The first week of May marked the 2oth aniversary of the Los Angeles riots sparked by the jury acquittal of the policemen whom the world saw beat Rodney King. When the smoke cleared, 55 people lay dead and the City of Los Angeles incurred $1 Billion in damages. Those numbers, however, don’t begin to tell the story of the true level of loss many would say continues to mount to this day. Cities all across the country braced for similar responses and Boston was no different.
After all, there was some legitamate reason for concern as Boston’s Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods had erupted in the late 60’s after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can still see some of the remnants in the vacant lots and closed boarded up store fronts sprinkled up Blue Hill Avenue and Warren Street between Dudley and Grove Hall. Who can forget the important role entertainer the late great James Brown played when he accepted the invitation of the late Boston Mayor Kevin White and performed in concert outside at Carter Playground.
We knew we were sitting on a similar powder keg in Boston in April of 1992, particularly among young Black and Latino males still smarting from the wholesale assault by the Boston Police Department in the aftermath of the Charles Stuart case. The massive hunt for the make believe coked out, white jumpsuit wearing Black man in 1989 made nearly every Black and Latino male of any high yellow to chocolate brown complexion between the ages of 18-45 spotted driving or walking through Roxbury, Mission Hill and Dorchester the likely target of the BPD for a stop and frisk, sometimes even requiring them to drop their pants. As you may know, the story ended when Charles Stuart’s body was pulled out of the Charles River and his brother was convicted of helping him dispose of the gun he used to murder his pregnant wife.
None of us wanted to see the violence or buildings burned in 1992 so we went to work. Under the leadership of Boston Branch NAACP President, Louis Elisa, we gathered at Goodwill Morgan Memorial just days before the verdict we knew to be imminent. We scheduled a community meeting to allow the opportunity for those we knew were going to need to vent should the L.A. officers be acquitted. Then came the verdict- not guilty! We were ready.
So many demonstrated real leadership at a time when many outside and inside our community didn’t even know what we were doing. Though then Urban League President, Joan Wallace Benjamin and I became the public face for the co-ordinated effort which we named “The Ten Demandments”, there were others , Dr. Keith Mottley, Rev. Eugene Rivers, Sadiki Kambon, Andre Norman, Rep. Gloria Fox and Councillors Charles Yancey and Bruce Bolling who stepped up big time. Close to 700 people turned out to Madison Park High School to vent and adopted the platform of the Ten Demandments. The Urban League, especially Joan Wallace Benjamin, was critical in providing strategic meeting space and resources and we wanted to convey a message of peace, order and spiritual cover for what we wanted to see happen in our community. Through no small feat, we helped avoid mayhem in 1992. The meeting at Madison was so highly emotionally charged, my heart races when I think about the level of frustration and anger that permeated that room. In the end, there was a collective agreement to exert our energies on some positive action.
Much has happened in Boston’s communities of color since then. Nationally, the country has been focused on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Though it may feel like here we go again, something major has changed since 1992, you only have to look at the diversity of so many of the crowds coming together all over the country expressing outrage over his death and pleading for a real hard look at the reality of racism and racial profiling. Twenty years later, there is still much work to do. Let’s all hope that we can address the reality of racial profiling in Massachusetts by delivering on the promise made by the state legislature in 2000- if the Racial Profiling Data Collection Bill showed profiling the legislature would adopt a bill with “teeth” to punish officers who profile. We have more documentation of racial profiling than any other state in the country. We don’t need any more studies.
Nationally, we must all stay vigilant to seek justice for Trayvon Martin. With the level of frustration and racial tension so high across the country, we may not be so blessed to be able to quell an angry response in 2012 as we did 20 years ago if people feel the justice system has failed us again. It’s about more than Trayvon, it’s about all of us.