A peaceful series of rallies to protest the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police turned sharply violent on Sunday night, as demonstrators pelted police with bottles and cans, torched a police cruiser, damaged vehicles, and looted stores throughout Downtown Crossing and the Back Bay.
By daylight, the Sunday rallies and marches from Roxbury to the State House gave solemn voice to thousands of protesters. By night, mayhem broke out, with smashed store windows, vandalized cars, stolen merchandise, burning trash barrels, and the acrid smell of tear gas wafting over the area. It was the kind of violence that has unfolded in cities across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death last week, but that Boston hasn’t faced in decades.
An early morning tweet from Boston Police gave some insight into the scope of the violence. There were 40 arrests, 21 police vehicles damaged, and seven officers transported to the hospital, according to the statement. Police noted those numbers were subject to change.
The Massachusetts National Guard was called in late Sunday to help restore order, according to David Procopio, a State Police spokesman.
Witnesses described the late-night smell of smoke in the air as helicopters circled overhead.
At one point, police on motorcycles engaged in a standoff with a crowd on Washington Street, sirens blaring. Demonstrators stood with their hands up, a few throwing bottles. Police officers in riot gear shoved people back with sticks.
Another group surrounded a police vehicle with an officer inside, smashing its windshield and jumping on top of it.
“Those now protesting in the streets of Boston have surrendered the moral high ground as efforts to hurt and harm police officers continue to intensify in our city,” Boston police officials said on Twitter around 10 p.m. “Men and women of BPD doing their best to restore order and keep the peace.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in a statement, thanked peaceful protesters and public safety agencies for their professionalism. He expressed frustration with those who turned to violence.
“I am angered . . . by the people who came into our city and chose to engage in acts of destruction and violence, undermining their message. If we are to achieve change and if we are to lead the change, our efforts must be rooted in peace and regard for our community,” Walsh said.
Governor Charlie Baker, in a statement Sunday night, said the killing of Floyd at the hands of police was a horrible tragedy and thanked protesters who demonstrated peacefully in Boston Sunday.
“I also want to express my gratitude to all the police officers and other first responders working to protect the people of Boston,” Baker said, “from the individuals whose violent actions, looting, and property destruction was criminal and cowardly — and distracted from the powerful statement made today by thousands of Massachusetts residents.”
The violence followed three peaceful protests with thousands of participants held across Boston during the day.
Sunday afternoon, before violence marred the protests, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, pledged that the push for racial justice was just getting started.
“This is just the beginning of this movement, and we’re not going to let nobody turn us around,” Culpepper said outside police headquarters on Tremont Street after a march from Nubian Square.
Culpepper was among the religious leaders participating in an afternoon Prayer Protest March that included members of the Boston Baptist Ministers Conference, Black Ministerial Alliance, Ministers in Action, and the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
“For justice. For George Floyd. For Trayvon Martin. For Breonna. For Erica,” a minister said earlier as the crowd gathered in Nubian Square.
He was referring to Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck; Martin, the Florida teen fatally shot in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville, Ky., emergency medical technician killed by police executing a “no-knock” warrant at the wrong address; and Erica Garner, the activist daughter of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold in 2014.
Erica Garner died at 27 in 2017, after suffering two heart attacks within months. She had become an activist following her father’s death in Staten Island, N.Y., after a police officer held the elder Garner in a chokehold while he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” and the scene was captured on cellphone video.
After about six hours of peaceful protesting, many marchers began to leave Boston Common around 9 p.m., when the city’s coronavirus curfew goes into effect, scattering into surrounding streets and disappearing into MBTA stations at Park Street and Downtown Crossing. But outside the stations, some people became violent.
People smashed doors at The Corner shopping center on Winter and Washington streets. Outside Footpaths, a shoe store, a woman attempted to block entry to the store, where shattered glass lay everywhere. The woman, who was white, held a sign: “End white silence.”
On School Street around 10 p.m., the window to a jewelry shop was smashed, and people were carrying out merchandise. Windows at a Walgreens pharmacy were also shattered.
Nearby, a police cruiser was ablaze outside the Beantown Pub on Tremont Street.
A short time after 9:30 p.m., a Boston police cruiser and a Transit Police cruiser were driving down Beacon Street in front of the State House to respond to a call for an officer in trouble, Procopio, the State Police spokesman, said in a statement.
The Transit cruiser was surrounded by an “an aggressive and combative mob” who struck the cruiser.
“At that point to free the cruiser and prevent the officer inside from being injured, MSP Troopers discharged pepper ball projectiles at the aggressors to back them away from the Transit cruiser,” Procopio said. “As a result the Transit cruiser was freed and was able to drive away.”
In a series of tweets late Sunday night, Boston police addressed “peaceful protesters” along Tremont Street and asked them to vacate the area. “If you are a peaceful protester, the time to vacate and go home is now,” police wrote at around 9:40 p.m.
Police told protesters to refrain from throwing dangerous projectiles like glass bottles and frozen water bottles at officers, including at the area of Winter and Washington streets. Police also said rocks and bricks were being thrown at officers.
Police spokespersons could not confirm the number of arrests because the incident was ongoing.
Massachusetts State Police was assisting Boston police downtown Sunday night, according to agency spokesman David Procopio in an e-mail.
Around 10:15 p.m., State Police had established a perimeter on the State House lawn, and troopers had made two arrests of protesters who had scaled the State House fence in front of the building, Procopio said.
“We have sent a public order platoon to assist Boston with clearing the streets downtown in the Tremont / Downtown Crossing area. To reiterate what BPD has said, it is time for protesters to disperse,” Procopio said.
Just before 12:30 a.m., Procopio said State Police had sent additional units to assist Boston police, “mainly in the area of Boylston, Newbury, and Arlington Streets.”
Officers from the Northeast Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, a regional collaborative, also came to aid Boston police, along with the State Police Public Order Platoon of troopers trained in crowd control and the National Guard, Procopio said.
MBTA Transit police said on Twitter that some protesters tried to cause “extreme harm” to their officers and did cause damage to its cruisers. “TPD officers have conducted themselves with professionalism and were met with violence by a few who have lost all high moral ground,” Transit police said.
The MBTA’s Green, Orange, and Red Line trains were all bypassing Park Street and Downtown Crossing because of the demonstration, the agency said in a statement.
Outside Macy’s, a line of police in riot helmets stood, wielding wooden clubs. Another line of officers stood at Tremont and Water streets, where some in the crowd yelled at them. The officers listened and some responded verbally. There were no physical confrontations.
Further down Tremont Street, police used flash bangs and tear gas as officers skirmished with members of the crowd. Near the State House and the Brewer Fountain, two trash cans burned.
Close to a burning police cruiser, officers in riot gear held a standoff with civilians. An explosion came from the burning car, drawing a yell from the crowd.
Police struggled with some protesters — one officer could be seen pinning a demonstrator; another officer used his baton as he grappled with a man and placed him under arrest.
At about 11:25 pm, at least half-a-dozen trash barrels smoldered on Boston Common. Across the street at the Public Garden, several more fires burned. At one entrance, two barrels tipped on their sides were alight and a man urinated on the flames.
Storefronts were also smashed on Newbury Street, the city’s high-end retail thoroughfare, and looters made off with armloads of merchandise. Police had a section of the street closed down shortly before midnight, standing in a line with riot sticks.
Near the Common and on the small section of Newbury that wasn’t closed, cars could be heard blasting N.W.A’s “[Expletive] tha Police.”
On Boylston Street, in front of an entrance to Wayfair, more officers stood wearing helmets and holding long batons. Across the street, police stood in front of a clothing store that had been ransacked. Mannequins could be seen strewn across the floor.
At Copley Place after midnight, authorities in dark fatigues with bats stood guard, at least two of them with dogs. Coat hangers were strewn across the brick pavement. The entrance to Neiman Marcus was smashed open, and several uniformed men ducked into the store, some of them with rifles.
Shortly before 1 a.m., police led a handcuffed man away from the steps of Copley Place. At that point, more than 30 law enforcement officials were outside the entrance to the mall. Occasionally, someone walked by and directed expletives toward the uniformed officers.
Amid the melee, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey reacted to Floyd’s death and thanked Boston police in a tweet around 12:30 a.m. Monday, adding, “I know this — the violent, the looters, the instigators that seek to interfere with this movement will not be successful.”
Earlier in the day, some local groups had sounded a note of caution in public posts about the evening protest. The NAACP Boston Branch said on Facebook that they had been listed as a “co-signer” of the protest, which was not correct.
“The NAACP Boston has no affiliation with and is not a co-sponsor of this protest,” the organization said
In separate statements, Black Lives Matter Boston and Bikes Not Bombs said they did not help organize the protest.
In Nubian Square Sunday afternoon, Mavildeh Kimbundy, 38, of Charlestown, stood near the barricades outside the police station and reflected on teaching her three Black sons about encounters with the police.
She looked at the dozen officers with batons standing watch over the station, surrounded by protesters.
“The job of the police is to protect us,” she said with a hint of irony. “Why should I be afraid?”
Gal Tziperman Lotan, Danny McDonald, Felicia Gans, John Hilliard, Vernal Coleman, Tonya Alanez, and Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Lucas Phillips, Abigail Feldman, and Maysoon Khan contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the date of Trayvon Martin’s death.