Reflecting on Brookline’s history

June 18, 2020

Many have found it helpful to contextualize recent events by relating them to what has happened within Brookline, in terms of injustice in the police department as well as systemic racism at the high school. Social worker Paul Epstein sent a letter to his students shortly after hearing about Floyd’s death and said in an interview that it felt important to bring the conversation back to Brookline.

“I could have written about 400 years of slavery, institutionalized racism in police or academia, but what ended coming out was about Brookline,” Epstein said. “It was unconscious but I wanted it to feel real to my students who go to school here and might live here. Brookline is a big part of their lives, and I wanted it to not seem like it just happened in Minneapolis, but that it was a part of a bigger picture, with bigger connected events and systematic processes that affect all of us but especially Black people in this country.”

One story Epstein mentioned was that of Officers Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot, whose cases of discrimination in the police department were settled in 2017 and 2018 respectively, without the town or the police department accepting blame. Head of School Anthony Meyer argued that this incident may have been indicative of a larger institutional problem that undermines trust of the local police.

“We’ve lost really good police officers, including a graduate, over racial incidents that were very poorly handled by the town, and seemingly by the police,” Meyer said. “I think there’s a need for candor about that, because when we ignore it, it doesn’t go away, and in fact all it does is undercut trust.”

METCO Coordinator Malcom Cawthorne said that institutionalized racism is keeping many complaints from coming to light as well as downplaying the stories of those that do come forward. He cited the handling of cases like those of Zerai-Misgun, Pilot, firefighter Gerald Alston and former Dean of Students Adrian Mims.

“One thing I’m trying to challenge is this argument that it’s fine because Black people aren’t putting in complaints,” Cawthorne said. “Because of course they aren’t complaining. If you thought somebody was unfair, why would you go complaining to them thinking you’d get a fair resolution? There’s always this double-edged sword, because if you don’t complain they won’t know, but if you do complain, look what happens.”

In many ways, the discrimination claims that did make it to the surface draw a sharp contrast to Brookline’s progressive self-image. Cawthorne said the instinctual reaction to assertions of systemic racism is to deny or downplay because of that contrast but that it is imperative that the community face the issue head on.

“What happens for a lot of people in this town is that they make a choice to live here because they see it as progressive, and when it’s not that, then what kind of choice did they make? So I often refer to that as ‘upholding the brand,’ and they’ll go through all kinds of hoops to say ‘we’re not racist,’ even when it means ignoring what we know to be wrong and unjust,” Cawthorne said. “That happens a lot even at the high school. People can’t believe it’s them, and it’s probably not them as individuals, but if you’re upholding the brand and not addressing any issues that go against it, you’re also upholding systemic and institutional racism.”

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