Thousands of people — Black, brown, white, young and old — rallied on Boston Common Wednesday in the latest mass demonstration against police brutality since last week’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Keeping their distance nearby on Tremont Street were scores of National Guard members carrying assault rifles and Boston police officers bearing large sticks and riot gear. But the protest, called “Justice for George Floyd,” was peaceful. Packed onto the slope beneath Beacon Hill, the crowd chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Enough is enough” as they carried signs that read “Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” “Racism is the Pandemic,” and “Silence is Violence.”
Sarah Thomas, 49, sang Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” while clutching the leash to her elderly basset hound, who wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a homemade protest sign. She had walked to the protest from Cambridge with her two children, 17 and 13, and called for immediate reform.
“The change has to happen from within the cities. Local politicians need to check their own police departments. You know you have cops who are harassing Black people. Do your job,” she said.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Governor Charlie Baker praised the protesters and law enforcement for the general restraint they’ve shown at rallies in Boston and elsewhere. He also said looters and people who engaged in violence after protests in Boston on Sunday, and in Brockton two days later, “will have your day in court and be held accountable.”
He called Floyd’s death a “tragedy” and “an act of racism.”
“The country needs empathy, not hostility," he said. “The country needs to heal, not fracture. We plan to continue to talk, to listen, and push progress forward.”
In response to reporters’ questions, Baker said he has no intention of curtailing large demonstrations over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
“This is a balancing act between giving people the right to speak up about what they believe, and recognizing and understanding that we are still in the midst of a terribly dangerous and wildly contagious virus,” he said.
Baker noted that most protesters were wearing masks, and indeed, some were handing them out on the Common to anyone who needed one. Freddy Kamps, 29, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a friend spent $90 at Walgreens to buy 150 surgical masks, most of which they handed out early in the protest, they said.
“We think it’s important to be out here, and for everyone to be safe,” he said.
In Framingham, hundreds of marchers set off across Centre Green toward City Hall, a demonstration organized by Noah Montano-Rodriguez, 16.
“Violence is not the answer,” he said. “Our hope is that people understand that protests and words are stronger than violence.”
In Somerville, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone called systemic racism a “public safety and health emergency" and announced steps the city would take to reduce racism, which drew from a 10-point plan released by congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and other elected officials of color in Massachusetts.
The measures include the establishment of a civilian oversight committee of the Police Department, having more officers wear body cameras, and efforts to lobby for a state special prosecutor for cases of police violence.
“It’s time for sustained and responsive action,” Curtatone said in a statement. “We are listening. We are learning. We too are grieving. And we are committed to continuing this work."
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, meeting with clergy and other community leaders, said Wednesday that the city’s Police Department had learned lessons from its controversial past and was “on the road to change.”
The meeting, at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, took place amid protests roiling Boston and other cities this week following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Gross said video of the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he took his last breaths "was the worst that I’ve ever seen, not only in my life, but my career.“
Meanwhile, prosecutors said Wednesday that a Dorchester man charged with the attempted murder of 21 Boston police officers admitted he had opened fire early Monday as police responded to looting in the Back Bay. He said he did so because he was angry police had hit the windshield of his car as they tried to stop him from backing into another vehicle, prosecutors said.
“He essentially admitted to firing the gun,’’ Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Caitlin Fitzgerald said during a telephonic court hearing.
John K. Boampong Jr. was one of 53 people arrested late Sunday and early Monday in Boston after dozens of people began looting stores in Downtown Crossing and the Back Bay, violent acts that broke out long after the end of a peaceful march.
A judge ordered Boampong held without bail for 120 days under the state’s dangerousness statute.
In other news, the largest union for Boston police officers accused Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins of recklessly labeling all cops murderers and “implicitly” condoning violence against them.
In a letter Tuesday, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association criticized Rollins in part for tweets she posted before the protests Saturday. The letter said Rollins had posted on Twitter that “We are being murdered at will by the police” and “No more words. Demand action.”
The following day, police protected thousands of people who “sought to peacefully raise their voices through words," the union wrote. But when night fell “some protesters took ‘action’ — by violently attacking police officers. Still, our officers responded, as they always do, by protecting the city and each other."
The union posted a copy of the letter on Twitter, describing it as a response to Rollins’s “incendiary and Anti-Police remarks.”
On Wednesday, Rollins replied by posting “You mean Anti-Police BRUTALITY.”
“And did I somehow miss BPPA’s letter denouncing the murder of George Floyd and calling for the immediate termination and prosecution of the 4 police that murdered him and/or watched and did nothing while he died? White fragility is real people.”
On Boston Common Wednesday, as the afternoon wore on, protesters briefly shut down surrounding streets, bringing traffic to a halt.
Officers and members of the National Guard stood by as protesters looped downtown before returning to the Common for a die-in. At one point, a skirmish broke out among some of the people in the crowd. But it ended as the crowd chanted “No violence,” and the die-in continued.
Among those who braved the coronavirus to join the protest was Jaclyn Giay, 29, of South Boston.
“I came because I’m sick to my stomach of all these killings of innocent people by police,” she said. “We need more justice.”
John Hilliard, Travis Andersen, Tim Logan, Gal Tziperman Lotan, and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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