Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been widely applauded by Boston's Black community for issuing a formal apology Wednesday for the city's racist response to the 1989 murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart.
But activists and community leaders said Wu's apology needs to be just the first step. They say Boston now needs to take concrete actions to repair the past damage — and the harm still being done — to the Black community.
On Wednesday, Wu formally apologized on behalf of the city to Alan Swanson and Willie Bennett, two Black men who were wrongly linked to the fatal shooting 34 years ago, and to Black Bostonians generally.
“I want to say to Mr. Swanson and Mr. Bennett, the entire Bennett family, and Boston’s entire Black community, I am so sorry for what you endured that day,” Wu said, with Swanson and the Bennett family by her side. "I am so sorry for the pain that you have carried for so many years. What was done to you was unjust, unfair, racist and wrong, and this apology is long overdue.”
The unprecedented apology came after the Boston Globe launched a podcast, HBO docuseries and print series revisiting the Stuart murder. On Oct. 23, 1989, Charles "Chuck" Stuart, who was white, falsely claimed that a Black man shot him and killed his pregnant wife in a violent carjacking. His lie led to an intense police manhunt targeting young Black men all over the city before arresting Swanson and Bennett.
Relatives of Willie Bennett came together in Roxbury Thursday night to speak with the community. Several of the men in Bennett family came on stage in black Adidas track suits, the outfit that fit the description of the supposed Black man who Charles Stuart told police had shot and killed his wife.
“Anybody who grew up in Roxbury in the '80s and '90s — everybody in every neighborhood — had one of those things [track suits]. So that was an all-call to any Black male between 4 feet and 7 feet: 'You're under attack, and you’re a suspect,'” moderator Dr. Rufus Faulk said at the discussion held at Roxbury Community College.
Star Bennett, who was 6 years old when police stormed her home looking for Willie Bennett, recalled the terror of that experience.
“I remember that night like it was yesterday: Three gunmen in my room, shields, machine guns, shotguns, one officer put a rifle to my head. They told me to get out of the bed and follow them. ... They sat us around at the kitchen table. We're just crying. They're not saying anything. They're just rumbling through the house, throwing everything around,” she said.
“So to say that we’re angry, we’re bitter, we’re upset, an apology 34 years later, we’ll accept it — you [Joey] made that statement yesterday — we'll accept the apology, but it doesn’t fix anything.”
“We'll accept the apology, but it doesn’t fix anything.”Star Bennett
The Bennett family members and others who spoke at the event Thursday night also expressed outrage over the number of wrongful imprisonments and convictions that continue to impact their families, friends and neighbors.
Sean Ellis, Steven Pina and Mac Hudson talked about their own experiences of imprisonment and the need for changes to the state’s justice system that would resolve wrongful convictions sooner and help them get home to parent and possibly prevent violence among young people on their neighborhood streets.
“My son was born when I was in Charles Street Jail,” Hudson said. “I’ve been in jail all of his life. He’s 34. I’ve been in prison 33 years.”
When asked what should come after Mayor Wu’s apology on behalf of the city of Boston, Sen. Liz Miranda mentioned the similar struggles against the justice system by people in Brockton, Fall River, Lowell and many other gateway cities in the state. She said the demands to bring people home and rectify more wrongs must go all the way to Gov. Maura Healey.
In a joint interview with GBH News earlier Thursday, Tito Jackson, chair of Boston’s commission on Black Men and Boys, and Yawu Miller, former senior editor of the Bay State Banner, also emphasized that Wu’s apology alone isn't sufficient.
“The problem with the focus on the Stuart case,” Miller said, “is that the practices that the police engaged in during the Stuart case were happening long before. And to this day, you know, young kids are having their civil rights violated by the police. They're being illegally searched. It's still happening.”
The symbolism of the mayoral apology “represents a turning point,” Miller said, but only if it is followed with changes in policing. “The bigger question is, how might the police change their practices so that what happened during the Stuart case doesn't continue happening?”
Jackson — who, as a teenager, was one of those Black youth stopped and frisked by police in the wake of the Carol Stuart’s murder — said Black Bostonians still face inequities and unfair treatment not only in policing but also in employment, education and housing, and they are increasingly being pushed out of the city.
“Those overarching dynamics are not affected by what just happened,” Jackson said. “So this is a good and important step around justice, but it has to be have a higher level relative to public safety, housing, education and all of the other things that are important parts of government."
Both men applauded Wu for having the courage to make the apology, saying it was probably not politically popular, and that some element of white Bostonians likely were upset by the announcement. But Miller said there is nothing Wu can do to satisfy that element anyway.
“There is no amount of tweaking to the message or to the city's action that's going to assuage the fury of, you know, white people in the city who feel like their position of privilege is being diminished now because people of color are in prominent positions in city government and county government and state government,” he said.
“You have to push forward towards what is right and also towards what is the future of the city of Boston,” Jackson added. “If we don't have restitution, if we don't actually fix these problems, these things get internalized. It harms people and harms the children and it harms our community.”
Annie Shreffler contributed reporting.