A woman who lost her daughter to gun violence while she was serving a prison sentence, a sex worker fighting for safety online and a man currently serving a sentence at a maximum-security prison in Lancaster joined other justice reform activists grilling U.S. Senator Ed Markey and his challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III in an online forum Tuesday night.
The two U.S. Senate candidates made back-to-back appearances on the virtual forum, so there was no direct interaction between them.
Kennedy was challenged about his lack of support for candidates of color attempting to unseat incumbents in previous election years, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ campaigns in 2018.
“In each and every case, you stood with the status quo candidates and against the reform and change candidates,” asked Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing. “How do you reconcile that?”
Kennedy pointed out that Markey did not publicly support Pressley either in her campaign that ultimately unseated former Rep. Michael Capuano.
“It was a very tough choice, and ultimately, I made a decision to support Mr. Capuano because I thought that leadership was important in Massachusetts,” Kennedy said. “I never for a second doubted what Congresswoman Pressley would bring to Massachusetts, and she has done that and more.”
Kennedy and Markey fielded some identical questions from activists and gave nearly identical answers. They both oppose a proposed new jail for women in Suffolk County; support efforts to end solitary confinement; endorse the full decriminalization of sex work on a state and federal level; and called for the restoration of voting rights for people who are incarcerated in Massachussetts.
Markey was asked about a video posted on Twitter by the father of DJ Henry, a Black Easton man who was killed by police officer Aaron Hess in 2010 in New York.
“My wife and I came to you 10 years ago as grieving parents asking for your help with our son’s murder,” Danroy Henry, Sr., said in the video. “Not only did you not act in any way, but we felt like you were just dismissing us, using even the term ‘colored’ in the conversation.” Henry has been seeking a Justice Department investigation of the case.
When asked about the case during the forum, Markey vowed to help, and apologized for the past, repeating a message he released to the family publicly on Monday. “I joined other members of the Massachusetts delegation in 2014 in calling on the Department of Justice to open a federal investigation into DJ Henry’s murder, and I am again calling on the Attorney General to do his job and offer justice to the Henry family and open this long-overdue investigation,” he said. “I have reached out to the Henry family to offer my sincerest apologies, and to pledge to them my complete support to take action on this case. I am fully at their disposal.”
Shortly before the forum Markey sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and other officials asking that they reopen the case.
The forum was presented by Suffolk University, the Justice Reform Coalition, the WGBH Forum Network, and involved a group of Massachusetts-based advocacy organizations including Black & Pink Boston, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and Sisters Unchained.
Kennedy, who opposed marijuana legalization for years, defended his change of heart in cosponsoring a marijuana legalization bill this year. “When it comes to the war on drugs, we have seen enormous disparate impact for minorities, Black and brown communities,” Kennedy said. “That disparate impact needs to be addressed, which means the full-on repeal of the 1994 crime bill, and it means re-examining our criminal justice system.”
Markey, who voted for the 1994 crime bill, said that the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation voted for the bill, which he now sees was “totally wrong.”
“For the first time, there was a Violence Against Women Act provision built into the law. There was also a ban on assault weapons that was built into that law,” Markey said. “But, yes, without question, those sentencing provisions were wrong. That's why I said we owe an apology to an entire generation of African-American young men because of that over-incarceration that has occurred.”
In June, Markey spoke with Darrell Jones, a Massachusetts resident who served 32 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and promised a public apology to every person in the commonwealth who has been wrongly incarcerated.
Markey also pushed for the Next Step Act, a piece of criminal justice reform legislation he co-sponsored with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. “It will reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. It will eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences,” Markey said. “We'll end the federal prohibition on marijuana, expunge records and reinvest in communities most harmed by the war on drugs.”
Kennedy was questioned about his endorsement from Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, and his statement that he is “proud to stand” with Tompkins to fight against “profound injustices.”
The audience question asked Kennedy how he “reconciles having a cop as [his] criminal justice adviser in a political climate that calls for community-led alternatives to the judicial system.”
“So — I don't have a cop as a criminal justice adviser. I have one of the highest African-American elected officials in Boston who has been a champion of criminal justice reform,” Kennedy said. He said Tomkins' insights are valuable but "He's obviously not the only person that I go to for issues around criminal justice reform.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Rachael Rollins' name. The story has also been updated to correct the county where a new jail for women is being proposed.