Viral justice? The media might have moved on, but RCC students won't let a case of potential police brutality on campus fade without a fight

Viral justice?
The media might have moved on, but RCC students won’t let a case of potential police brutality on campus fade without a fight

AFTER-SCHOOL PROJECT: When video of Boston Police using force to restrain a 16-year-old boy at Roxbury Community College was posted online, RCC students protested near campus and pressed the BPD for answers. The matter is now under investigation by the Suffolk County DA’s office.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  November 23, 2010

The seven-minute YouTube clip begins with five Boston police officers, crowding a Roxbury Community College entranceway, restraining a face-down suspect. Before it’s clear what’s happening, a plainclothes cop in jeans and work boots pins the boy’s left calf, throws four hammer punches to the back, then switches to southpaw and delivers three uppercuts. Moving a uniformed colleague out of the way, the same officer then assumes a runner’s stance, secures his grip, and follows up with three knees to the chest. The suspect is instructed to put his hands behind his back, and responds in evident agony: “My hands are behind my back . . . Who the fuck keeps stepping on me?”

That’s just from one angle. A shorter video shot by another witness begins moments earlier, and shows the plainclothes officer connecting with seven blows to the torso, while another cop is swinging on the suspect’s rib cage. Through the ordeal, it’s hard to see the victim’s face, though blood leaks from underneath his green hood and smears the metal grate scraping his nose, as well as the left pant leg of an officer who’s straddling his neck.

The video went viral four days after the October 22 incident. Community outrage was fueled by the revelation that the suspect — a fugitive fleeing from Department of Youth Services custody — was only 16 years old, and by a police report that did not appear to match the video. In the days after, RCC students protested near campus, and marched down Columbus Avenue to picket Boston Police Department headquarters. Faith leaders and local activists joined the cause, as did a handful of Boston elected officials.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley tweeted that she was “deeply troubled,” while her colleague, Council President Mike Ross, gave his own condemnation of what he called “an unmeasured use of force.” Ross’s comments drew the ire of an attorney for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, who suggested that Ross “spend the day at the police academy, learning how police officers are trained.”

Mayor Tom Menino had a more cautious response. “We don’t tolerate this in Boston,” he told reporters. “If we have to bring action, we will bring action, but what you see [in the videos] might not be the whole story.”

Under increasing public pressure, BPD Commissioner Ed Davis turned the investigation over to the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. The DA’s office described the request as unusual in the case of a non-fatal arrest.

Other than the police report, which is at odds with what the videos show by claiming the victim violently resisted arrest, there have been few explanations provided by the city — let alone apologies offered. The events of October 22 inflicted lasting wounds, as the images of that juvenile being held down and assaulted remain stuck in the minds of those who witnessed the struggle first-hand, and also on the conscience of many more RCC students who have since taken up the fight against police brutality. Their message: this is not going to blow over.

“For this to take place on campus, it means that it can happen to everyone here,” says Tajudeen Akinbode, a second-semester biological-science major and outspoken student rep. “This would not have happened at Boston University. Some people around here don’t want to talk about it, but I’m not keeping quiet. Considering that some students feel insecure and unsafe, this is what we’re supposed to talk about. We have to.”

‘We’re being ignored’
At first, the RCC community was divided on how far to pursue the issue — given that the victim was not one of its own. But it now seems determined, as a whole, to get some answers. School president Dr. Terrence Gomes upset some students and faculty with an October 28 e-mail labeling the incident a “police matter,” since the arrested party is not enrolled at RCC. But Gomes has come to sympathize with the RCC’ community’s outrage over cops engaging in what the videos present as violent actions. He says he’d been unaware of the arrest before it hit the Web, and regrets his initial reaction to dismiss the school’s role in healing the resulting wounds. This week, Gomes told the Phoenix he shares the prevailing worry about students’ sense of safety, and is working to support those who are questioning the incident that split their school and shocked the city.

“The students are well within their right to protest however they feel they need to,” says Gomes. “Upon watching the video, I observed what in my opinion was excessive force . . . Despite what may go on nearby, this has always been a safe haven, and I don’t want students to ever feel like they have to worry about those kinds of things happening here.”

Like her school president, protest organizer India Cox didn’t know about the arrest until she heard about it on the morning news. She’s in her second year at RCC, and a criminal-justice major, yet no one in her circle knew about the melee prior to it making headlines. So when she learned that a teenager had endured such treatment — in plain sight, no less — Cox jumped into action, helping organize two demonstrations in as many days. She had no trouble finding support; others — including Eusida Blidgen, who posted the bombshell videos on YouTube — were also rounding up troops.

“We felt then and still feel like we’re being ignored,” says Cox. “The officers have not been fired, so it’s our belief that there’s not much being done. [The authorities] want things to die down, and to think this is going to go away. But it’s not. We’re going to keep raising the issue until we see results.”

Tuning out
In the media, the story topped the local news for two nights running and seemed to have legs. Four days after the initial reports broke, it was discovered that one of the parties involved, 32-year-old patrol officer Michael McManus, had two years earlier — during the celebration following the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship — tackled an Emmanuel College student. The student subsequently died from related complications, and earlier this year, the city paid a $3 million out-of-court settlement to his family. (McManus is assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the current investigation. The department did not respond by press time to Phoenix inquiries regarding other officers involved.)

That detail, however, failed to keep the story in the news. Videos of the beating continued to rack up tens of thousands of views on YouTube, but with the midterm elections approaching, Boston’s major media outlets tuned out after a week — even as dedicated community and RCC activists soldiered on.

A spokesperson for the Suffolk County DA tells the Phoenix that, while their report is not yet ready, it will eventually be disclosed to the public. But in the meantime, while the investigation carries on behind closed doors, Cox and hundreds of her fellow students continue to strategize, and are organizing a rally to the State House for sometime in the coming weeks. “I think we’re all as shocked that a lot of us didn’t know about this before it was on YouTube as we are about what actually happened,” she says.

“The police need to come out and t
alk to us and answer our questions,” says student-government rep Akinbode. “They don’t give a damn about us, or see our demonstrations as a threat. Drastic measures need to be taken, because right now this is not justice. Someone needs to apologize to the family of this person, the faculty, and the entire student body. Our demand is simple — that all of these people who carried this out be fired. They’re not the kind of people who we want in law enforcement.”

Watch the videos at thePhoenix.com/news. Chris Faraone can be reached at cfaraone@phx.com.

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