Accountability and Action: Remembering Sayed Faisal

On January 4, 2023, Cambridge Police shot and murdered UMass Boston student Sayed Faisal. According to the City of Cambridge’s website, after two officers spotted him with a machete-style knife while suffering from a mental health crisis, one officer advanced to him with a “less-than-lethal” form of ammunition, but the other took out his “department-issued firearm” and opened fire. Faisal, who was lovingly called Prince by his family, was then taken to the hospital where he died from his injuries at the young age of 20. 

This event has caused ripples through the South Asian community, as Faisal was Bangladeshi. His parents, Sayed Mujibullah and Mosammat Shaheda, spoke to the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in order to issue a statement. They wrote, “We are completely devastated and in disbelief that our son is gone. Prince was the most wonderful, loving, caring, generous, supportive, and deeply family-oriented person…We want to know what happened and how this tragic event unfolded. We will cooperate with law enforcement and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office as they investigate to have an understanding of this devastating event.” 

The Bangladeshi Association of New England has also been involved in demanding justice. After the incident, they organized a protest in front of Cambridge City Hall. “We need to bring justice for this young brother. Police brutality needs to stop,” BANE said in a Facebook post on January 4. At the rally, the president of BANE called for more training of officers and said, “He’s a baby—you just can’t shoot.” Since then, BANE has been organizing more demonstrations and coordinating with other groups in the area.

Boston is still reeling from this tragic incident but has channeled grief into continued action. For example, the Boston Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) attended the Cambridge City Council meeting to demand the release of the names of the cops involved, as well as an unredacted police report. At this meeting, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, the first Muslim mayor in Massachusetts history, said to the crowd, “Tonight, I share your distress, your confusion, your pain at your lowest point. As city leaders, we have a lot of unfinished work to address and we have to do everything we can to make sure this never happens again.” However, for weeks, Cambridge representatives, including Mayor Siddiqui, have neglected the community’s concerns and refused to hear their needs. In fact, representatives left the room to continue the meeting virtually when PSL arrived. Community members have been enraged by this and are finding new ways to force the council to listen to their demands. Before holding a moment of silence for those killed by police violence, MIT student Hannah M. Flores said, “It’s a moment of silence because their blood is on your hands. You guys are in actual positions to change something.”

 Aneeqah Ahmed, an intern at Tufts Asian American Center, reflected on hosting Mayor Siddiqui as a speaker in November. She said, “As a South Asian and Muslim myself, when I met Mayor Siddiqui…I was greatly inspired that someone like me was in a position of power.” However, she explained after hearing about Mayor Siddiqui’s behavior in council, “It was saddening to see the response from the Cambridge City Council. Our community deserves more than condolences from politicians. I can only hope that Mayor Siddiqui will provide answers and take real action, not just band aid policies and budgets that clearly don’t prioritize the safety of Cambridge’s residents.”

Ahmed shares the sentiments of her South Asian peers, who are equally enraged by this example of police brutality. Suhail Purkar, a member of the Boston South Asian Coalition and UMass Boston alumnus, said, “It’s really outrageous how just the most basic of demands, [like to] release the name of the officers, release the unredacted police report, fire and prosecute these officers to the fullest extent on the law [have not been done], and there’s been no traction regarding any of these demands.” The coalition held a community-wide meeting on January 12 to raise their concerns but were told by city leadership in front of hundreds that it was policy not to disclose names of those being currently investigated. Purkar expressed their shock when they later heard from City Manager Yi-An Huang at a Cambridge City Council Special Meeting held on January 18 that it was not policy, but rather Huang’s fear of “greater public scrutiny and transparency” that prevented the release of the names.

Like Ahmed, Purkar reflected on the limitations of viewing diverse representation in government as the key to enacting political change. He said, “The Mayor is a South Asian woman, the City Manager is an East Asian man, and the Police Commissioner is a Black woman, which just goes to show how different faces in higher places isn’t the solution, and the system is racist and rotten to its core.” Although there is a wide array of representation in Cambridge City Council, as Ahmed observed, just because there is someone of your background in office doesn’t mean they will necessarily enact policies that will protect you.  

Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan has been vocal about his disappointment with his colleagues’ reactions. He wrote in an email to the Harvard Crimson, “We must reject the racist system of policing that is failing our young people, failing our minority communities, and failing those experiencing a personal crisis.” He expanded on this in a written statement to the Observer, calling for the abolition of the police. He wrote, “We should not have lethally armed police officers responding to a person who is self-harming with a knife.” 

The hunger for justice is strong in the Asian community, and activists are amplifying the power of communities to enact change. Purkar said, “The police killed 12,000 people last year, only 2 percent led to criminal charges being brought, and 0.5 percent percent overall led to convictions. The deciding factor is mass community pressure that refuses to be sidelined.”