The ACLU of Massachusetts represented Mary Holmes in a 2015 lawsuit against the MBTA.

By Rahsaan Hall, Director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts

This is the fourth and final installment in a series of blogs for Black History Month 2020, covering the ACLU's 100 years of racial justice advocacy.

We began this Black History Month blog series looking at some of the ACLU’s notable racial justice advocacy. These cases highlighted the conditions that are a part of America’s dark history of oppression and injustice. They also serve as a reminder that the injustices of yesterday are not merely echoes of a distant past but the soundtrack of our contemporary existence. For this last installment we’ll look at the Massachusetts affiliate and our efforts to confront racism in law enforcement and racially disparate policing.

The energy and activism around police violence against Black people is certainly nothing new, but has received heightened attention in the last half-decade. The power of social media platforms have dramatically transformed the ways in which we consume information and the type of information we receive. The police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and countless others sparked national outrage and highlighted longstanding organizing and activism in Black communities. The recent national spotlight on police violence and misconduct exposed a myriad of policing practices that have historically disrupted Black communities.

The ACLU of Massachusetts has long been involved in pushing for greater police accountability. We have challenged acts of misconduct and aggression against Black people whose rights were violated by the police, like Bancroft Hall. One morning nearly 40 years ago Mr. Hall, who was Black, sat in his car on a quiet Milton street, waiting to pick up his daughter from a schoolmate’s house. A neighbor, suspicious of Mr. Hall, called the police. By the time Mr. Hall’s daughter got into the car, the Milton police had arrived and began to interrogate Mr. Hall aggressively, ultimately pulling him out of his car, kneeing him in the back, and handcuffing him.

Despite the claims of his daughter, the schoolmate, and later the schoolmate’s parent confirming the legitimacy of Mr. Hall and his daughter’s claim, the police arrested him and took him to the police station. The police informed Mr. Hall that they would release him only if he signed a waiver absolving the Milton police department from any liability for claims he may have against them. Faced with the prospect of further detention and the uncertainty of what would happen to his young daughter, he reluctantly signed the waiver. The ACLU later represented Mr. Hall and his daughter in a suit against the town of Milton and four officers for violation of their civil rights, battery, and false imprisonment.

At the time of the lawsuit, this practice—police departments securing waivers for unconstitutional and abusive behavior in exchange for a detained person’s liberty—was not uncommon. During the trial the defendants argued that Mr. Hall’s waiver precluded him from succeeding on his claims against the department and officers. Fortunately, the jury disagreed, as did the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that conditioning an arrestee’s release upon signing such a waiver violated that person’s civil rights. This decision was only a small victory in an unceasing battle to reign in police aggression against Black people.

Several years later, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit challenging the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) “search-on-sight” practice against Black youth. This practice became increasingly more aggressive in the aftermath of a 1989 incident in which Chuck Stuart murdered his wife and blamed a Black assailant. The community outrage and the subsequent revelation that Stuart was the real murderer led to recommendations for significant change in the department. The Boston Police Department Management Review Committee, also known as the St. Clair Commission, made a scathing review of the department’s leadership, management, training, supervision, and internal affairs. After the report’s release, local advocates expected that practices like search on sight would end.

Unfortunately, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. In 2009, there were community concerns that BPD stop-and-frisk practices were disproportionately impacting the Black community. The ACLU responded by requesting data from BPD on street encounters, and both parties reached an agreement to have independent researchers study field interrogation, observation, frisk and/or search (FIO) reports, using data from 2007 to 2010. Those researchers found that Black people were subjected to 63 percent of these encounters, even though they made up just 24 percent of Boston’s population.

The resonant echoes of injustice in the Black community have evolved over time and in some instances diminished. The problem of policing and the violence and trauma associated with it, however, have failed to yield. The ACLU of Massachusetts will continue to confront racially disparate policing practices because they have not faded away. In an incident eerily similar to the officers pulling Mr. Hall out of his vehicle for questioning an officer’s actions, a federal jury found in 2014 that a Worcester police officer violated the civil rights of ACLUM client Wakeelah Cocroft. We also confronted the MBTA police in 2015 for their brutal assault and contrived charges against our client Mary Holmes, who merely saw something wrong, and spoke out.

Being Black in America should not be a crime, but the experience of “living while Black” is a stark reminder of the deep-rooted “otherness” that subjects Black people to hostile police encounters. In an effort proactively address the conditions that led to unnecessary police encounters with our clients, we’ve launched a Living While Black on Campus project. These efforts are by no means a panacea, but they will hopefully alter the drumbeat of injustice so that in future Black History Months we can sing songs of freedom.