Images by Chris Faraone
Last night reminded me of an Ethan Hawke film called The Purge, in which for one night every year Americans are allowed to commit homicide. Extreme, sure, and there’s obviously no need for murder. Nevertheless, the movie has a point in that we stand to be far more functional as a society in the event that we can blow off steam like folks did last night in Boston, where thousands who are sick of living underneath the boot of savage police officers lashed out nonviolently.
Before Bostonians got to hollering about the Michael Brown verdict and Ferguson, though, a relatively calm crowd of several hundred people packed into the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury for an exercise in restraint. On hand were any number of politicians, preachers, and police officers — all hopeful, hugging, excited to tell others how they should feel about and behave in response to state brutality. It was the municipal social event of the year, complete with shoutouts from the podium for an elite few honorary guests.
With a police radio crackling in the background to remind the gallery that, like god, the cops are always with us, Reverend Jeffrey Brown and others from Twelfth Baptist spun rhetorical magic for a couple of minutes before introducing Mayor Marty Walsh who, to his credit, delivered some of the most on-point remarks of his tenure thus far. In a tough moment, Walsh seemed to say the right things not just because he had to, but because he actually meant them.
“There are people in this room who are hurting from murder and loss,” said the mayor, who told the crowd that he was up until 3am on Monday glued to the television. Then came more realness: “I’m not going to pretend that everything is OK here in Boston … We need real change. I didn’t run for mayor to keep the status quo … There’s an opportunity for us to truly make a difference.”
Walsh said some ridiculous things as well, like that he’s “proud” of the Boston Police Department. None of his misguided optimism, however, rang hollower than the words of Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who took the microphone afterwards.
“I’m here in large part because I’m a parent,” said Baker, who nearly teared up talking about Massachusetts native DJ Henry, who was gunned down by a police officer in suburban New York two years ago. Henry, said Baker, reminds him of his own son. Not because our new governor’s son is black, but because he plays football, and because that’s apparently the only way that Baker can relate to anything.
For those who weren’t into holding hands with cops, there was another rally down the street in Dudley Square. Organized by the group Black Lives Matter Boston, speeches at the event rung a far howl from that heard at Twelfth Baptist, from fierce indictments of the criminal justice system (the demonstration was dubbed #indictamerica), to people saying how they actually feel about cops instead of smiling in their faces.
Organizers, who planned on holding an event regardless of the grand jury outcome in Ferguson, embraced the diversity of the crowd, which swelled into the thousands shortly after 7pm. White college students flocked from all directions to stand in solidarity, to listen, and, in the words of one organizer, to “Remember the black women who are being erased from the narrative constantly, the black queers who are being erased from the narrative constantly, and the black men who are being killed constantly.”
Following a long moment of silence, a singalong to “Redemption Song,” and a blaze of empowering words, activists decamped from the green outside the $17.5 million Dudley police station, a glowing metaphor for the Black Lives Matter message if there ever was one. Chanting “THIS IS NOT RIGHT,” they marched through Dudley Square and north on Warren Street, thousands following a leading rally truck equipped with booming speakers.
“Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground.” The sounds of N.W.A. and then Public Enemy blaring, protesters hung a right on Melnea Cass and headed toward the South Bay House of Correction. As one speaker explained through her bullhorn, “We’re going there to let them know that their lives matter too.”
Once on the ramp to I-93 off Melnea Cass, demonstrators began summoning the South Bay inmates, who returned the gesture by flicking their cell lights on and off and banging loudly on protective glass. It was one hell of a sight, window after window of black shadows clamoring for their voices to be heard. In response, protesters held position for hours, some even pushing up against police guarding the highway ramp.
By 10:30pm the march splintered, with some staying by South Bay, some groups heading home and returning to Dudley, and what appeared to be close 1,000 remaining rallyers heading north on Mass Ave downtown. They stayed peaceful, and for the most part authorities did too despite more than a few protesters telling them exactly how they felt about abuse and oppression. It was something like a civilized version of The Purge; maybe if Americans could be this open with police more regularly without getting beaten, some progress could be made in community relations.
It’s promising that elected officials like Walsh, and even Baker to an extent, are willing to concede that there are severe issues of imbalance and disparity that need to be addressed. But here’s the question: If the system is as benevolent as those in the crowd at Twelfth Baptist were led to believe, and if those running things are so genuinely concerned about equality and human rights, then what the hell is the problem around here?
The answer to that question, clearly, is that things are far worse than even the officials people adore are willing to admit (you can count Roxbury City Councilor Tito Jackson as an exception). Take everybody’s favorite BPD Commissioner William Evans, for example, who said yesterday on Boston Public Radio that when it comes to police equipment, he’s “not a big supporter of fancy gadgets.” In reality, the department packs everything from sophisticated surveillance technology to a Long-Range Acoustic Device, which is essentially a human dog whistle that can make people puke and shit themselves from several hundred yards away.
Thankfully, the nearly 50 arrests that went down last night were not by force, as police were on their best behavior (save for a few reported incidents we’re looking into). Nevertheless, a powder keg this ugly hasn’t popped around here since Occupy Boston, which, it should be noted, activated countless people who are still around and down to fight. Between their involvement, the remarkable effort by Black Lives Matter Boston so far, the college presence, and a seemingly receptive City Hall, there’s no wonder last night delivered the biggest rally the Hub’s seen in years, and no telling what might happen next.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.