Some Notes on the Protests in Boston, May 31-June 2, 2020

2 June 2020.

I wrote some Facebook posts after I went to the #BlackLivesMatter protests last Sunday and this Tuesday. I've compiled them here for convenience.

31 May 2020. Sunday

I was at the protests in Boston on Sunday night. I'm fine. But it was clear to me that the prime movers of escalation that night were the police.

There were several hours of peaceful protest and marching before the mass of people, numbering in the tens of thousands, arrived at the State House. So many people, gathered, chanting, unified (mostly) in purpose. Up to this point, there wasn't a very visible police presence aside from the hordes of bike cops (always a bad sign in Boston) at the front of the procession, and the state troopers on the State House lawn.

After the protest at the State House drew to an end, people began dispersing a bit - I was with a crowd that went down Park St to Winter St, towards Downtown Crossing. The crowd was divided because part of the Common was fenced off - for construction or crowd control, I don't know. I was at the front of the crowd going down Winter St, and then there was a line of cops blocking off Summer St., for no reason.

This was the first escalation. To stop the motions of peaceful protesters for no reason, and attempt to control their movements in the enclosed space of Downtown Crossing, is an escalation. Still, protesters were peaceful. They were angry, for sure - shouting, absolutely - but there was no threat to life or property. As the crowd built, suddenly water bottles started flying out of the crowd - not frozen, as in some of the other protests, but just the water that the organizers had been handing out.

The cops were never in any danger - they were wearing helmets, and they were suited up. But they responded by getting reinforcements, pulling in bike cops to make a wall, advancing on and rushing protesters, pepper spraying, crowding, and driving speeding squad cars at crowds to make them disperse. Dividing, scaring, making each individual cluster of people more scared, stressed, and in some cases angry. That's when the property damage started - after the cops disrupted a peaceful mass of people and bottled them up in the streets. There was no need for any of this. The police weren't as violent as they have been in some cities, but that's like thanking a murderer for only stabbing you in the heart once.

As people tried to disperse, the cops made it harder - they closed the subway stations, blocked off streets, and split up groups. I left not too long after things started getting restive, but it was long enough to witness a small amount of looting - and also witness many protesters trying to stop it. No group is a monolith. But the police are a group that are responsible for both their own actions and the actions of their colleagues. A protester is not responsible for the actions of another protester. A cop is responsible for the actions of their fellow cops, and any failure to prevent their colleagues from behaving badly is a complicity in that action.

We can't accept this from so-called "public safety" officials. We need to disband and reimagine law enforcement, with equity at at its core and non-violence and de-escalation as guiding lights - all the things that were sorely lacking in the performance of the police in Boston On Sunday.

2 June 2020. Tuesday

I was at the protests again today.

I started by driving down to Franklin Park - I parked a few blocks away by the Grove Hall library, and then walked to the entrance. The organizers were very well-organized - people were handing out masks, squirts of hand sanitizer, snacks, water bottles. Lots of marshals - more than at the protests on Sunday. We walked along Franklin Park Rd and Circuit Dr to get to the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital side of the park, where there was a natural amphitheatre.

I couldn't really hear the speakers, but the crowd was huge, if maybe not as huge as on Sunday - thousands of people. Very peaceful, and a very diverse crowd - just like Sunday. I stood in front of the line of cops at the hospital fence.

The rally eventually wound down - Violence In Boston Inc. and Black Lives Matter Boston did a great job programming the event and engaging the crowd, even if the crowd was sometimes a bit too far away to hear. And people began to disperse, some walking down Circuit Dr towards the Arborway, and others going back up the way we came to Columbia. All perfectly peacefully.

Something of this must not have sat well with the police, because they came roaring up from the Arborway side with multiple squad cars, platoons of motorcycle cops, and, like Sunday, a myriad of bike cops. Never good news. The crowd leaped out of the way, and they continued going along the road in the direction of the Columbia Rd entrance. Did a lot of people yell at the cops? Yes. But this show of force was completely unprovoked - very confusing.

