Leaders from Boston’s Black communities leveled on Wednesday sharp critiques of Mayor Marty Walsh's record on racism, leaving the mayor to defend his administration's response to calls for racial justice and equity in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
“Mr. Mayor, you said we needed to listen to Black people and people on the streets,” said Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA), a nonprofit organization that advocates for Black-owned businesses across the state. "People are done with talk, and done with ‘reform.’ People are looking for a new world.”
The comments came during a virtual roundtable titled “Boston and Race: Where do We Go From Here?” sponsored by The Boston Globe and moderated by Globe columnist Adrian Walker. Walsh has made several public commitments in recent weeks to work to eliminate racism and racial inequity “at every level of city government,” and appointed last week Dr. Karilyn Crockett as Boston’s first-ever chief of equity.
While Idowu, Walsh and the other panelists agreed, at least broadly, on the problem — deeply rooted and persistent inequity for Boston residents of color, and especially Black Bostonians — the conversation was testy at times, and marked one of the first times in recent weeks Walsh has faced direct criticism on his plans for racial equity, at least in public.
Idowu challenged the mayor on several points, including Walsh’s move to reallocate $12 million in police overtime costs towards other social programs, despite calls from activists and other leaders to make far more substantial cuts or other reductions to the Boston Police Department.
“People talk about a small cut in the budget, $12 million — it’s a cut of $12 million,” Walsh said. “And over the last several weeks in Boston, we’ve seen many more calls for fireworks, we’ve seen more violence in our city, we’ve seen seven people killed in the last 10 days, we’ve seen our shootings going up.”
Walsh noted that he has convened a task force to make recommendations on any changes to current police policy, and that the Boston Police Department has already implemented many reforms, including community policing measures, training for mental health emergencies, and adoption of body cameras.
“I didn’t hear any of the folks in the streets calling for the types of reforms you’ve outlined," Idowu said.
Fellow panelist Monica Cannon-Grant, founder and director of the nonprofit Violence in Boston, struck a less adversarial tone but agreed that she and other activists are calling for broader change to policing.
“I support defunding the police,” Cannon-Grant said. “And there are some things that are, systematically, never going to change. And this is the part where me and Marty talk and disagree, respectfully.”
“But I’m also cognizant that us getting rid of the whole police department probably won’t happen in my lifetime,” Cannon-Grant said. “And I’m interested to see what the transition will look like, to us shifting away from policing to more mental health workers, more people who can respond to things that are not violent activities.”
Idowu also highlighted the persistently low number of minority-owned businesses included in hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracting every year.
Read more: The Color Of Public Money
Figures released by the Walsh administration last week show that while the city appears to have made some progress toward increased participation, minority-owned firms continue to represent only around 5 percent of city contract spending.
Walsh conceded that the numbers for inclusion of those businesses are low, but noted that as much as half of some $17 million in city business relief grants during the coronavirus crisis went to minority-owned businesses, and pointed to a new city Equity Fund he established to steer private philanthropy toward such businesses going forward.
Those answers did not satisfy Idowu, who responded, “The job of folks like the mayor, or the governor or other officials, is not to tell us ‘no’ or tell us what can’t be done,” Idowu said. “But rather to ask us how and to work with us to do that.”
Toeing what may prove to be a delicate line for some time to come, newly appointed Boston Equity Chief Karilyn Crockett sought something of a middle ground in the verbal sparring.
“In the City of Boston, we have been working on [these issues] for quite a while, and often times that’s been beyond the walls of government,” Crockett said. "So now, we’re trying to have a different kind of conversation.”