“If you want to show us that you’re there for our protection, you should have been there beside us, not coming at the end to start antagonizing protesters.”
When youth activist Carrie Mays heard about the major protest planned for May 31 in response to the police violence and the deaths of black Americans, she took to Facebook and began live streaming. The day before the event, to draw attention to the action, Mays created a video saying the protest would be powerful and urged people to keep the movement peaceful.
“I felt like there had to be a need for a conversation if a lot of people were going,” Mays said. “I went on Facebook and told people where it was going to be. I got [3,300] views, and over a hundred people shared it that day. It was not only recruiting people, but also telling people that if they’re going, to keep it safe, because there are black babies, black families, and black kids in that crowd.”
The protest on May 31, held in honor of George Floyd and other black Americans killed by police, was largely driven by youth energy. It was organized by Black Boston, a recently formed network of young adults who communicated over Twitter, and was supported by groups including Teen Empowerment, Black Men’s Collective: Boston, and the Mass Defense Committee. For the past four years, Mays has been a youth organizer and arts manager at Teen Empowerment; as an activist, the UMass Boston sophomore has facilitated community events such as dialogues about racism and spoken at national conferences. Change, she said, needs to begin when we uplift the voices of young people of color.
The day of the big protest, Mays convened with other young adults at the Teen Empowerment office in Roxbury, making signs and gathering supplies. She packed a bag full of milk, which can be helpful to relieve the sting in the event of tear-gassing, and encouraged others to bring water, towels, face masks, and hand sanitizer. The march began at Nubian Square and drew together what Mays called a rainbow of people, individuals of different races chanting together in solidarity. Mays said it was inspiring; Lee Fernandez-McGee, another protester and a senior at Boston Arts Academy, said the protest had a voice of its own.
“People were out there clapping, just being excited to be there to support. Then we started walking. There was definitely a lot of chanting,” Fernandez-McGee said. “I lost my voice. You could hear the pain in all the people’s voices, that they were affected. Even if they weren’t a minority, they understood. They said, ‘Say his name, George Floyd.’ We would chant ‘Black lives matter,’ back and forth. There was also, ‘Say her name, Breonna Taylor.’ …There would be people on megaphones, talking. There was one person who would say, it could have been you under that police officer’s knee. It could happen to anybody.”
By nightfall, things took a turn. After the march wrapped in front of the State House, police guided protesters to disperse and go home. It was then that Mays observed fireworks going off in the crowd, and she began to grow uneasy. Then she heard an explosion, and saw people start to throw bottles at the police. According to Fernandez-McGee, the cops had started to antagonize the formerly peaceful protesters as well, driving cars into the throngs. They wielded batons and barricaded the masses, and Fernandez-McGee, caught in the chaos, experienced being tear-gassed. Because the MBTA was shut down, many people were unable to leave the scene.
“The aggression was not necessary,” Fernandez-McGee said. “There was no reason for aggression. That’s one thing that I think they should have done. Number two, if you want to show us that you’re there for our protection, you should have been there beside us, not coming at the end … to start antagonizing protesters. I hadn’t seen one cop that whole time when we were protesting, from Nubian Square all the way to Boston Common, until the end, when everyone was leaving. That’s when a whole army of police came out. Don’t try to use your power as a police officer to make us feel threatened.”
As the agitation escalated, protesters began to loot stores and break windows. Mays and her 16-year-old sister descended into darkness, trying to run away from the crowd and escape the commotion. They finally found refuge when a pair of roommates offered to let them rest in their home nearby. Nate McLean-Nichols, an organizer behind the march from Black Boston and a program coordinator at Teen Empowerment, said that while he does not support the violence that took place, he understands the anger that people are feeling.
“It’s the idea that we’re hurting, and we have a bunch of energy that’s misdirected and needs to be directed towards something positive,” McLean-Nichols said. The organizer said he believes that change needs to come from young people, whose voices should be at the forefront. To that end, grassroots organizing will play a critical role in enacting change. “The way that you protest is a reflection of the response that you want to receive,” McLean-Nichols added.
Amidst the turmoil, Mays said that the little moments gave her hope. As she and her sister recovered in the third floor apartment of two strangers, she experienced a connection.
“We were patting each other down and checking each other for wounds,” Mays said. “It was then that I realized that there was a level of humanity that nobody could understand. We took our facemasks off. At that point, it wasn’t about COVID. It was just about being human in that moment.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.