by Jackie King
Three weeks after the police killing of a young Bangladeshi man who was experiencing a mental health crisis in a Cambridge neighborhood, an outpouring of community grief and outrage has continued to roil the city. Hundreds of people have attended rallies, city council meetings, and other community gatherings to seek answers and to demand “Justice for Faisal!”
Sayed Faisal, 20, was fatally shot in Cambridgeport on January 4th, after police responded to a report that a man had jumped out of an apartment window and was cutting himself with glass and a knife in the courtyard below. The police initially released limited information about the incident—which they said included a chase through city streets and alleged attempts to use non-lethal force before shooting him—but they now refuse to go into more detail or to name the officers involved, citing an ongoing investigation by the district attorney.
Faisal was the beloved only child of immigrant parents who came to the US ten years ago. He was known as a caring, generous, supportive person, according to family and friends. A student majoring in computer science at UMass, Boston, Faisal was described as hardworking and “on track” with his life by teachers who attended the rallies organized by the Bangladesh Association of New England.
This tragedy might have been averted if Cambridge already had in place a fully funded and empowered alternative public safety organization to respond to mental health crises. In fact, Cambridge HEART, the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, has been working to develop and implement just such an alternative ever since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 – and has been fighting to get funding and support from the City.
Dara Bayer, co-director of Cambridge HEART, told hundreds of people gathered at a Jan. 9th rally outside City Hall, “We believe that when members of our community are in distress or are experiencing a crisis, as Faisal was, that they should be met with patience and compassion, not with guns. We need other options outside of the police; this is the long-term justice work that will prevent unimaginable harm like this from happening again. A mental health crisis should not be a death sentence.” (See full statement below.)
At a recent City Council meeting on police protocols and trainings, dozens of residents spoke out against the killing and in support of alternative responses. The city was urged to take funds from the $73 million Police Department budget and redirect them into community programs such as HEART to address mental health crises, the Material Aid and Advocacy Program to support and empower unhoused people, and civilian staffing for traffic enforcement and construction details.
Mass. Peace Action supports redirecting funds from police departments to community-led public safety organizations and programs that meet human needs and respond to mental health crises without guns. We stand by the Bangladesh Association of New England, the Muslim Justice League, and HEART in their ongoing struggle to find Justice for Faisal!
Speech by Dara Bayer, co-director of HEART, at Jan. 9 City Hall Rally protesting the police killing of Sayed Faisal:
I am here as a representative of the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (HEART). First we want to offer our deepest condolences to Sayed Arif Faisal’s family and immediate community. We recognize there are no words that can adequately express or address the pain and injustice of his death. We are with you and are here to create justice. We want to thank the organizers of this rally for creating a public space for all of us to grieve and to commit to creating necessary change in our city.
Cambridge HEART is a community care and safety response program that is working to strengthen our communities across the city and respond to crises without the police. Period. HEART was developed through a community led process. We meet the immediate needs of people in conflict or crisis in Cambridge, focusing on those who are often most harmed by carceral system – Black and Brown people, queer and trans folks, low-income and unhoused communities, survivors of interpersonal violence, formerly incarcerated folks, and immigrants. We do this by providing care and engagement that centers the needs of the people most impacted by a given situation. We see people as whole human beings.
We believe that when members of our community are in distress or are experiencing a crisis, as Faisal was, that they should be met with patience and compassion, not with guns. We need other options outside of the police; this is the long-term justice work that will prevent unimaginable harm like this from happening again. A mental health crisis should not be a death sentence. Faisal deserved better and we are here for the long haul to offer support to our communities in the ways that they want to be supported and cared for.
Some people have wondered whether or not HEART was called to respond to Faisal while in crisis. We were not. The details of who was involved and what happened is still under investigation by the District Attorney’s office. We want to encourage people with information to share it publicly. If you feel safe, please share your photos, videos, and accounts on social media to keep this process transparent.
Right now we offer non-emergency support and we are here today to listen and hold space for anyone who needs to process what is happening or is in emotional pain. Though we are not yet responding to active crises, in the coming months we will be an option to call for help in an emergency. We welcome continued support from the city in ensuring that there are non-police options for mental health crises. You can contact us at email@example.com.
Jackie King is a Cambridge resident and member of the Massachusetts Peace Action Board.