Throughout Sunday, as thousands made their way peacefully through the city to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Boston Police Department was mostly an afterthought. Officers took to their knees alongside protesters, and interacted with demonstrators, young and old. The only protective gear they wore were bicycle helmets.
By nightfall, though, the environment quickly turned violent, laced with pepper spray and sound bombs as police officers charged at protesters, at least one with a cruiser. A police car was lit ablaze and exploded, and protesters began ransacking storefronts and looting businesses, and tossing smoke cans back at the officers.
The moment at which the protest began its rapid escalation into the worst rioting the city has seen in recent years remains unknown. Some protesters said police tactics turned aggressive, their cars nearly striking protesters not long before gas canisters and batons flew; others said a small group of agitators began wreaking havoc, co-opting an otherwise peaceful day and requiring an aggressive effort to disperse the crowd. But what is clear is that the incident could serve as a teaching moment for law enforcement authorities, in good ways and bad, as a growing movement seeking justice for Floyd in the form of protests and rallies takes hold in Boston and across the country.
“You get an idea of what worked and didn’t work and what you have to prepare for in the future — the problem with this event is that the future is tonight, and the future is in other cities [in Massachusetts] where this could happen,” said Edward Davis, a security consultant and a former Boston police commissioner, who helped develop some of the department’s current crowd control guidelines.
Daniel Linskey, a security consultant who served as Davis’ chief superintendent, said that even the smallest act of violence can turn a peaceful event into the type of rioting that was seen Sunday night, as authorities worked to put out a car fire on one street, while looting grew rampant in another neighborhood.
“Once the first window breaks, you have to get in there, contain it, get the individuals who did it,” Linskey said. “It can change the whole tenor of the crowd."
Others, including protesters themselves, said it was Boston police who escalated the violence.
Preyel Patel was standing atop the stone gate at the foot of the State House when, she said, three cruisers — none using sirens — rushed down Beacon Street, nearly striking several protesters. That’s when, she said, the anger and tension exploded.
Officers in riot gear emerged out of the dark of the Boston Common just after 9 p.m. and began pushing the crowds away from downtown. They filed into the street, holding batons and zip ties.
The violence grew quickly, and the National Guard was activated. As crowds were urged to disperse, the MBTA stopped running service to downtown train stops as a safety precaution, leaving many people stranded as protesters threw bottles at police, and as officers began deploying more aggressive crowd control strategies.
In less than two hours, what had been a righteous demonstration devolved into larceny and chaos, leaving several Chinatown businesses ravaged. One group filtered into the Walgreens at Essex and Washington Street through a broken side window, while another picked shelves clean at a nearby liquor store.
Nearby, another protester, who declined to provide his name, looked on as people with arms full of stolen goods filed past.
“We didn’t want this,” he said. “This isn’t what today was supposed to be about.”
By Monday, authorities reported that 53 people had been arrested, nearly half coming from outside Boston and two from out of state. Seven police officers were treated for injuries, and police said that several officers were shot at by the occupant of a moving car on Tremont Street.
In a press conference Monday afternoon, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other authorities lashed out at violent demonstrators for spoiling what had otherwise been a peaceful protest against police brutality, and the police killings of Black people, including Floyd.
Authorities also recognized, though, that community outrage about police violence against Black communities has reached a boiling point, and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins pointed to the irony of encouraging protesters to behave peacefully, when they have been oppressed for so long.
“It’s completely ironic to say to you, ‘Please don’t be violent, please keep your voice down, please be silent and comply with all of the police’s requirements,’ when it is those very people who murder us with impunity,” she said. “But that’s where we are right now.”
State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Cambridge, tweeted Sunday night that Boston police seemed to have escalated the violence, drawing a quick rebuke from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which said officers showed “enormous restraint, protecting themselves from attack.”
Compared with other cities, Boston police have extensive experience in crowd control tactics, and have helped shape national strategies in deploying de-escalation strategies. The issue was brought to the forefront after an Emerson College student was killed by police with a pepper spray projectile that hit her in the eye during the celebration of the Red Sox American League Championship Series victory.
Walsh said Monday that police had been prepared for Sunday’s protests, but that the protests were overtaken by a small group determined to be unruly.
“We don’t want a police state here, we want a balance here, that was the whole intent behind the march,” he said, adding, “This is something that, the crowd that showed up last night, and the protesters and people marching, more and more people kept coming and coming and coming.”
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who said she went on a rescue mission to help people who were stranded downtown, was critical of the MBTA’s contradictory strategy of shutting down train service at the time.
Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for MBTA police, said that measure was a safety precaution and had been used during other large demonstrations. Service resumed on Monday with no reported injuries or damage to the train system.
“It just seemed like all hell had broken loose. And to not know what was going on was a little scary. Things went from bad to worse,” said Mejia. “I felt I was watching a horror movie, because every moment of it was suspense."
Now, some fear a sequel.
Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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