Turning protest into policy reform

Turning protest into policy reform

Walking the walk isn’t enough in fighting racism

AS 40,000 PEOPLE converged on the streets of Boston in late August to march against white supremacy, Massachusetts stood as a beacon of nationwide resistance to the racist policies coming out of the White House. It was fitting; historically, many revolutions have started in Massachusetts.

Raising our collective voice against bigotry is a healthy exercise of our democracy, and I’m proud that I marched.

But taking to the streets is only a first step toward fighting the worst excesses of the Trump administration.  If we’re serious about defending our constitutional republic, we must turn protest into policy reform on Beacon Hill.

In the days following the August 19 march, euphoria about Boston’s public march against racism quickly gave way to lessons on how we can do better next time (since, of course, there’s already talk of a next time). Reports of excessive use of force, including pepper spray, on some anti-racist protesters need to be investigated.

We also need to confront apparent efforts by city officials to prevent reporters and other members of the press from fairly reporting what went down at the Parkman Bandstand, where some people had a permit and invited white nationalists and kindred speakers to speak.

The police announced they would impose certain restrictions on everyone, including a prohibition on bringing items that could be used as weapons. On its face, those steps to ensure public safety made sense in light of the violence emanating from rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, a week earlier.

Unfortunately, on rally day, the police erected a wide exclusion zone around the Bandstand, which seemed excessive to achieve the stated public safety goals.

But it soon became apparent that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans may have been motivated by concerns beyond public safety. Specifically, it seemed that they wanted to keep hateful and hurtful messages from reaching public airwaves.

They did this by expressly excluding members of the press from entering the huge bandstand exclusion zone.  As a result, no journalists were able to listen to or record what was said at the Bandstand.

“I’m not going to listen to people who come in here and want to talk about hate,” said Evans.  “And you know what, if they didn’t get in, that’s a good thing ’cause their message isn’t what we want to hear.”  The commissioner later reiterated that the city took the media “out of the mix” so that they couldn’t “agitate” the crowd.

As any police officer should know, the First Amendment prohibits the state from restricting speech – even hateful speech – just because local officials don’t like the message. After all, what if local officials instead took umbrage at the speech of civil rights groups? It’s not that far-fetched: Earlier this month, Massachusetts Republican party officials seriously debated whether to tag Black Lives Matter as a “hate group.”

Brrr – feel that chill creeping in?

Blocking press coverage of a public rally is particularly troubling in light of the constant Trump-Bannon attacks on the media. In both word and deed, Trump and his minions are trying to undermine the American assumption that a free press is an indispensable part of our democracy.

As a constitutional matter, freedom of the press gets a special shout-out in the First Amendment – in addition to freedom of speech and expression. Our nation’s founders knew that a free press is essential to a functioning democracy.

If “Boston Strong” means anything, it means that we can hear hateful messages – and fiercely defeat them with education and the protected power of counter-speech.

But countering hateful messages and marching against white supremacy, while important, isn’t enough.  If marching against racism means anything, it’s time for Massachusetts to turn protest into policy reform.

Did you know that black people in Massachusetts are incarcerated at about eight times the rate of white people?  That’s higher than the national racial disparity, which is six to one. Latino people in Massachusetts are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, which is nearly four times higher than the national rate.

The Massachusetts Legislature is scheduled to take up a series of criminal justice reforms in the coming weeks. To be meaningful, such proposals must include repeal of all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses would go a long way to address the shameful racial disparities in our state justice system.

Massachusetts also can take steps to counter the Trump administration’s deportation machine. Just last week, the White House again chose cruelty over compassion by inserting yet more doubt into the lives of some 800,000 Dreamers. These are the people who arrived on our shores as children, have played by the rules, and were promised by our government through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that they could remain here legally. Massachusetts has a lot to lose from ending DACA: More than 8,000 of our neighbors here in Massachusetts are Dreamers – including many who are veterans who fought for this country.

Fortunately, the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker can – and should – take steps to push back on the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant attacks. They should pass the Safe Communities Act, which would go long way toward disentangling Massachusetts law enforcement from the Trump administration’s cruel and mindless immigration enforcement apparatus. Passing the Safe Communities Act would keep families together, and keep our communities safe by enhancing community trust in local law enforcement.

At this moment of historic threat to civil rights and civil liberties, Massachusetts elected leaders have both an opportunity and obligation not merely to speak out, but to pass laws that will protect our people against fundamental threats to human rights and our democracy.

The Trump administration is actively working to dismantle civil rights and civil liberties protections that were won through years of struggle. We cannot afford to sit back on our protest laurels.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

It’s time to turn protest into policy reform. All eyes are on Beacon Hill.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.