“Town of Brookline MLK Celebration: Keeping the Promise” congregates both supporters and protestors
In the main viewing room of the Coolidge Corner Theater on Jan. 18, a slideshow on the treatment of Black American citizens throughout history filled the screen while jazz music flowed from the speakers. As audience members took their seats, murmurs about a protest outside floated through the air. The protest of boycotters to the celebration was a showing of support for Brookline Police Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, both of whom have recently made allegations of racial discrimination and prejudice within the Brookline Police Department. The audience members were mostly elderly White men and women, and while there were also young children and members of the Brookline Police force in the room, there were very few people of color.
January 20, 2016
Speakers at MLK Celebration event address history of racism and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The indoor event was the Town of Brookline MLK Celebration: Keeping the Promise on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which featured speeches and poems about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, as well efforts to hold a conversation on how to achieve racial equality in Brookline.
A flier from the management of the Coolidge Corner Theater was handed to all who entered the event, asking them not to interrupt the proceedings. The flier referred to an interruption at last year’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. event, where protestors with a sign reading Black Lives Matter got up on stage during the ceremony.
The first speaker was Brookline selectman and chair of the MLK Committee Bernard Greene. Before he introduced the program, he asked the audience members to turn their attention to the flier. He emphasized that when it came time to participate in the event it must be done with respect. He explained that the purpose of the program was to honor Dr. King’s life and his commitment to social justice.
Although three a capella groups from the high school were supposed to perform at the event, according to Greene, they withdrew their participation.
Greene concluded his remarks by speaking broadly about racism in America, then saying that “Brookline’s history carries some of that stain.”
The next speech was a tribute to civil rights activist Julian Bond made by a member of both Town Meeting and Advisory Committee Bobbie Knable. Bond, who passed away on August 15, 2015, was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC, an organization which brought together college activists, was active during the 1960s, and played a role in the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, mostly in the South.
Then, the lights in the theater dimmed and the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by James
Weldon Johnson and arranged by John Rosamond Johnson, appeared on screen. The song is considered an anthem of the civil rights movement. A handful of audience members sung along quietly in their seats.
The song was followed by remarks from director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations in Brookline Lloyd Gellineau. Gellineau spoke of his own struggles connecting with the civil rights movement. He described himself as “envious” of older citizens’ direct involvement with movement during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Gellineau said that despite this, he still felt a strong connection to Dr. King, likening him to Santa, the Pope, President Lincoln, a superhero and Gellineau himself as a child. The speech ended with Gellineau explaining that this connection to Dr. King has inspired him to be involved in his community.
The next part of the program was a series of poetry readings. The first two poems were read by Brookline poet laureate Jan Schreiber. He initially read an excerpt from “Dark Symphony” by Melvin B. Tolson, addressing White people who tell Black people to forget about their history. The line, “They tell us to forget,” was repeated multiple times during the selected passage.
The second poem Schreiber read was “Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. Schreiber said that he considered this a response to the questions posed in “Dark Symphony”. His deep voice carried Hughes’ words throughout the auditorium.
Schreiber was followed by nationally ranked slam poet Regie Gibson, who performed an original work entitled “When They Speak Of Our Time They Will Say…” The poem discussed what will be remembered of current day by future generations, such as 9/11, race relations and police brutality, the bi-partisan divide, the war on terror, gender equality and more. He ended the performance with a wish for universal peace.
The next work came from senior Hannah Timmermann, who performed her slam poem “How to Tell Your Racist Family that You Held the Hand of a Black Boy”. The poem was in the form of a list, laying out the steps that one should take as they explain their relationship with a Black boy to loved ones who don’t see race the same way as they do. The family in the poem reacted to the described relationship in a negative way. Timmermann also referenced many of the recent race related shootings in America.
The keynote address was delivered by Brookline High School graduate and law professor at Northeastern University Susan A. Maze-Rothstein. Maze-Rothstein’s lecture, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” was about how institutionalized racism is entrenched in our society and how it is often hard for White people to confront this reality.
Maze-Rothstein proposed using a policy called “restorative justice” to renew trust between communities who often look upon each other with suspicion. Rather than crime and punishment, Maze-Rothstein said restorative justice allows involved parties to discuss problems and come to a fair conclusion.
Knable then returned to the stage to read the poem “Revolutionary Dreams” by Nikki Giovanni.
The ceremony ended with Gellineau thanking the crowd for attending the ceremony and being part of the celebration of the life of Dr. King.
Students protest outside of the MLK event
“The Town of Brookline MLK Celebration: Keeping the Promise,” was an event held on Jan. 18, that strove to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. With hundreds in attendance at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee hosted a program full of speeches, poems and songs as a tribute to the legacy of Dr. King. Throughout the event, speakers both articulated Dr. King’s achievements and reminded the audience how racism is still prevalent in Brookline. Outside the celebration, approximately 35 people protested alleged racism in the Brookline Police and Fire Departments, an issue that has been magnified with the allegations of racial discrimination and prejudice by Brookline Police Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun.
Brookline students and residents who took part in the protest outside explained how they felt about the event.
Senior Maya Jakubowski
“It is pretty ironic that the same people who are promoting racism, within the police department and towards the employees and the citizens of Brookline, are also planning an event that is promoting equality.”
Brookline resident Ginger Melton
“A year ago Officer Pilot and Officer Zerai-Misgun went to Brookline Police Department Chief Daniel C. O’Leary and asked that something be done about the . At this point, they literally feel unsafe working on the police force. You need to be able to trust that your fellow officers are going to have your back when something serious and deadly happens. Because of the racism by their superior officers, they no longer feel safe. We are asking the town to give them paid leave while the town gets to the root of the problem and solves the issues.”
Senior Hal Triedman
“There were alleged incidents of racism in the Brookline Police Department and in the Brookline Fire Department. In the case of White officers who were under investigation for indecent assault and battery, they were given paid leave, whereas the two Black officers who were whistle blowers and who were talking about institutionalized racism are not getting paid leave. They have had to use all of their sick days.”
Senior Camille Whyte
“I feel like Brookline definitely uses this day as a token day of diversity to be like, ‘yes, our town is diverse,’ when in actuality, Brookline residents, especially the selectmen and the police officers, treat people of color in a very racist manner. I don’t think that’s something I want to be supporting, (so I’m standing) outside and not supporting this token day of color.”
Senior Talia Putnoi
“I think personally, there’s a lot of controversy around this. I know my mom was like, ‘Why are you protesting this?’ I think it’s hard but I think that action is carrying out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream in a way that perhaps just sitting and singing doesn’t. I want to take action. I don’t want to be passive, and that’s the reason why I’m here.”