Hundreds rallied in Peters Park in the South End Friday evening to protest police brutality and demand justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pinned his neck to the ground.
The protest on Washington Street was one of the first large public gatherings since the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared in Massachusetts in March. Wearing colorful cloth masks, surgical masks, and bandanas tied around their faces, people rallied to mourn and rage, even while distancing as much as they could.
While peaceful for much of the night, some protesters were arrested after clashing with officers in front of the South End police station, said Officer James Kenneally, a department spokesman. The total number of arrests was not known late Friday night.
By 6 p.m., the crowd had grown so large that it spilled from the basketball court onto the surrounding lawns; some even stood on the playground’s plastic slides. Later, hundreds walked through the street, shutting down traffic, as cars honked in solidarity.
Tanaka Haskins, 30, said she came to the rally because of her 8-year-old son.
“I’m raising a young Black boy and I don’t want something like this to happen to him,” she said. Her son stood on a scooter nearby with a markered sign: “At what age do I go from handsome to a threat?!”
Haskins said her son had told her he wanted to be a police officer so he doesn’t get killed in the street. She said she explained to him what had happened to Floyd, imparting instructions on what to do if one day he found himself in an encounter with police.
Sirad Zahra, from the grassroots group Mass Action Against Police Brutality, which organized the event, spoke with the crowd about the emotional strain of recent events.
“How y’all sleeping?” she asked. “I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. Not one wink. It’s affecting every part of my life.”
“We don’t want anyone else killed,” she said later. “We will not accept it.”
When the rally first began, people knelt on the basketball court in silence, some with their fists raised. Over loudspeakers, a song rang out about Black men and women who had been killed by police in recent years. “Eric Garner, say his name. Say his name,” the music blared as the protesters kneeled silently.
Ekran Sharif, 19, knelt as well, holding a neon poster that read “No Justice No Peace.” She was nervous about joining the crowd because of the coronavirus, but the killing of Floyd spurred her to take part.
“This killing, to me at this point, it seems they’re getting too comfortable killing Black people,” she said.
Dressed in a camouflage cap and a mask, Charlene Stallworth knelt too. Stallworth said she was a veteran who served in Iraq, and when she saw the video of Floyd’s arrest, she wanted to drive to Minneapolis to join protests there.
But as a chef at the Encore resort casino in Everett, she is currently out of work. Since she couldn’t afford gas to drive to Minnesota, she joined the South End protest.
“It’s too much to bear,” said Stallworth, 32. As for the fear of contagion, she said, “It’s a civil rights movement now. It supersedes [the coronavirus.]”
A viral video of Floyd’s killing sparked protests and outrage even across a country beset by a pandemic, with protesters taking to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, and Louisville, Kentucky, among others, and some in Minneapolis burning a police station Thursday evening.
While Boston’s rally was quiet and peaceful, Stallworth, who is a peaceful protester, said she understood why some in Minneapolis had turned to violence.
“A lot of people are just tired,” she said. “That’s why they’re resorting to violence. Protesting isn’t working.”
Near the back of the crowd, Denise Williams-Harris stood separated from others. She is 67 and has asthma. Still, she felt compelled to take action after seeing the video of Floyd’s arrest.
“It was a lynching,” she said.
Many in the crowd wore shirts with symbols of civil rights and Black pride, including Malcolm X, the Black Panther party, and Black Lives Matter. Signs in the crowd included messages such as, “Stop state-sanctioned violence,” “End police brutality!” and “The boys you keep on killing. . . have mothers too!”
Derek Chauvin, the officer who used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck to the ground, was arrested and charged with murder earlier on Friday.
In Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Attorney also said investigations into the other three officers at the scene, who have all been fired, are continuing. In a video filmed by bystanders that has ricocheted around the world, Floyd says, “I can’t breathe,” as Chauvin continues to hold his neck down. Bystanders beg the police officer to stop holding him, with one crying out, “He is human.”
Floyd’s death was seen as the latest in a painful pattern of police killings of Black men and women across America. Among them was Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold. Floyd’s words echoed Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” which became a rallying cry at Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
In recent weeks, protesters have also mourned the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging in Georgia and was killed by white residents, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot by white police officers who entered her home.
The Boston crowd cheered Chauvin’s arrest, and applauded fellow protesters in Georgia speaking out in the death of Arbery. A former law enforcement official and his son are facing charges in Arbery’s death.
Speaking of those cases and others in which Black Americans have been killed by police or vigilantes, a speaker told the crowd, “We need to increase the scope of our demands and we need to root this out of society at the highest level.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he will host a virtual prayer vigil on Saturday with clergy and the police commissioner, “in response to the acts of violence and racism experienced throughout the United States.”
After the rally, the protesters wound their way through the South End towards their destination, Roxbury’s Nubian Square. Outside the Roxbury neighborhood police station, officers stood in helmets and face shields, holding wooden batons. Some marchers yelled or made obscene gestures at the officers, but there were no physical interactions.
As the vanguard crossed Massachusetts Avenue, they began to chant: “Black. Lives. Matter.”