Over the last two weeks, protests and vigils against the police killing of George Floyd have taken over parks and streets in Boston and beyond. But these type of demonstrations against racism and police brutality are not new. WGBH All Things Considered Anchor Arun Rath spoke about the history of protest and police brutality in Boston with Dr. Paula Austin. She's an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Boston University. The transcript below has been edited for clarity
Arun Rath: So we asked you in to talk about … it's a big history, a big topic: the history of police and racial relations and police brutality in Boston. But I think maybe the way we frame this is that, when people of color in Boston look at the police, they see something different than probably the white population, right?
Dr. Paula Austin: Well, and I think that's true for so many people of color, so many black people in so many cities around the country. And, Boston is no different. I mean, there are certainly some big flashpoints in the traditional civil rights movement, black power movement here in the 50s and 60s.
One of the issues was police brutality, in addition to economic injustice and companies not hiring any black workers, and housing issues. So, police brutality was actually always a part of a kind of multi-issue and intergenerational organizing effort in Boston.
Rath: We've had a lot of senses of history repeating lately. A lot of people have been thinking back to the late 80s and early 90s and the Rodney King riots. And, it's an unpleasant feeling of deja vu. Are there, in things you're seeing in Boston now, things that are reminding you of parts of Boston's past that, again, might not be history that a lot of people are familiar with?
Austin: We're seeing now a continuation of what we saw in the 50s and 60s, which was essentially an intergenerational, interracial movement, as well as people who are opposed to those kinds of systemic changes.
We know that in the late 80s, when Charles Stewart is able to mobilize and deploy the story that a black man had killed his pregnant wife, what happens as a result of that is that the Boston police kind of wage a war on black communities in Roxbury and in Mission Hill.
And we have so many horrific images of black and brown men being humiliated in the streets, stripped naked, even after a black man is arrested for that and Stuart commits suicide, there's kind of a lackluster apology, but a continued use of stop and frisk and other police practices. And as recently as 2015, the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union issued a report about this discriminatory treatment and the use of these kinds of police practices. So I think there's that kind of continued history and a long history that is about racial segregation, racial violence, racial tensions and racism. So I think as a historian, we see both changes over time and continuities as a way to explain some of the context for what we're seeing currently.
Rath: Yeah, it was interesting hearing you talk about what was going on during the time of that Charles Stuart case. One of the quotes that we found was a Boston city councilor who described the city as being like a war zone.
Austin: I often show these images to students and I ask them when they think they're happening. And the responses are just … like some people are like way, way back. And then some people are, you know, like 2014. So many of those images are ... what's happening in them is so familiar to us across time, really across at least the last century, if not longer.
Rath: Dr. Austin, one thing that I've heard people are claiming is different about now — and maybe you can truth squad this for us — is that a number of people have mentioned that they're seeing more white people in the protests. And that's say, compared to like 30 years ago, protests right now in towns that are mostly white and it’s almost all white people showing up to protest against police brutality. Is that new?
Austin: Right. I think a lot of folks are absolutely saying that's new. And I think they're attributing it to the kind of wide reach that social media has. And certainly media has played a huge role, really over the course of the last half century, in getting information out to people who might not necessarily have access to what's happening in other parts of the country, other parts of the world, and getting them engaged in particular ways.
I mean, I think we're not making enough connections to Occupy Wall Street, honestly. You know, some people say it was an interracial movement, and other people say it was predominately white young people. And I think there will be people who look back to that as a building of more and more white young people who became in tune, through the lens of economic injustice, to kind of understand larger forces of a systemic oppression and the ways in which structural racism and structural classism are parts of those.
Rath: And one other part of that seems, you brought this up yourself and it's not something other people haven't pointed out, in terms of what is also new right now, you mentioned that we have cameras that are on everything. Does that serve as an equalizer?
Austin: This one is a tough one for me, because I think that many people will say that seeing that footage, and not just the most recent murder of George Floyd, but sort of over the last decade, for example, seeing all of that footage of the violence of policing and the way that it is used against black and brown men and women and young people, I think people will say that, you know, that sort of proved to them this thing that so many black communities have been saying. And really throughout the history that I look at — and my research really starts at the turn of the 20th century, where black communities are saying this is one of the things that we're fighting is, is police violence, that is sometimes a part of lynching and sometimes not, it's just on the on the city street.
That’s a little bit disturbing for me to think about, the need to see these kinds of images, to see these kinds of videos, to say, 'Oh, we believe that this is really happening,' because I think for many people of color, for many black people, those images, those videos are incredibly painful and traumatic to watch and to watch on a loop.
So I understand how they have become important to kind of bring other people into an understanding about this kind of reality that so many people have been experiencing for a really, really long time. I get it that it's important. I think it's a little bit problematic for me to think about why it was necessary, in the same way that it's hard for me to reconcile why it was necessary for the country to see the mutilated face and body of Emmett Till to then say, 'Oh, we have a real need for change.' So I think yes, absolutely, it has a huge impact and probably will continue to do that. I mean, as we have seen, it has not often resulted in police accountability. So there have been videos and footage, you know, the use of body cams etc. And they actually haven't resulted in police accountability. It's good that it's kind of bringing people out. It's not having an impact on the other side.