Boston Police surrounded us at a cemetery based on a false tip
May 11, 2018
by Arielle Gray*, AFROPUNK Contributor
I never thought I’d be surrounded by over 10 cops at a cemetery, of all places. A bodega maybe or even on the street in my hood but a cemetery? Somehow, the place where we mourn our dead always seemed like sacred space to me. But it seems that black people cannot even honor their deceased in peace.
On April 20th, Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force surrounded my boyfriend, his brother, their female friend and myself at a cemetery in Hyde Park, MA. We were there to celebrate my boyfriend’s deceased cousin- it was his birthday. My boyfriend’s brother brought a Happy Birthday balloon, which he tied to the grave. We stood in relative silence, occasionally broken by their reminiscing of their cousin’s life. Less than 10 minutes after our arrival, BPD had us completely surrounded.
When we saw the 5 unmarked black trucks speed into the empty cemetery, we didn’t think too much of it. But when over 10 officers got out and approached us, we all knew something was terribly wrong. “Put your hands up,” an officer said walking towards us, with his hand on his holster. The other officers closed in on us. Knowing all too well what happens when black bodies don’t comply, we put our hands in the air. None of us dared reach for our phones to record. They searched all of us while we stood on my boyfriend’s cousin’s grave. They asked us our names and if we had any prior arrests, all questions we were not legally obligated to answer. But fear made us answer anyways. After they were done searching us, we asked them what the probable cause was, to which they only responded with “a tip”. They left in a hurry, meanwhile telling us they meant no “disrespect”. I tried to get one of the officer’s badge numbers as they walked away. He did comply but my hands were shaking so bad, I couldn’t correctly type the numbers. My phone died just as he turned away from me.
My boyfriend and I immediately knew who called in the tip. Right at the entrance of the cemetery was a house that we pulled my Prius in front of briefly to let another car pass us. We noticed that the occupants, a white couple who had just gone inside, reopened the front door and stared at us until we pulled into the cemetery. We were there for maybe 30 seconds but that must’ve been too long for their comfort.
The Internal Affairs officer handling our complaint confirmed that there were no other incidences in Hyde Park, MA on that day that would’ve warranted the Strike Force reacting the way they did. After talking with my father, a Brockton Criminal Justice employee for over 20 years, he told me quite plainly that the tip must’ve suggested that we were possibly armed and dangerous.
White people calling in tips because they feel “unsafe” or “uncomfortable” is a reality black people have lived with since the police force was created in 1844. Police have always served as the hand of justice scared or spiteful white people can count on to deliver swift and exact punishment. The police were created to protect white people and their sensibilities in the first place. It should come as no surprise that in the 21st century, it still operates that way.
In Boston, a long history of racial and class tensions have birthed a deep rooted distrust of the police by black people. A Massachusetts High Court threw out a gun conviction case in 2016, ruling that “black men who flee when approached by police may be reacting to racial profiling rather than trying to hide criminal activity”– studies show that Black and Latinos are disproportionately stopped or targeted by BPD. In 2017, BPD found itself dealing with a scandal when a video perpetuating racist stereotypes of black people was leaked- the video was made by an officer and featured another. In February of this year, a black man was stopped and harassed on the street by a BPD officer on his way to get a haircut. The video went viral.
All across this country, white people are calling in tips that directly threaten and endanger our bodies yet receive no punishment when the information is proven to be false. Tamir Rice was killed when the police followed a tip called in by a man who admitted to being inebriated at the time of the call. John Crawford was murdered by police in 2014 after a white man called in a false tip claiming Crawford was pointing a gun at shoppers in a Walmart – video footage proved the man exaggerated what he saw. This week, Bob Marley’s granddaughter Donisha Prendergast and her friends (all black women) were surrounded by police and falsely accused of robbery as they left their California AirBnB . This tip was called in by a white neighbor who grew suspicious when the group “didn’t wave to her”.
There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and feeling unsafe, a nuance that white people haven’t seemed to grasp yet. Black people have more than enough experience feeling both simultaneously, especially when we’re surrounded and interrogated by the police force. When white people call in tips fueled by their own inherent racist biases, they go unpunished and the court system upholds their actions by refusing to set concrete legislation when it comes to false or exaggerated tips. Are our bodies not worth repercussion when put in harm’s way? Are our bodies not even worth slapping these people with a monetary fine?
Jason Johnson points out in his article for The Root that “you can get arrested for pulling a fire alarm, making fake bomb threats …” yet somehow calling in false tips goes without consequences. It’s merely another veiled way for whites to leverage an already broken system in their favor, to remind us that at the end of the day, they have the power to kill us via proxy if they want to.
As I sat in BPD’s Internal Affairs department waiting to be interviewed for the complaint we filed, all I could think of was how the white couple who called in the tip weren’t being questioned or called into headquarters. They didn’t have to spend their time defending their stance or proving their innocence- we however did. By default, they were already innocent. And by default, we were not.
When the Internal Affairs officer told me it could take weeks to months to settle the complaint, I automatically knew what that meant. I knew that it meant what happened to us would go unseen and unpunished, as it always does. The humiliation I felt at their blatant disregard for our trauma has slowly turned into a seething anger over the past few weeks.
I felt powerless then.
All I can now is write.
* Arielle Gray on Twitter: @bonitafrobum