Photo from Salem vigil by Derek Kouyoumjian
“White allyship is basically shutting up for one minute of your life. It’s imperative to have people of color leading chants and leading the movement.”
As protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement reach the North Shore of Massachusetts and various other suburban areas, the actions are prompting overdue discussions in cities and towns with small Black populations.
On a recent Friday in Newburyport, dozens of residents held up signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “White Silence Is Violence,” and “Justice for Breonna” as cars passed through the busy intersection, occasionally honking in support. Later, participants knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd.
Similar scenes have played out in Beverly, Swampscott, Marblehead, Gloucester, Ipswich, and elsewhere—across the state, in all directions and proximities to major cities—over the past few weeks, as demonstrators take to the streets to fight for police reforms.
What these places share is an overwhelmingly white population—in some of the aforementioned North Shore towns, more than 90% of residents are white, while only around 1% are Black. And unlike in Boston, the protests unfolding in the ’burbs are distinctively, overwhelmingly white, and are often organized by white people and feature white speakers.
Naturally, protests and a fresh awareness around Black Lives Matter have spurred questions around what changes are necessary in these places.
“This uprising, this revolt, revolution, we can call it any of those things, highlights [how] white folk … have been complicit,” explained Rev. Karlene Griffiths Sekou, a minister and organizer with Black Lives Matter Boston. Griffiths Sekou added that “when we talk about white privilege,” the long history of “white supremacy in the name of protection of white neighborhoods, white communities, white families” must be acknowledged.
Though other tragic incidents involving police brutality in years past have led to protests, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, along with several other comparable killings since, have struck a particular chord, including with many white Americans. In one Monmouth University poll, a telling 71% of white Americans said that racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the US, up 20 points from 51% in 2015. Statistics aren’t action, of course, but also notable is that 49% of white Americans now say police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black culprit, up from 25% in 2016. With that momentum, Griffiths Sekou said this is the time for white Americans to lead their own protests and make white leadership and support a part of the movement against systemic racism.
“It is a matter of white people deciding who they’re going to be and what kind of world they want to leave to their children, because as we’ve seen for hundreds of years Black people have not ceased to resist and to revolt and to plan and strategize for freedom and to be able to breathe,” Griffiths Sekou said. “What many of us hope is that white people use what we call white privilege, but I call white entitlement, to interrogate why aren’t there Black people here, and to organize to interrogate white power and white supremacy and then to begin to create a more just and integrated community.”
In some places, protest organizers are working to do that.
“I guess the goal would be to raise awareness, especially in a majority white city, where we’re very privileged,” said Mandy Linehan, a 2017 Newburyport High School graduate who organized a Black Lives Matter protest in Newburyport. “It’s very easy when you live in a majority white place to ignore something like that because you don’t have to see yourself. And it’s important that people do see that.”
Linehan originally planned to go out with a sign on her own on a day off of work, but her idea blew up on social media, and she wound up organizing a protest with more than 100 participants. Now, she plans to step back and follow the lead of people of color.
“In these spaces, especially when it’s white majority, hearing the voices of people of color is imperative,” said Linehan, who doesn’t plan on organizing another protest.
“You can support,” she added. “White allyship is basically shutting up for one minute of your life. It’s imperative to have people of color leading chants and leading the movement.”
But in areas like Beverly, the support of white community members can be an important tool for nonwhite organizers.
Naisha Tatis (BHS ’20) and Amanda Ramos (BHS ’21), who organized a Beverly Black Lives Matter walk on June 10 that drew hundreds of participants, were grateful for the support of city officials and the community, and said that it would have been hard to organize the march without the help of officials.
“With communities like ours, we can show that you can make change in any community that you live in,” Tatis said. “Our community is predominantly white, and it’s not many people of color, but even so we had a lot of support from people who were not of color.”
Tatis and Ramos also invited the mayor and the chief of police, both white men, to speak at the march, and said they felt hopeful about police reforms and funding redistributions taking place in Beverly. They felt like city officials were listening and understood what Black Lives Matter means, and that the community was being supportive.
“It was not like we were serving them, but it was like they were helping us,” Tatis explained. “They were there every step of the way, making sure that all of our goals were met for this walk.”
But some protest attendees found the number of white voices problematic. Vanecia Niamoko, a 2019 Beverly High School graduate, left the Beverly rally feeling disillusioned.
“I guess what I felt going to the march was just kind of, it felt very much like it was designed for people to feel comfortable about Black Lives Matter,” Niamoko said. “Which is not the point. The point is that you’re supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s why you’re going.”
Niamoko emphasized that they had great respect for the protest’s organizers, but said they felt like the protest was performative and was used by city officials as an attempt to show that Beverly is not racist and should not have to change.
“I think the issue was the lack of education and also just the huge white leadership presence,” Niamoko said. “It became very much like, We, the city of Beverly, are not racist, we love Black people here … even the mayor, his speech was very much like, We’re not racist, we’re not going to change anything.”
Niamoko said that Black people should have been able to select the speakers, and should have done the speaking. Even if the protest hadn’t centered white voices, though Niamoko found some actions of white demonstrators ignorant and upsetting.
“I don’t think people who went to the march actually read about Black Lives Matter, or were educated about the whole movement,” Niamoko said. “If they were educated they would understand that you can’t hold the Black power fist up, you can’t say, ‘I can’t breathe’ if you’re white.”
