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Senior Donnaya Brown sits in protest in the atrium with juniors KeiAntey Gamble and Destiny David during C-block. Photo by Kendall McGowan/Sagamore staff.

January rife with conversations on race and increasing protest

March 16, 2016

Between conflicts within the Brookline Police Department, Martin Luther King Day celebrations in the town and at the high school that addressed alleged institutionalized racism and recent student protests, the month leading up to Black History Month was replete with local racial activism and attempts to raise awareness.

In December, police officers Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot vocalized concerns that they had encountered racial discrimination within the Brookline Police Department and felt unsafe in the presence of other officers. Both were put on unpaid leave and have stated that they are unlikely to come back.

“I lived in Charlestown, a mostly Irish town, when I was younger,”  Zerai-Misgun said. “There were a lot of race problems in Boston years ago. Living in Brookline, though, that’s the most racism I’ve ever experienced. It’s a different kind of racism. It’s more of a discreet racism.”

Brookline Police Officer Prentice Pilot (Left), Police Chief Dan O'Leary (center), Officer Zerai-Misgun (right)
Brookline Police Officer Prentice Pilot (Left), Police Chief Dan O’Leary (center), Officer Estifanos Zerai-Misgun (right)

Pilot said he was skeptical about the police department investigation into their complaints.

“I’m not at all convinced about the ability of this town or police department to hold an investigation and figure things out,” Pilot said. “What they do is they hold investigations, they have meetings and meetings, they convene and convene, hire a study. And then what happens throughout all that time is that time elapses, it becomes no longer a contemporaneous issue and then you move into issues like we’ve seen with so many other things that happened is this town.”

On Jan. 5, over 40 people spoke at a meeting at Town Hall in response to the ongoing situation with the two officers. Among them was Steps to Success Adviser Dan Arroyo, who said he wanted both a clear timeline and transparency on the issue.

“I grew up facing a lot of different racial situations, and if anybody has some shade on their skin, they know what I’m talking about,” Arroyo said. “For all my allies and friends who are White, caucasian, any other color you want to speak about, you’ll never know what it is to live our lives, but it doesn’t mean that you guys are racist. We do need to step up in this situation. We are asking for some transparency. We’re talking about ‘swift,’ and I’m reading these reports about swift. What does ‘swift’ mean?  Is it a month? Is it six months? It’s almost as if people are saying things and there’s no transparency to what’s going on.”

dan arroyo

Community member Fred Lavitan spoke in support of the police department at the Jan. 5 meeting.

“It’s a wonderful thing to come out here and support these officers tonight, as everyone has done,” Lavitan said. “A number of you believe that the police are the problem. I’m sorry, but I strongly feel that you’re wrong. Here in Brookline, we are very fortunate to have Dan O’Leary as our Chief of Police. Chief O’Leary is as good a chief as is possible. He is an honorable man. I believe in his honesty, and I think it is above question. It sickens me when I hear people say that the chief may be biased, or that the chief would never find one of his officers responsible for any wrongdoing. That’s wrong and wrong again.”

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Lavitan defended the selectman’s handling of the issue.

“Our selectmen are citizen volunteers,” Lavitan said. They deserve respect. They donate thousands of hours away from their families to service the town. If you don’t like what they do, don’t vote for them. Better yet, become involved in the town yourself. Run for town meeting or selectmen yourselves. See if you can do a better job.”

Chief of Police Daniel O’Leary offered the department’s perspective on the ongoing case in a separate interview. He responded to Zerai-Misgun’s claim that O’Leary breached his confidentiality, and as a result, he was ostracized.

“He never told me he was ostracized,” O’Leary said. “I told him, and I told the officers who were in the room that there was no way that this [complaint] would remain confidential. I spoke, and I told them I would speak at the Command Staff meeting, with almost all of our supervisors, which is a number right around 32. I was going to tell them what was taking place, and I told them who the officers were. I told them, and they knew who the officers were. They knew Estifanos had brought that forth. I never promised him that it would stay confidential. As a matter of fact, I told him that it would not be staying confidential.”

Against the backdrop of the police department investigation and Town Hall meeting, the town celebrated Martin Luther King Day. On Jan. 18, members of the Brookline community congregated at the Coolidge Corner Theatre for this annual event. They celebrated with songs, poetry readings and several speeches on race.

“Town of Brookline MLK Celebration: Keeping the Promise” congregates both supporters and protestors

Later in the week, on Thursday, Jan. 21, the high school held its own MLK Day assembly. Speakers included Headmaster Deborah Holman, senior Kerimal Suriel and senior Hal Treidman. There was also a song by senior Olivia Mosquera, a poem recitation by sophomore Juliette Estime and speeches by senior Donnaya Brown and Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson ‘93.

“Those with privilege have a moral obligation to use privilege to even out the playing field,” Suriel said.

Jackson spoke last and challenged students at the high school to engage in difficult conversations on race.

“I would submit to you today that your time here, the challenges that you have in your classrooms, the difficult conversations, not the easy ones, not the ones where you’re having fun, not the ones where you’re joking, but the difficult, real, serious and deep conversations, are the ones that stretch you and make you grow and make you a better person. And to me, that would make you a real representative of Brookline High School,” Jackson said.

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The following day, Jan. 22, Brown led a protest in the atrium from C-block to G-block. Brown was joined by a crowd of students, who stood solemnly and quietly while some held signs that read, “I’m waiting for change #weneedtoact.”

“I just want to stop talking. I want to stop talking and start talking,” Brown said. “I want to have real conversations. Not just T-block conversations with my sophomores, this dumb Advisory stuff. It does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t really have a serious conversation. It makes everybody uncomfortable. It even makes the teachers uncomfortable because there’s no preparation, no training. Not everybody can talk about race as easy as people think they can.”

Students gather around a petition poster in the atrium on Jan. 29. Leon Yang / Sagamore Staff
Students gather around a petition poster in the atrium on Jan. 29. Leon Yang / Sagamore Staff

A week later, Friday Jan. 29, Brown continued with a second protest. The focus that day was getting feedback from students on what they wanted to see changed at the high school. On a bulletin board in the atrium, students finished the sentence-starter “I want change because…” Responses included, “I want my honors class to reflect the school’s population,” “We all, including white people, benefit from a diverse, equitable society,” “I’m sick of hearing ‘White privilege does NOT exist!’” “Post Racial America is nonexistent,” and “We should be a City on a Hill. And we can be.” Brown noted her intention to stage another protest the following friday during F-block, the purpose of which would be to conduct “speed-meeting” between students.

“I hope that this does not stop me from crossing the stage,” Brown said. “I know that I’ve suddenly become a muckraker, in that I’m willing to set fire under some people’s butts, and I love it. I know that I need to focus on school as well. I know that I have not been the best student in the world, but I know that that shouldn’t stop teachers from telling me to do my best. I know that things are not going to change as fast as I want them to, but I don’t want [anyone] to go another four years with the same crap that I went through.”

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