At some point, there were apparently some scuffles with the police - and there may have been an arrest, at least that's what floated through the crowd. In any case, the police began to reverse all of their cars, slowly backing out what seemed like an endless stream of squad cars and paddy wagons out of the crowds, surrounded by bike cops and other cops with batons. They made a lot of needlessly expansive three-point turns to make everyone get out of their way, and then went back out to Arborway. Completely pointless. At no point during any of this did they ask the crowd to do anything, or make any announcements - they just drove towards the crowd with sirens wailing. They weren't as bad as the cops on Sunday or the once in NYC, but it still wasn't great.

After this, the crowd, which had been splitting into two groups, unified and followed the police out onto Arborway. I later learned that the organizers had also encouraged people to go to Forest Hills to catch a train to get home. Once there, there were lines of BPD with batons and some MBTA Transit Police with riot shields. As the crowds moved around, I ended up against a wall between the crowd and a Transit Police officer in riot gear. Important to note, though - Transit Police had a supervisor out there without any riot gear, just a windbreaker and a walkie talkie.

The crowd chanted, and yelled, and were angry, but were completely peaceful the entire time. People were engaging with the officers and trying to talk to them, some more successfully than others. I talked to the MBTA police officer closest to the wall, and asked him if he thought that his outfit was de-escalatory - he talked about being hit by bricks on Sunday, and called it defensive. Talked about "how these things turn violent after the protest". I eventually worked my way out of the crowd and looped around the back - I called a couple friends to give them updates. Things were remaining tense, but organizers had formed a human chain between the crowd and the line of cops. Various chants went up - "Black Lives Matter" was very common, as was "Say His Name!" "George Floyd!". There was a decent amount of "ACAB" and "F*ck 12!", but also "Quit Your Job!" and "No Good Cops in a Racist System" which were new to me.

I worked my way behind the line of cops and stood in the station - I'd called a friend for a ride back to my car. Forest Hills Station was still open, and a few people were trickling through the faregates. At one point, the Superintendent of the MBTA Transit Police went out to talk to protesters - there was a lot of conversation between him and some protesters, and eventually the Transit Police contingent (but not the BPD contingent, as far as I could tell) took a knee with the crowd. Lots of cheers followed. These conversations continued for a while, although the crowd started getting a bit more tense and at around 8:46 a person (protester?) with a megaphone announced that "at 9 PM the guard is coming in and "the organizers have told us that they'll be allowed to use force" and rallied the crowd to more chanting.

At this point, the police advanced, closing the front doors to the station and advancing in a line. This created tension with the crowd and a few people ran off- I overheard a very distressed young woman worried about her sister, as another tried to calm her down.

Shortly before this, while in the station, I talked to the Deputy Superintendent of the MBTA TPD (badge no. 3), thanking him for keeping the station open - he talked about being very much in favor of first amendment rights, talked about being a protestor himself in the past, but also he "just [wants] to keep MBTA property safe". To their credit, they never closed the station, they just closed the entrance closest to the crowd - you could still go around.

I also spoke to a citizen journalist, actually a worker at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, who had run out of work early to photograph the protests - he is connected to Councilor Wu, and has a public access show (I think). He was also talking a lot about how he's a member of the Mystic Valley NAACP, and how they're trying to diversify and get a younger crowd to join - currently it's mostly older Black people.

Around 8:50, my friend picked me up, and gave me a lift to my car - and I drove home via Forest Hills, passing by another crowd at the Columbia Road entrance to Franklin Park and honking in support. Later, reading through updates on Twitter, I was happy to read that, despite a few later throwing incidents, the protests remained peaceful and free of police violence - remember, we pay the police to keep their calm under pressure. A water bottle isn't going to hurt you if you're covered in body armor and behind a riot shield. We must hold police officers to a much higher standard than the general public - and that is just part of what these protests are all about.