Following the protest, Niamoko wrote a letter to Beverly’s mayor, Michael Cahill the city’s police chief, John LeLacheur; and Jim Thompson, the chair of the Beverly Democratic City Committee, detailing Niamoko’s own thoughts on the protest. They have not received a response, which to them is further evidence that officials would rather absolve themselves than respond to criticism.
Areas like Newburyport and Beverly don’t tend to have the overt displays of racism that many Americans associate with the South. Or even Maine or New Hampshire, where confederate flags seem to fly more frequently. Black Lives Matter protests in the Mass ’burbs have mostly gone smoothly, though there are any number of incidents one can point to that show how much change is still needed.
North of the Hub, the mayor of Melrose recently apologized for a town traffic sign that was programmed to read “All Lives Matter,” a common bigoted rebuke of Black Lives Matter; south of Boston, in Braintree, a heated battle over the town’s racist mascot has led to extremely unsavory public commentary. As a former Braintree High School student wrote in a blog post that went viral locally and earned the author significant ire from old classmates: “I don’t really feel connected to Braintree anymore. And if you still feel very much connected to Braintree, that’s cool too. Regardless, admitting your own flaws is hard. Admitting that you were a part of the systemic race problem in Braintree is harder.”
“It just dawned on me that the reason why I never felt connected to this town and this area was solely because of the mindset that people didn’t know that they were either an accomplice to racism or that they themselves were racist,” Niamoko said about Beverly.
Griffiths Sekou, the Black Lives Matter organizer, emphasized that white supremacy is more pervasive than many white liberals may assume.
“It could be that most people don’t even know what that is,” Griffiths Sekou said. “Maybe it only looks like, you know, somebody in the South wearing a white hood. But we’re saying, No, it looks like the wonderful cousin, father, uncle, sister, brother, aunt who dons a police uniform because they’re part of the system.”
Griffiths Sekou said she expected there to be significant resistance to changes like defunding or abolishing the police in small, left-leaning, white cities and towns. Recent happenings in the proudly progressive enclave of Brookline back up her point. As organizers there wrote in a statement following the sudden resignation of the town’s police chief (which followed the stepping-down of the chief in neighboring Newton):
Residents and working people in Brookline view it as no coincidence that the Brookline police chief’s resignation comes on the heels of the emerging grassroots movement in the town to defund the police by 50% to fund social services like education and housing. This movement has been spearheaded by a coalition of dedicated activists from Wake Up Brookline, Brookline Budget Justice, Grassroots Brookline, and Boston Socialist Alternative. We affirm that this victory for working people in Brookline, particularly people of color, speaks to the strength of the movement that we have built. It is precisely this movement which has made the former police chief’s position become “untenable.”
“This is institutional racism that we’re dealing with. We’re not just asking for one guy to quit. We want the whole system to change. This is a good first step. We’d like to see more from the town,” said Chiuba Obele, a Brookline resident and leading organizer in the movement to defund the Brookline police.
“I think there isn’t a step back to study and understand why Black communities, why we’re calling for abolishment of the police,” Griffiths Sekou said. “The history of policing was designed to, first of all, capture runaway slaves, to contain and surveil black bodies, to protect white boundaries, white property, white bodies, white lives, white things and modes of being, thinking, and doing.”
Not all protestors are calling for abolishment of the police. But there does seem to be some consensus emerging around several proposals and ideas—reallocating police funding to critical social services, instituting reforms such as increased training and greater accountability, and improving education around systemic racism and African American and non-Eurocentric history.
While exact proposals vary between municipalities, there is a strong feeling that a crucial first step is for officials to recognize and concede that changes need to be made, and that racism exists—even in small, liberal communities.
“We’re not completely saying that the police station is terrible and we need to completely get rid of it, we’re just saying that changes certainly need to be made,” Tatis explained. “And first and foremost, recognize that change needs to be made.”
“The problem is that our community is majority white,” said Linehan, who organized the protest in Newburyport. “What happens if we, say in 10 years, have a 75% increase in the amount of people of color, what happens then? That’s when you will see the overt racism.”
“People do not want to admit that our community officers are only community officers because we are majority white,” Linehan added.
Beyond police reform, protest organizers were adamant that education needs to change, in order to benefit white and nonwhite students alike.
“I know as a kid I had many white friends, and they didn’t know much about me,” said Tatis, the Beverly protest organizer. “Our friend groups are predominantly white being in the city that we’re in, and if we started off learning about African American history, and kids who are not currently learning about what it means to have privilege as a white person in society did, I think we could avoid a lot of the issues that we have today.”
Linehan said that at Newburyport High School, issues like systemic and institutional racism and slavery were only really covered in honors and AP classes, leaving some students with little knowledge of important elements of US history.
“It’s really imperative that we take steps in not only our public education to inform the public and inform these kids about their privilege, but it also is very much important to have those conversations from the time that someone is young,” Linehan said.
“A whole bunch of other POCs came out and told me that I was not alone in my experiences, that for years, they themselves had also been feeling that,” Niamoko said. “I think in a way, there’s just hope. And I think if we the citizens continue to keep that hope and keep that mindset of educating ourselves, there will be change in Beverly and other towns as well.”
This article was published in DigBoston.