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Trayvon Martin Could Have Been David Russo in Worcester

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was gunned down

The role of racism in George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin has fostered anger across the nation.  Outrage is expressed on-line and in rallies around the country including our own in Worcester, which held a rally Monday afternoon in front of the Federal Building.  While it is important to decry the racism of the Florida event including the killing of an innocent and unarmed black young man, the lack of an arrest of Mr. Zimmerman, and the laws and systems that promote and maintain such racial injustices, it should also provide the opportunity to not only decry racism in distant places, but in our own communities. 
Trayvon Martin could have easily been David Russo.  Sanford. Florida could have just as easily been Worcester, Massachusetts.   Thankfully, the vigilante neighbor didn’t have a gun.  The Worcester version is like this…
In June of 2011, after a string of burglaries in the Hammond Height neighborhood, a frustrated neighbor emailed the local residents informing them that police had made arrests of 3 kids the night before. She writes in her email that she was informed by police that if she saw people in the neighborhood who looked like they didn’t belong like these young men/boys who are Black/Hispanic that she should call the police immediately…this is not exactly politically correct, but I guess that’s how it goes. Please keep your eyes open, remain vigilant and report any unusual sightings immediately.

This is where Hammond Heights begins to mirror Sanford, Fl. After a series of break-ins, this Worcester community is on high alert. Just like in Samford there is an active neighborhood association involved. The difference in Worcester’s case is there was an email sent to 60 neighbors. This email warns them to vigilant and report any unusual sightings immediately and implies that the police suggested that neighbors watch out for suspicious Black and Hispanic young men in the neighborhood.

This email leads to reports via email ranging from pruning sheers disappearing from a backyard to sightings of “people that look like they don’t belong” to most disturbing, neighbors with multi-racial families informing neighbors about their children of color or children’s friends who were spending the night. These families who became concerned about the safety of their children, spouses, siblings, friends and visitors of color felt the need to use the email list to protect their loved ones.

On June 9, 2011 I received an email from a concerned resident at Mayor O’Brien’s office. The email states that she would like to register her concerns about the “neighborhood watch” advice being endorsed by members of the Worcester Police Department. I am worried that the community is endorsing and engaging in profiling. She also sent me a long chain of emails as proof.

Then Mayor Joe O’Brien informed the City Manager and Police Chief Gemme about this issue and provided copies of the email chain to them and to every City Councilor. The Mayor received no response despite follow up calls and emails.

On July 24th our office received a call from Claudia Russo. Her son, David was arrested near his Hammond Heights home the day before. David, a 14 year-old adoptee with dark complexion reflecting his Roma (Gypsy) heritage, was opening the garage door to his home, while being watched by a neighbor. He entered his home through the garage and then came back outside. He later left, walking towards a friend’s home. The same neighbor followed him and called the police indicating that David seemed suspicious. Eventually an unmarked WPI police car arrived to where the neighbor had led them. David was afraid and began to run. The cruiser and the neighbor followed him. He was finally stopped and the WPI officer approached David. An altercation broke out and the WPI officer and two additional Worcester police officers that arrived at the start of the altercation beat David to the ground. David was arrested and eventually taken to the hospital to deal with his wounds.

After the July 23rd incident, Mayor O’Brien once again requested that the Manager commit to have Chief Gemme or a representative meet with community members in Hammond Heights. The Manager at that point agreed to have the WPD meet with the concerned residents, but to this day such a meeting has not happened. In addition, Mayor O’Brien filed an item in August of 2011 requesting the Manager provide information as to the legal authority that colleges/universities have in patrolling residential areas and questioning non-students; this item was on last night’s city council agenda.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time David was stopped by police and asked whether or not he belonged in the neighborhood. One time he was stopped and it took a white friend of his to vouch for his residency. In fact, it happened enough times for Claudia to call the police and let them know what was happening. On one of her calls she was told her son should carry an ID.

How different were these events from what had occurred in Sanford, Florida? What might have happened if the neighbor had a gun and did not wait for the police to arrive? Importantly, if the city administration and WPD responded to the original concerns voiced by neighbors regarding profiling, would the profiling, beating and arrest of David Russo have been prevented? We do not know because there was no response and still has been no response nearly a year later.

We are fortunate that David is still alive. While his bruises have healed, the psychological scars remain. The Russo family has yet to receive an apology from the WPD, the City Administration or WPI. David is now traumatized and afraid to live in his own neighborhood. While we continue to fight for justice in the case of Trayvon Martin, it is important to look in our own community for accountability and justice for David Russo.

Isabel Gonzalez is a community organizer and political activist. Her community organizing experiences range from working on issues of economic justice, supporting public education/funding, violence against women and anti-racism. Her political work in Worcester includes managing Joe O'Brien's campaign for Mayor, serving as Mayor O'Brien's Chief of Staff and co-coordinating Lt. Governor Tim Murray's 2010 re-election campaign for the City of Worcester. Isabel is currently a Board of Trustee of Worcester State University, and sits on the boards of United Way Central MA, African Community Education Program and the Worcester Advisory Board of the Department of Transitional Assistance.  


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