Attention Bostonians: The powder keg has popped.
Due to actions addressing affordable housing, living wages, and a smorgasbord of other issues, the protest kettle was already percolating in Eastern Mass. Stir in enduring social tensions, police misconduct, and gentrification, and it’s clear why the nationwide reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has registered so loudly in the Hub.
An abridged recounting of the past week in local protest activity: a march to the State House last Monday immediately following a grand jury’s failure to indict now-former police officer Darren Wilson; a rally the day after, organized by Black Lives Matter Boston, that attracted roughly 1,500 people and a crush of media attention; a powerful Black Friday action complementing Walmart pickets everywhere; walkouts by area high school and college students to keep up momentum.
One has to wonder what it would look like if all university forces, high school protesters, and older activists from the Boston area coalesced. But before considering what sweeping powers might consume the region in the coming months, it’s important to examine the events that unfolded last week, when demonstrators took their rally from Dudley Square to the South Bay House of Correction and downtown.
In reporting on the police response to those protests, a lot of local journalists—myself included—participated in a regrettably confusing game of cop appreciation. While even many radicals will concede that the Boston police are more constrained than their counterparts in, say, New York City or St. Louis, authorities have nonetheless been given too much slack in shaping the emerging narrative. Take, for example, the Boston Herald quoting BPD Commissioner William Evans saying, “No one handles a crowd better than the Boston police anywhere in the country.” Since the Black Lives Matter movement and their allies are the ones forging change, and not the media or critics, it should be their stories—not the versions scripted by a militarized enterprise with a history of bigotry—that emerge after the smoke clears.
Jay Dodd, one of the organizers of BLM Boston, tells the Dig, “I feel the police and the media tried to minimize, or paint the action as, not necessarily small, but that it was so peaceful that it should be a model.” Dodd continues: “I saw people getting pulled over lines, I have friends with bruises … Are you going to tell me a couple thousand people trying to push through a police line was a small thing? It felt like [they were saying] we were civilized and angry, the kindest, most civilized angry black people ever. They did an amazing job of minimizing the work we did and the violence perpetrated against [demonstrators].”
The Dig spoke with several activists who clashed with state troopers and cops last week. Some were arrested, a few were injured, all are outraged to varying degrees, for a cornucopia of reasons. According to parties that were present during the aggression outside South Bay, where activists attempted to push onto an I-93 on-ramp, the melee grew unfortunately messy. That much was exemplified by the swollen cheek of Roxbury resident Tripp Diaz, whose act of civil disobedience earned her a cop’s knee to the head, and by any number of similar accounts.
“The officer in front of me poked me in my chest,” one arrestee tells the Dig. He continues: “I had my hand in my pocket, and they pulled me over the line. I was punched in my face multiple times … When I got to [the station] I said I got my ass kicked, and they were saying, ‘No one got their ass kicked.’ … I don’t want to live in a police state. That may be a drastic synopsis, but from what I saw, we’re not too far away from zero tolerance.”
There were other unfortunate dynamics in play. At least one student journalist was arrested. LGBT activists have reported a disproportionate number of trans men being hauled away and in some cases mistreated. In custody, arrestees faced the typical hours-long wait for processing. Most of the bogus charges were lowered to civil infractions, but that’s hardly a silver lining if you weigh in the brutality that took place or the subsequent revelation that protesters were being monitored by state counterterrorism forces.
While Dodd and others say they are committed to holding violent cops accountable, they also say time is limited, and that it’s critical to “keep showing up.” Daunasia Yancey, another BLM Boston organizer, says, “This is not a moment, this is a movement.” Yancey notes that marches took place in 170 cities last week, and is “telling [people] to stay tuned” for what’s next here. In the meantime, she’s committed to “uplifting black lives in Boston” and “supporting things that are good for black people,” including workshops BLM has been conducting at high schools and colleges.
There’s no telling where things are headed, but there are high levels of unrest in the air, with outrage surfacing on several fronts. In the remainder of this year, Boston will see additional speak-outs, as well BLM’s monthly meetings at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, the next of which is this coming Sunday at 6pm. BPD Commissioner Evans told reporters that “as long as Ferguson continues to be hot—we’re going to see protests here.” In reality, demonstrations will continue in Boston until police business as usual ceases and officials stop commandeering the narrative.
“We knew there was going to be pushback,” says Dodd. “Yes, in some ways it was less than other cities, but that was very real violence on those front lines … They made it look like a sitcom ending. It was so fairytale—like everybody wins … The media is trying to minimize it, but we know what’s up.”
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.