Emerson School of Communication MLK Celebration & Diversity Forum panelists, left to right, Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Marcus Eddings, Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, and Emerson Assistant Professor Mneesha Gellman. Photo/Molly Loughman
By Molly Loughman
In the spirit of America’s revered social activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Emerson School of Communication held its second annual MLK Celebration & Diversity Forum last Friday, where a panel of Boston community leaders addressed this year’s topic of Race and the Criminal Justice System.
“I think there is a lot of structural injustice in the criminal justice system, as we all know, and I think Boston is like any other city…there’s been this tremendous amount of denial,” said Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, who was one of three panelists for the event, moderated by former CNN news reporter and now Emerson Journalist-in-Residence Cheryl Jackson.
Aside from Walker, panelists also included Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Marcus Eddings, assistant chief of the BPD’s Bureau of Investigative Services, and Emerson Assistant Professor of Political Science Mneesha Gellman, founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), which seeks to bring high-quality liberal arts education to incarcerated students at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Concord, a men’s medium security prison.
One of the major issues with the U.S. criminal justice system is that it disproportionately affects poor, nonwhite, underserved, and disenfranchised communities, said School of Communication Dean Raul Reis during the start of the event.
“We can speculate what MLK would be focusing on, writing, or saying about those issues and other current issues if he was still among us,” Reis said, “but the beauty of his legacy, which is based on his words and actions, is that it gives us lenses that are built on social justice, dignity, intellectual rigor and racial equality through which we can look, discuss and try to find solutions for these and many other social problems we face today.”
The panelists addressed providing equal access to higher education, “driving while black” and other forms of racial profiling, how to keep black communities safe, alternatives to incarceration, using the police as a weapon for racist acts, and white privilege.
When asked why white people feel marginalized when people of color move into their space, Gellman, a scholar of conflict, explained that one of the key underlying drivers of conflicts in cases she’s examined is unequal access to insufficient resources.
“When settler-descendant people who have institutionally held power define higher education as something available for people who can pay for it, and populations who are out of that push back — then it’s tense,” Gellman said. “After acknowledging [white privilege] exists, we have to actually get to the action part [of change].
Jackson relayed her story of how her brother was shot and killed in 2013 — which marked the first murder in a decade in the small, predominantly white Indiana town where Jackson is from. She spelled out the details of a botched police investigation that deemed her brother’s murder a suicide despite evidence to the contrary. The circumstances of her brother’s murder case has fueled Jackson to seek justice via media outreach across the country in order to share his story.
“But there is still no justice,” said Jackson, noting her legal team has a federal civil right lawsuit against the officials involved. “The only real justice we’ve gotten so far has been through media.”
Jackson directed her next question to Walker, asking him what he thinks the role of the media is in dealing with criminal injustice.
“I think the media’s role is to be the voice for people who are having difficulty finding justice,” Walker said. “People come to us and we listen to them and make the best evaluation we can. I think being that kind of force for change is the greatest thing we can do.”
One audience member asked how Eddings and Boston Police are ensuring that there are more good cops than bad cops.
Eddings said that if one cop is violating the civil rights of someone and any other cops are present to witness, then “they are all culpable.
“A good cop in the Boston Police Department is someone who does their job, takes it seriously, and is engaged in helping the community. There are no quasi-good cops. You’re either doing the right thing or you’re not.”