Rally for racial justice

DEMANDING CHANGE - Local residents (top photo) march by the Town Common during Saturday’s Rally for Racial Justice, which according to spectators drew at least 1,000 citizens to downtown Reading to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism. (Photo by David Maroney)

READING – It was a day to say we need to change. It was also a day to listen and understand why.

The Reading community turned out Saturday in reaction to the death of George Floyd last month, in support of Black Lives Matter, of racial justice across the country, and change. It was a dramatic turnout of an estimated 1,000 people to the Town Common. The Rally for Racial Justice also included a 1.5-mile march and a vigil lit with hundreds of cell phones to end the three-hour event.

“Today’s march is an important first step in confronting racism,” said Jess Bailey, a history teacher at Reading Memorial High School. “The words we say and the words we don’t say, matter. When we fail to name racism, we become complicit with it … the three cops who stood by when George Floyd was murdered were bystanders. The citizens who challenged them, filmed them, and forced the entire city to hold them accountable took action. We need to do the same. Whether we are teachers, students, parents, community members or police officers, we have to name racism when we see it. Call it out. And hold those who perpetrate it accountable.”

It was a mask-clad gathering of old and young, many carrying signs with familiar slogans. Black Lives Matter was written on professionally printed posters, on pieces of cardboard boxes, on t-shirts, poster board, and on the common’s sidewalks.

When asked to speak on Saturday, Philmore Phillip originally thought of talking about many of the fun things he remembered as a black student at RMHS. His list included ice cream socials, the METCO Stay Days, road races, move-up day, pasta parties and earning his first varsity letter.

“I realized this was not the time for that,” said Phillip, a 2009 RMHS graduate and currently a student at UMass-Boston. “This time was made for speaking up for the unheard, the untold, the truth. The times when the community would cross the street as they saw me walking to the train station after a long school day and a [track] practice.”

To his list of examples of racism in town that included Reading staff and teachers, Phillip added another.

In 2006 when two New Hampshire women were kidnapped and left in Reading, Reading police detained Phillip, along with three other black teammates from the football team.

“We were accused of bringing two white women down from New Hampshire, threatening them with guns and leaving them in Reading. Eventually letting us go after verifying with school officials, bringing the two victims down to make a visual identification to which they laughed as they saw us. And having the whole police force surrounding us as if we were lambs to which they were lions.”

Phillip wasn’t the only speaker to address what’s going on in Reading, often unseen by the mainly white population. If those gathered on the common gathered to hear rah-rah speeches about beating racism, they probably left surprised by what was going on under their noses.

The day’s first speaker was Jackie Zaccardo, who identified herself as ordinary resident of Reading, Massachusetts.

“Look around … have you ever wondered why there is such a large majority of white people in Reading,” said Zaccardo. “Reading and the other towns of the North Shore should be more diverse. There should be more black families in our communities, more black teachers, more black police officers, more black town officials and more black owned businesses. If people in Reading and in surrounding towns were not being suppressed by systematic racism then our towns might be more diverse by now.”

Many who spoke agreed with Zaccardo that there’s work to be done at home. While Reading talked a good game Saturday, the facts speak otherwise. According to residents with extensive knowledge of town history along with answers to questions posed to town leaders, Reading can do better.

Reading has never had a black member of the Board of Selectmen.

Reading has never had a black member of the School Committee.

The Reading Police Department does not have a black officer.

There are no blacks currently serving on any town board including the Human Relations Advisory Committee whose mission statement includes, “to foster a greater understanding and appreciation for diversity.”

There are no blacks working in the School Administration office other than METCO coordinator Grant Hightower, one of Saturday’s speakers.

There are no black teachers at Reading Memorial High School.

The Reading Fire Department does not have a black fire fighter.

There are no blacks currently working in Town Hall.

Those last two come with asterisks. An individual who answered the Fire Department phone said there was one black fire fighter but refused to say who it was and three emails to Fire Chief Greg Burns went unanswered. As for Town Hall, Reading Town Manager Bob LeLacheur cited legal reasons for not responding to a reporter’s question but numerous individuals said they were unaware of any black employees.

The bottom line is clear. If Reading is the welcoming community many suggest, its employment history suggests otherwise.

“Reading can do better on so many levels,” said Sherilla Lestrade, one of the event co-chairs and a black mother with a METCO student at Parker Middle School. “It can do better on having a more diverse staff, whether it’s school department, the educators, town hall.”

Lestrade, who lives in Boston, also said the goal of diversity is a challenge in Reading.

“There are a few diversity boards right now in Reading and the residents of Reading that are on those diversity boards are all white. So, you want to have a diversity board that speaks about diversity but there’s no diversity within the board itself. It’s a contradiction.”

Part of Reading’s challenge, especially with volunteer boards, stems from the town’s small black population. According to most recent available data, just .4 percent of the town’s roughly 25,000 residents are black, meaning roughly 100 individuals.

But Lestrade also said diversity is an issue at Reading’s schools, a fact that isn’t affected by the town’s small number of black residents.

“Other than the METCO director, there is no person of color within the five elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school,” said Lestrade. “Not even in your pre-school. Rise pre-school doesn’t have a person of color working there.

“So, no matter how much you try to speak on diversity, you have to start somewhere. You have to advertise in places where people … but who wants to come out to a place where they don’t feel comfortable because they’re afraid, when I leave here at night and I have to go home from work, am I going to be pulled over?”

Lestrade said change needs to come to Reading’s police force.

“I have a mother who told me that her student went to school and worked here and played three different sports here, so he was well known in the community. That coming home from work, he got pulled over seven times by the police here. And he was working here in Reading. Going to school with your kids in Reading. Seven times within a short space of time. I’m sorry, that’s a problem.”

Others spoke to those problems and the challenges ahead, including State Senator Jason Lewis.

“I’m honored to stand together with all of you today as we say loudly and clearly Black Lives Matter,” said Lewis. “Like you and millions of our fellow Americans I am horrified and dismayed by police brutality against Black Americans and other people of color and the lack of accountability for such egregious actions.”

As an elected official, Lewis said recent events were also an opportunity “to advance the cause of racial justice in our communities and our Commonwealth.”

Other speakers included Parker Principal Richele Shankland, Latoya Kibusi, Kevin Dua, Grant Hightower, Anne Schwartz, and Bristol Leiper. But the last word goes to Monique Pillow Gnanaratnam, a black Reading resident for more than 20 years and a mother who has frequently volunteered in the town.

“I want to thank all of the individuals who came out and were a part of this program. It is not even justice for me to say it was powerful. It was beyond powerful. There are no words for what I have experienced. Not only experienced today but what I have experienced over the past few weeks, what I have seen, what I have tried to wrap my head around.”

She finished with a simple request to keep the conversation going beyond Saturday.

“In matters such as this I ask myself, what can I do? Perhaps you have asked yourself the same. What I chose to do in times of challenge, insecurity, the unknown, times when I could use some affirmation or assurance, is engage. Converse. Educate. Education is not a one-way street. Conversation is free. Discomfort comes from both sides. We should be able to converse about anything. That is the only way we can peel away the layers. It does not mean that everything we unearth is going to be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, or comfortable. But only by conversing and engaging can we move and we can begin to move beyond. That is the only way we can keep on peeling. That is the only way we can continue to grow, to discover, to create, to begin to understand what is at the heart. And what is in our hearts.”

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