August 26, 2020
“Papa, when are they going to stop killing black people? “ Phil Hillman, a Dorchester resident and leader at St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, was tasked with trying to answer. He told me later, “During my prayer time, God reminded me that we are called to make a difference. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization gave me a way to make that difference, and my grandson proud.”
When Hillman shared this story at a GBIO in-district Zoom meeting with his elected officials, it pinned not only the memory of George Floyd’s gruesome murder, but also, for me, one not easily forgotten Boston incident from 1989:
Charles Stuart, a white man, falsely accused a Black man as the killer of his wife in a high profile murder that Stuart himself had committed. That was all it took for white detectives to go out in unprecedented numbers and destroy a Black community in hunt of this fictionalized Black man. The trust of police in the Black community still has not been fully restored to this day.
Over six weeks, GBIO, an interfaith civic-power building organization, held 13 Zoom in-district meetings. In one such meeting, 119 constituents from Brookline, Allston, and Brighton watched on Zoom as GBIO leader Samuel Botsford of Temple Israel confronted his state representative, Tommy Vitolo, around police accountability.
“Representative Vitolo, qualified immunity has been a legal shield protecting police officers from accountability for too long. Unfortunately, the House’s qualified immunity reform language is weak. Please answer yes or no - will you support a qualified immunity reform amendment to the police bill that is at least as strong as the Senate’s proposals?”
Vitolo responded, “No, I won’t,” citing concerns that the language was too broad. “We strongly hope you will reconsider,” Sam said as constituents looked on, “and stand up for police accountability.”
Two days later, Rep. Vitolo voted yes on the main amendment to strengthen qualified immunity reform. It was a bold pivot, and truth be told, more reps need to show stronger commitment to racial justice.
GBIO’s virtual in-district meetings were opportunities for ordinary people of faith to build and exercise power for justice. Leaders organized across differences in congregation, race, faith, and class to hold their legislators accountable to specific commitments and tell their personal stories.
A tenant leader in Wellesley public housing told of her wrongful eviction in support of the eviction moratorium; a home health care aide in Dorchester told of her son’s assault by police as he returned from the bodega; a grocery store worker in Jamaica Plain testified to the impossible decision of working during coronavirus while immuno-compromised, or quitting work and losing employer-provided health insurance that covers necessary medications costing $136,000 annually.
A long fought-for surprise billing and mental health bill has been passed, though a bill to reduce prescription drug prices for essential medications during COVID was withdrawn. The most controversial fight of the summer, however, is still not finished: the police accountability bill.
We don’t know how this bill will end up, but GBIO knows that people change when the cost of not changing becomes too great. That is why 800 constituents from Arlington to Hyde Park, from Newton to Dorchester met with 23 state reps. and demanded commitments from them. GBIO also made nearly 1,600 phone calls, tweets, and emails to our representatives to push for racial justice in policing, housing, health care, and decarceration. Each action was led and organized almost entirely by volunteer leaders from congregations and neighborhoods, acting as a counterweight to the police unions and other forces mobilized against reform.
A conference committee is reconciling the bills now. We pray, as a people of faith, that they will have the strength to stand up for real police reform and be accountable to us, their people, for change. We also know faith without works is dead, so our next piece of work is to push Gov. Baker to validate the voices of the ordinary people by signing a strong police accountability bill.
Beverly Williams is co-chair of GBIO, a broad-based organization organizing people from 41 congregations and nonprofits in Greater Boston across religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines.