A day after thousands of people flooded the streets in Boston to protest police brutality, in a series of actions that ended in violent confrontations between police and protesters, participants and onlookers attempted to make meaning of what had occurred in a city that has not seen such unrest in decades.
Some activists sought to correct the record, emphasizing that the people who smashed store windows and burned police vehicles were a small part of an overwhelmingly peaceful outpouring that lasted for hours and drew thousands of people to Roxbury and downtown. Others aimed to put that violence into context, pointing to state violence that has long hurt Black and brown communities.
All agreed that the city, and the country, has entered a profound moment of reckoning over racial injustice. And more protests are coming.
“I’m angry. I think we are all fed up,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, the pastor of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, who attended a march led by clergy Sunday afternoon. "The majority of protesters are protesting in peace, for peace, while demanding justice for George Floyd.”
Culpepper, who grew up in Boston, said the last time he remembered witnessing something on a similar scale in the country was in 1968.
“The last time was when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. At this level of burning,” he said.
The protests in Boston followed waves of unrest across the country, with protesters demanding justice for Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pinned his neck to the ground. Many cities, including Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., issued curfews in an effort to prevent nighttime gatherings.
In Boston, some participants and onlookers said they believed focusing solely on violence enacted by the protesters missed the bigger picture.
When “a whole people in this country has for generations been subjected to the racism that Black people have been subjected to, to then tell folks how their rebellion should look is in and of itself reflective of white supremacy,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP.
Activists and scholars said some kinds of violence can’t be captured on a news camera.
“Violence comes in the form of ‘stop and frisk,' violence comes in the form of unprovoked harassment, violence comes in the form of neglect,” said Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Jones added that the coronavirus, too, has disproportionately killed Black people, compounding a feeling of injustice in this moment.
Even some who took part only in the peaceful actions on Sunday said they understood why others erupted in violence.
“Personally, I wouldn’t participate in that, and I also understand why people would,” said Elliot Lazarova-Weng, a 15-year-old who helped organize a Sunday rally at City Hall. He saw hypocrisy in the way that white- and Black-led violence is talked about in the news and in history books.
“What I learned as a kid was that riots and rebellion caused by white people were always heroic, such as the patriots in the Boston Tea Party,” Lazarova-Weng said. “Once people of color do that, it’s considered more like a riot — violent, looting, and everything like that.”
As in other places around the country, some activists at the march suspected that violence did not only, or even primarily, stem from Black activists. Mariama White-Hammond, the pastor at New Roots AME Church, who participated in the protest on Sunday afternoon led by clergy, said while she knew that people of color in Boston are frustrated and in pain, she believed there were white protesters joining protests and subsequently smashing windows or burning cars.
“I have experienced more instances of white outsiders being willing and wanting to escalate than I have people of color,” White-Hammond said. “The consequences for us are different. We don’t need to go to a protest to experience police aggression.”
Some said the emphasis on broken windows also drew attention away from the power of the largely peaceful demonstration.
Rebal Adulrahim, 22, and Tyler Stitt, 25, participated in protests through much of Sunday and said the day was filled with a sense of community and purpose.
“What I saw a lot of was a city in unity,” Stitt said. “It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever been a part of.”
Stitt said onlookers, including staff at Tufts Medical Center, cheered marchers on.
Adulrahim and Stitt, both Northeastern students, said in the evening police who had formerly kept their distance began to show up in larger numbers, wearing riot gear, which they said had the effect of escalating the peaceful gathering. As police arrived, some protesters began setting trash on fire and throwing water bottles, the men said.
“It was when the cops showed up that tension [began]. That’s when things started to go down,” Abdulrahim said.
The city and police department did not respond to requests for comment.
Sullivan, the NAACP president, said the ultimate meaning of the protests will become clear only in time, as political leaders respond.
“The outcome will define the impact of these protests,” she said. “We have to remember that outrage [from political leaders] is empty unless and until we see action from a legislative and policy standpoint."
The Boston NAACP will advocate for action in four areas: the creation of a civilian review board with full legal power to investigate allegations of police misconduct; the review of police department policies on chokeholds and kneeholds; more transparency in public records; and the passing of a statewide law that keeps police officers with disciplinary records from seeking employment in other jurisdictions.
“We do want to see something different,” Sullivan said.