In Latest Floyd Protest, Springfield Leans toward the Local…
SPRINGFIELD—Amid the ever-growing national demonstrations following the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis, residents here again took to the streets to demand redress for systemic racism in law enforcement. Unlike this past Wednesday’s protest, however, this past Saturday protesters focused on issues of particular salience to Springfield and its recent racially-tinged episodes.
The choice to march from Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant to its namesake, Nathan Bill Park, in the city’s relatively affluent East Forest Park neighborhood was controversial. Businesses near the bar, probably overreacting, boarded up windows. Fairly or not, the bar, where a confrontation started and led to off-duty cops allegedly beating up a black patron, has become a totem for not just racial injustice but the decay of Pearl Street’s accountability.
Recent incidents like the Nathan Bll’s fracas and l’affaire Bigda prompted city councilors to restore the Police Commission, which the Control Board disbanded a dozen years ago. Mayor Domenic Sarno has refused to implement the Commission ordinance.
On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes leading to his death per medical examiners. The brazen and cold killing of Floyd sparked outrage and protest nationwide.
“While we fight for national level change, we also got to fight on a local level,” at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield said in an interview. “It was purposefully done that we focus on the corruption in the Springfield Police Department.”
At the march’s conclusion in the park, Whitfield, the Council’s only woman of color, read the names of black men who assaulted or killed over the last few decades due to police misconduct.
Whitfield, Council President Justin Hurst, Pioneer Valley Project and the Springfield NAACP co-organized the march. They and other speakers excoriated the injustice of Floyd death and those of others like it and led chants of “Take your knee off our necks.”
Other pols in attendance included Councilors Victor Davila, Adam Gomez and Marcus Williams, School Committee member Denise Hurst, State Senators Eric Lesser and James Welch and Newton Congressman and US Senate Candidate Joseph Kennedy, III.
Both Kennedy and his opponent, incumbent Senator Ed Markey, have frequently spoken at length about the unrest following George Floyd’s, including at a debate broadcast from Springfield last Monday.
Kennedy, whose visit was had been unannounced, did not speak directly to any of Springfield issues. Quoting the Declaration of Independence, Kennedy observed that the the nation’ had an imperfect record of keeping those ideals. Yet, Kennedy committed to standing with protesters’ quest for justice.
“We still have miles to go before we rest,” Kennedy told the protesters outside the restaurant. “I pledge to be here with you. Every single step of the way.”
Markey has attended no fewer than five Floyd protests in the last week and held Zoom-meetings with activists. During the Springfield debate, Markey previewed a bill to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine courts have used to frustrate federal civil rights lawsuits.
In a statement, Markey said his heart breaks for Floyd’s family and friends, “No one should ever have to witness the murder of their loved one. Especially not at the hands of police who are supposed to serve and protect our residents.”
“The soul of America is on fire,” he added, “And until we confront systemic racism, our country will never stop burning.”
While Pearl Street has a rich, despicable history of racist incidents—which many on Saturday invoked—what has frustrated progress in recent years is a standoff between the city’s political branches.
“We’ve been really talking about what we can do locally, immediately,” said Tara Parrish, Pioneer Valley Project’s executive director. “Right now, we’re very clear, we’ve got to clean up our house right here at home.”
In Springfield, organizers said several issues that stand out. The reinstatement of officers indicted for lying to investigators about the incident at Nathan Bill’s, police in schools, and the Police Commission. Sarno’s unilateral declaration the 2016 ordinance is invalid points to issues that run even deeper than the police itself.
“We need the police to not be policing themselves,” Parrish said, a reference to the city’s now-sole Police Commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood. She possesses the singular power to hire, fire and discipline cops.
“When the city council passes legislation, it needs to be respected by the executive branch,” Parrish added.
Historically, the patrolmen’s union has supported a civilian Commission. Ostensibly, it could review their internal complaints and not just the public’s.
A Sarno spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment about whether he would reconsider his opposition. Whitfield said the Council is still seeking a pro bono attorney to sue to enforce the ordinance.
The fracas outside Nathan Bill’s became one of the longest-running examples of the failure to hold police to account. In 2015 off-duty officers allegedly assaulted fellow patron Herman Cumby. Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office did not file charges. In 2018, Attorney General Maura Healey did.
Protesters invoked Gulluni’s failure as an example of the system’s corruption. His office did not reply to a request for comment, but Healey’s office had access to evidence Gulluni’s did not.
Like Sarno and Clapprood, Gulluni has explicitly condemned Floyd’s killing. But he also promised to, “consider ways that this community’s law enforcement can improve and serve all fairly and justly.”
Healey also charged several officers with covering up the underlying assault. The courts have dismissed the cases against some officers in this group, but five remain pending.
Earlier this year, Clapprood reinstated those five, arguing the department needed added manpower during the COVID-19 outbreak. She also implied she considered the ever-continuing start to the officers’ trial. Though reinstated, they have been on desk duty after state and federal prosecutors suggested it was illegal for the indicted officers to carry guns.
Technically, internal investigations into the Nathan Bill’s incident remain ongoing.
Both Parrish and Whitfield also noted that millions the city has paid out to victims of misconduct. Cumby received nearly $900,000 in a settlement with the city.
“Over the last thirteen years we have paid out over $5 million in legal settlements for victims of police misconduct,” Parrish observed. “This is an expensive problem for taxpayers.”
The Island Pond Road plaza that houses Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant was mostly closed Saturday. Plywood covered everything but Walgreens, a dry cleaner and an empty storefront. Nathan Bill covered its sign. The apparent fortification irked protesters, though at least one business wrote a message of support on its plywood.
Arson and looting had broken out in many cities last weekend, though authorities ultimately contained it. Lingering curfews have prompted confrontations, however.
Springfield was never under curfew. Its protests have been peaceful and both Clapprood and Sarno briefly joined last Wednesday’s march from Central High to Pearl Street. Hence protesters’ displeasure at the plywood and at whispered fears that the situation would devolve.
Council President Hurst accused unnamed officials of needlessly raising tensions. “This is a peaceful protest. Stoking fear in residents that this was going to be anything but that is divisive,” he told the hundreds gathered at the plaza.
Rev. Talbert Swan, II the Springfield NAACP’s president, mocked the boarded up storefronts.
That said, the concerns were not only hysteria. Somebody allegedly doxed the bar’s owners and social media spread claims of planned trouble. However, similar unsubstantiated rumors or right-wing misinformation have bedeviled protests in other cities.
Others flatly dismissed fears the protest could turn violent, but critiqued the planning.
Still the hand-wringing proved unnecessary. Motorcycle cops escorted the march to the park. Police kept their distance at the park, as protesters gathered on a ball field amid springtime sprinkle.
Organizers expressed less concern about the police deployment—cops were plentiful but in regular uniforms—than in Sarno’s tone about them the day before.
“I think their response being here was great,” Whitfield said of the police. “What I think was different [from Wednesday] was the mayor’s response,” she continued. Whitfield indicated the mayor’s tone was more divisive, implying trouble was likelier to break out.
Councilor Davila, who chatted with the cops after the speech ended, addressed the police in his remarks at the park.
“We have an expectation that you are going to enforce the law fairly,” he said. But Davila added words that could just as easily apply more broadly while implying shared interests between the police and the community. “Don’t get caught up in this culture of us versus them.”
Davila was less subtle, but many speakers hinted that the problem was bigger than Pearl Street. A deeper rot, one apart from the institutional racism found everywhere, threatens Springfield, its people and its police alike.