continued — Cannon-Grant is leading another march today to the State House — and  the Roxbury community organizer said on The Codcast that she’s convinced a sustained movement has begun.

“I think this is our civil rights movement,” Cannon-Grant said. “What I’ve been telling people is, I think for black people, we’ve been in a war that we just haven’t shown up to out of exhaustion and PTSD and anxiety and just all the things that we experienced. And I think now we’re like enough is enough.”

Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor at the Historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury and a veteran of clergy anti-violence efforts of the 1990s, called it “the monumental moment of our times.” Just as his parents and grandparents faced similar tests, he said, “we’re at a decision right now as to whether or not we’re going to rise to make our world better for our children or leave the world in a worse condition.”

But how to get that better world — and what it would look like — is still something very much in flux in the nascent movement for change.

Brown, founder of the national anti-violence and housing advocacy group My City At Peace,  calls moves like the police certification bill unveiled last week by Gov. Charlie Baker and leaders of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus “a step,” but said it hardly gets to the crux of the problem.

“They have a certification-decertification process in Minnesota and in Minneapolis, and we see what happened there,” he said. “So my issue is that for every step for improved training that we can put together, there always seems to be police officers who find a way around it and continue to exhibit the behavior that they exhibit. And so when we talk about change, we’re talking about something that goes beyond what I would call Band-Aid steps to try to fix something to calm down the masses. The masses are not going to be calm.”

That said, Brown has collaborated with Boston police over the years and calls it “one of the most progressive police departments that we have in the United States.” He points to a broader broken system that the police operate under, “a progressive police department within a structure that has always brought down African Americans.”

Brown said the current movement has to tackle not only police reforms, but long-standing discriminatory practices in housing and a host of other areas.

Cannon-Grant said she’s given up on looking for reform within police departments.

Like Brown, Cannon-Grant has worked to quell the plague of gang-driven violence in black communities. She said it’s time to recognize that the police “have a culture that they want us to not have, which is a gang culture. They don’t tell on each other. They have a code of silence.”

“I tried it rev’s way in regards to working with the police,” she said of Brown’s approach. “It didn’t work for me. And the reason why it didn’t work is because for a lot of them, there’s a refusal to acknowledge that there’s an issue. They become extremely defensive and they deem it as an attack. And it’s like, no, it’s a fact: black folks were dying at the hands of police officers and we need a change to happen. I have yet for the police department to acknowledge that racism and white supremacy is plaguing that department.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Cannon-Grant, founder of the nonprofit Violence in Boston, said calls to “defund the police” aren’t turning a blind eye to public safety problems and other issues in black communities. She said money should be shifted from police to organizations that can better address the problems driving violence and other crime.

For all her rabble-rousing ways, Cannon-Grant said she’s “a realist” about the give and take of the political process. She gives Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, with whom she once tangled, credit for the initial moves he’s announced to divert some police overtime funding to service-oriented programs. Her organization already receives some funding from the city.

“There were so many people who told us we wouldn’t get this far,” she said. “I’ve had multiple conversations with Mayor Walsh, and I think it’s a step in the right direction.” She said “pressure bust pipes” and with “everything that’s happening in this country now, I think it’s critical for our community to understand not to stop.” She said efforts to drive change often sputter out after winning a few small concessions. “That just comes from us being people who just get exhausted and tired ‘cause we’ve been fighting this fight for so long,” she said. “I just need us not to give up, continue to apply pressure, continue to fight, continue to hold people accountable.”