How will we remember these utterly necessary and long overdue protests against police brutality?
Will Sunday’s protest in Boston be defined by the peaceful events of the afternoon, when crowds gathered around the city then merged on Beacon Hill to decry George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody — and the countless needless deaths like it?
At Government Center, young protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” echoing Floyd’s final pleas to the police officers who would not hear him. In Roxbury, clergy led a moment of silence for Floyd that lasted 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck, according to a criminal complaint that took too long to come. At the State House, protesters raised fists above their heads, in the salute we’ve seen through decades of immovable hostility to Black power.
Or will our memory of this time be dominated by the fires, the smashed windows, and the arrests that began after the official marches ended?
On Monday, Mayor Marty Walsh called the looting and violence that erupted downtown Sunday night “an attack on our city and its people.” There was plenty to abhor in the unrest that stretched past midnight. Some clearly used the night’s protests as cover to steal and destroy, and to further divide us; video footage showed some protesters trying to provoke Boston police officers, who appear to have summoned more patience than those in other cities who have acted with further brutality. Some of the instigators were white, surely safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t face consequences as serious as the Black protesters they professed to support. One man was arrested for shooting at police officers.
It would be a shame if that ugliness overshadowed the pain and hope of the day’s official events. But it would be a shame, too, if we failed to take the any lessons from the unrest.
Because part of what we were looking at late Sunday night was rage and despair that had nowhere else to go. Years of peaceful protests have done nothing to change the conditions that led to the murders of George Floyd, and heaven knows how many other Black men and women who made the deadly mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong skin. How many more killings should Black Americans — should all decent Americans — meet with polite and useless demurral?
That’s not to take away from the pain of those whose bodies and businesses were hurt on Sunday night. Already contending with the effects of a coronavirus pandemic that threatens their livelihoods, the owners of liquor stores and nail salons don’t deserve the thefts and smashed windows that had some of them weeping on Monday morning.
But it is possible to both decry violence and to recognize the grievous injuries that give rise to it. Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins has vowed to prosecute those who “disgraced” Floyd’s memory on Sunday night, but she also understands all too well the anger reflected in the mayhem.
“This burning rage that you are seeing when you turn your TV on or hear in my voice is real. People are fed up,” she said at City Hall on Monday afternoon. “And to the white community that is now waking up to see this rage: We have been telling you this forever. We have been saying this since Colin Kaepernick took a knee. We have been saying this for decades, and you didn’t listen to us. You didn’t care until you saw a video.”
Now, atop the crushing burdens of needless Black deaths comes a pandemic that falls most heavily on Black and brown Americans, who are dying from the virus disproportionately because they lack the choices and resources of their fellow citizens. And beyond that, they’re staring down the barrel of a recession that will also fall most heavily upon them.
Everybody wants to talk about economic anxiety when the folks who express it are the white farmers and coal miners on whose every word reporters and political candidates hang. If those enduring it are Black, it’s all about their own deficits, which could be remedied if they’d just try harder, wear belts, learn to code.
Some injustices are impervious to grit. A 2018 Globe Spotlight series found that the median net worth of Black households in Greater Boston is 8 dollars — 8 dollars. For whites, it’s $247,500. The Globe’s investigation put names and numbers behind what everybody already knew: That Black residents of this region are routinely excluded from the spaces, housing, and economic opportunities enjoyed by their white neighbors, exclusions that build on each other to create generational poverty.
The economy, like the criminal justice system, does not work for everybody. Americans shrug at some smash-and-grabs — like when a US senator sees a looming public health catastrophe and dumps his stock even as he downplays the danger, or a company that avoids US taxes wrangles a federal bailout, or when a president turns the resources of the federal government to his own family’s profit. But they’re absolutely appalled at the sight of people breaking windows and making off with armfuls of merchandise from Neiman Marcus. In a society that values wealth more than actual humans, that’s going too far.
What was George Floyd’s alleged crime, after all? A sin against that which we hold most sacred: A store clerk said he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
A $20 bill. When you’re Black in America, that’s a capital offense.