Emerson students join the fight for justice for Arif Sayed Faisal


Maggie Stewart

Emerson students demanding justice for Arif Sayed Faisal at Cambridge City Hall.

By Sabrina Lam, Staff Writer

A coalition of around 100 protesters congregated on the front steps of Cambridge City Hall on Monday evening to demand justice for Arif Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts at Boston student, who was fatally shot by police on Jan. 4 while experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The Boston-based branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation organized what was initially planned as an overnight occupation of City Hall, with participants expecting to sleep there and volunteer for shifts on a second consecutive day of protest. The protest broke up within two hours, however, after City Manager Yi-An Huang and other officials agreed to meet with PSL organizers and student leader representatives Tuesday evening.

Cole Stevens, a first-year interdisciplinary studies major, has participated in and publicly spoken at the rallies in Cambridge. He believes that the duty to protest for Faisal extends to all Boston-area students.

We need to recognize that Faisal could just as likely have been any of us,” Stevens said in an interview with the Beacon. “As students, we are members of a community, a community that was attacked by the police when they murdered Faisal. That makes it our fight, whether we like it or not.”

Protests demanding justice for Faisal have persisted for nearly three months, with efforts led by PSL in conjunction with students and educators from institutions across Boston, including Emerson College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, UMass Boston, and Tufts University. 

The protesters are united around four demands: name the officers who killed Faisal, release an unredacted police incident report, fire all involved police officers immediately, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.

Stevens, along with Daven McQueen, a graduate student from Emerson’s creative writing program and community organizer with PSL, have encouraged support from other Emerson students in the protests. McQueen has been a leader at the forefront of the movement for Faisal and is the lead advisor of a collective of activists at Emerson who frequently meet to strategize how to encourage more students to mobilize behind this issue.

PSL invited McQueen to publicly speak at a teach-in rally on Feb. 27. They highlighted the history of student organizing during the Civil Rights Movement in their speech, which aimed to inspire the crowd of protestors, who were mostly students as well.

“Not only did students like us show agency and power in their struggles during the Civil Rights Movement, but students were often the vanguard, the leaders of change,” McQueen said at the teach-in.

The collective of Emerson student activists has engaged in multiple campaigns to spread awareness, including initiating one-on-one conversations, handing out flyers at all on-campus buildings, encouraging students to sign petitions and attend protests, and conducting social media outreach. When protests are held, they have also organized meeting times for students to assemble and attend the protests together.

McQueen emphasized the importance of collective effort. 

“No change is ever won through someone in power handing it to the people; it has to be fought for,” McQueen said in an interview with the Beacon. “That means having conversations, spreading the word, and showing up to actions to show that you’re part of a united movement.”

Amiri Sillah, a first-year political communication major and member of Emerson’s student union, spoke at Monday’s protest and was present for Tuesday’s meeting with city officials.

“We need to wake more people up to be more critical of the status quo and fight for justice,” he said, addressing the crowd. “We are done being victims. We will pursue justice in any facet we can. We will not be intimidated. We will not be ignored.”

The crowd zealously raised their protest signs and their voices in unison with Sillah as he concluded his speech with chants of “Justice for Faisal!”

In response to the protests, a community update released on Feb. 14 from City Manager Huang communicated the next steps the city will take to ensure future accountability. While no timeline was officially released, Huang promised to implement body cameras, use alternative responses to emergency calls, and evaluate less-than-lethal options; the Cambridge Police Department also hired Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum to independently review the officers’ conduct.

Immediately following Faisal’s killing, PSL feared an inquest wouldn’t happen until 2024. Instead, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan launched her department’s investigation on Feb. 23.

Huang also appointed Elizabeth Speakman as interim director of the Community Safety Department to further ensure transparency to the community as the city investigates Faisal’s killing, as was announced in a March 19 press release.

Tuesday’s meeting did not yield results, as city officials delayed or denied all four of the demands that the community has reiterated for the past two months. According to a PSL press release, Huang and Speakman declined to release the names involved because the actions officers took are not considered an act of “egregious misconduct.” Huang later acknowledged that he had been advised to “wait out” the movement, making it clear the city thought agreeing to a meeting would effectively end its protests, the PSL press release reported.

“As if taking the life of another human being experiencing a mental health crisis is not egregious! The city officials implied they care about systemic change, but when we provided examples, such as releasing the names of the officers, they didn’t want to do that,” Sillah said in the press release. “The biggest systemic policing issue in this country is that the police kill with no consequences. We got no indication that city officials have any interest in changing that.”

While the meeting took place, PSL representatives, student leaders, and concerned community members rallied outside of the Cambridge City Hall Annex, awaiting representatives to deliver results. When they relayed disappointment in the day’s events, protesters were outraged but empowered to continue their fight in getting justice for Faisal.

Stevens in particular emphasized an urgency in immediate action.

“The fact that it has been nearly three months and nothing has been done is a disgrace to Faisal, his family, and our community,” he said.