Code Listen: Cracking the Police Community Divide

August 3, 2016

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The worst of the most recent violence between police and civilians has happened at what might seem like a safe distance:   Minnesota, Baton Rouge, Dallas.  But there's tension on the streets of Boston, too.

"When I grew up all I knew was (expletive) the police," says 14-year-old Robert Green.  " And I remember on the Fourth of July the people I was associated with used to throw fire crackers at police cars."

Green now runs with a different crowd and is spending part of his summer at the Mattapan Boys and Girls club doing something he can't quite believe:   making music with police.

"Like, honestly, when I first heard (the) idea -  I thought - wait.  Music?  Cops?  This is a different scenery," said Green.

He is playing xylophone alongside one police officer on guitar and another singing vocals.   They are among a small group of cops and teenagers creating melodies and lyrics inspired by their own experiences with race, violence and police work.

"This project is trying to take a small step in conversations that seem urgent right now," says Shaw Pong Liu, a classically trained violinist who is serving as one of Boston's first artists-in-residence. "These are not problems that solved simply by how police officers function in a community.  These are much bigger problems of how do we connect with one another."

Her project is called "Code Listen".  No one who shows up for rehearsal wears a badge or a uniform.  The power comes from ideas and a willingness to share them. 

"The stories I've heard, the personal experiences that some of these kids have had," says Jeremiah Benton, a 28-year-Boston police department veteran.  "They've felt they've been treated unfairly by a police officer and they don't know why."

Conversation is as important as the music.  Rehearsal time is limited, but Benton describes the experience of connecting with young people through music  as unbelievable.

"We started to play, the next thing you know the kids are up dancing," recalls Benton.  " And we started to have a ball.  The most positive energy I have felt since my children were born."

Shaw Pong Liu calls Code Listen an experiment, designed to test her hypothesis that music transcends the limits of words.  Here at the Mattapan Boys and Girls club police officers and teens are experiencing something he says would make his peers think differently about police.

"It would change everything," says Green.


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