A memorial celebration for the late Congressman John Lewis Wednesday evening was disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists who took to the steps of New Bedford City Hall and shouted down Mayor Jon Mitchell, who did not complete his remarks.

Protesters in the crowd shouted the name of Malcolm Gracia, the 15-year-old boy who was shot and killed by New Bedford police in 2012 after he allegedly stabbed a police officer.  Local Black Lives Matter leader Lynea Gilreath, who led the protest from the steps, expressed that Mitchell had not delivered justice in the case and yelled that she did not want the mayor to speak.

Others stood in front of Mitchell, brandishing a large cardboard display covered with documents relevant to the Gracia case, even as older community organizers chastised the protesters for their tactics. The Rev. Cordell Polk, pastor of United House of Prayer for All People, repeatedly asked protesters to let Mitchell speak and to respect those who had come expecting a tribute to the late congressman.

"Who wants to hear about John Lewis?" Polk asked the crowd, eliciting cheers and clapping.

"You will not gaslight us. You will not gaslight the movement," a protester yelled. Police spoke quietly to some of the activists, as did Reverend Polk and others. Eventually, the protesters agreed to sit down and let the event continue.

John Lewis Memorial Celebration New Bedford

Earlier in the program, former Mayor Scott Lang had remarked upon Lewis's visit to New Bedford in 2006 and spoke of the man's spirit, goodness, and courage.

Congressman Bill Keating then delivered a fiery speech in support of social justice and spoke of seeking Lewis's counsel when he was new to Washington. Capping the event, Gilreath was welcomed to the microphone and read aloud Lewis's final essay to the world - a piece he wrote on his deathbed.

"And each generation must do its part to build what we call the beloved community," Gilreath intoned from the podium.

Gilreath then told the crowd that while Emmett Till may have been "John Lewis's George Floyd," that "Malcolm Gracia is our Emmett Till." She said she would not apologize, and quoted Lewis's famous advice about engaging in "good trouble" in the ongoing fight for social justice.

The event was organized by the City of New Bedford Human Relations Commission.

As for the Gracia case, although both Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter ruled that the police shooting was justified, "Justice for Malcolm" is a common call among local activists who question the official version of events. Following Sutter's ruling, then-Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley rejected calls for an investigation and inquest by her office. The Gracia family last year accepted a half-million-dollar settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit, so the matter was never aired at a courtroom trial. However, the judge in the civil lawsuit opined that the police stop preceding Gracia's killing near the Temple Landing housing complex was unlawful.

Gracia, who was on foot, was stopped and questioned by police after he allegedly deployed a gang handshake. Gracia, of Cape Verdean descent, allegedly stabbed a Black police detective before he was shot to death by officers.

Update: On Thursday, local activist Jacob Chin, an attorney, contacted WBSM to provide further comment and to seek "corrections" to this article. Chin asserts that police did not speak quietly with activists, but instead used "threatening and physical intimidation tactics" on the steps of City Hall. WBSM did not observe such tactics at the event.

Mary Serreze/Townsquare Media
Mary Serreze/Townsquare Media

Chin asserts that protesters never intended to disrupt the entire event, but simply planned to only block Mitchell from speaking. Chin says Mitchell refused to say the words "Justice for Malcom." Chin said protesters only agreed to sit down after it was announced that Mitchell would not continue with his remarks.

Chin pointed out that former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley declined to open an additional investigation into Gracia's death following then-DA Sam Sutter's finding that the police-involved shooting was justified. This story has been updated to reflect that fact.

Chin took issue with our statement that evidence in the Gracia case was never presented at trial due to the fact that the Gracia family settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $500,000. Chin asserts that "the government," such as the attorney general or district attorney, could still "charge the cops involved in criminal acts and air a courtroom trial."

WBSM-AM/AM 1420 logo
Enter your number to get our free mobile app

More From WBSM-AM/AM 1420