More than a thousand people marched through Boston to honor Black women Saturday afternoon, forming a demonstration that turned the city’s largely subdued July Fourth into a powerful expression of liberty on the nation’s 244th birthday.
Participants walked shoulder-to-shoulder from Nubian Square in Roxbury to Boston Common during the Say Her Name March & Rally. Some had fists raised, others carried signs with written messages of support.
Most heeded health warnings of the coronavirus and wore masks. But their voices were clearly heard.
“What do we want? Justice!” they chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”
Organizers said the demonstration was meant to celebrate the lives of Black women, and demand an end to the police violence that has claimed the lives of so many Black people, particularly women.
Monica Cannon-Grant, a community organizer who was a participant and a speaker at the event, said they wanted “to shine a light on the fact that Black women are dying at the hands of police, and we’re standing in solidarity.”
The rally was intended to uplift Black women’s lives by sharing music, food, and the arts, and to “lament the loss and uplift all the Black womxn taken from us by state and other violences,” organizers with Black Lives Matter Boston said on Facebook, using an alternative spelling of the word “women” intended to be more inclusive.
They “hold up half the sky all over the world and have always been essential,” but Black women are too often overlooked, erased, and devalued, said the organizers, who included Karlene Griffiths Sekou of Black Lives Matter Boston, along with Daunasia Yancey, Lanise Colon Arira Adeeke, and a coalition of others.
“Yet, we resist and persist in order to thrive, and [so] that all Black peoples flourish,” organizers said on Facebook.
Boston, typically a hub of July Fourth festivities, was mostly silent this year. And public health officials have warned that crowds can fuel new infections during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19, which has killed thousands in Massachusetts, has disproportionally affected the city’s Black residents and other people of color.
Fighting the disease in the city meant the cancellation of traditional events such as the Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade, parades, and fireworks.
Without those events, the demonstration effectively became an unofficial way to mark Independence Day in Boston, replacing the party-like atmosphere of past years with an energized march by those demanding the nation fully respect the rights and freedom of Black women.
The choice of Independence Day to honor Black women was significant: Cannon-Grant noted that thousands of Black people remained slaves when the nation was founded.
“Black folks weren’t free on the Fourth of July,” she said.
A focal point of the rally in Nubian Square was a monument to Black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, who activists at the event cited as leaders who had come before those who are protesting today.
Mawakana Onifade, a cofounder of the Sistahs of the Calabash and a representative for indigenous African religions, led the crowd in a chant to honor ancestors of the Black community.
Onifade read the names of Black women who were killed by violence, and protesters then called out the names of Black and Latinx people who inspired them to stand up against injustice.
“Whether they’re recently slain bodies or ancient heroes, ‘sheroes,’ or allies, you will call on those who motivated you,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon at the Justice Edward O. Gourdin Veterans’ Memorial Park, many in the crowd wore white and burned incense. Some held signs saying, “This is a revolt against racism.” Around 4 p.m. the event kicked off with a drum performance as voices in the crowd shouted out calls to action.
Before marching to Boston Common, Chief Sachem Wompimeequin Wampatuck of the Mattakeeset Tribe with the Massachusetts Indian Nation told the crowd he felt a spiritual mandate to join the protests.
Typically he is reluctant to join such events, he said, since Native people are often tokenized and remain unrecognized by the Massachusetts government.
“I’m so proud of you for stepping up and honoring your ancestors,” he said. “It makes me want to cry.”
After watching the dance in the park, the marchers began to walk toward Boston Common. Some traveled in trucks and several people walked bikes. A marching band brought up the rear.
As they passed Boston police headquarters, marchers yelled: “No good cops in a racist system!”
During the march, some participants carried signs with messages that included calls to defund police, and comparisons of white supremacy to terrorism.
One sign carried by a demonstrator read, “Where’s the Liberty and justice for all?”
“Black Trans Lives Matter,” read another.
At times, the crowd called out the names of Black people who have died because of police violence, including Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was shot to death inside her Louisville home when police conducted a no-knock warrant in March.
“Say her name: Breonna Taylor,” protesters called out.
Protesters arrived around 8 p.m. on the Boston Common, where they watched dance performances and heard from march leaders at Parkman Bandstand. Members of the Sistahs of the Calabash performed a chant for ancestors in the Yoruba language; afterward, demonstrators cheered the names of Black leaders.
Carla Sheffield and her daughter, Zyariah, shared poems about police brutality. Sheffield’s son, Burrell Ramsey-White, was fatally shot by Boston police in August 2012 during a routine traffic stop, she said.
In her poem, called “Hey Officer,” she asked how she’s supposed to tell her daughter not to fear police.
“My son should be here today, and he’s not,” she said.
The crowd paused a few times along the route. In a solemn moment at the Harriet Tubman Memorial in the South End, some demonstrators left flowers on the monument.
When they stopped briefly in front of the Harriet Tubman House on Columbus Avenue, an organizer told the crowd: “Our breath is sacred. We will breathe.”
The event wrapped up around 10 p.m. with a performance by a Puerto Rican resistance dance called Bomba.
Earlier at the Tubman house, Cannon-Grant told the crowd to invest in Black women and their businesses, and to be mindful of their sacrifices.
“Every time a Black man dies in this country, every time a Black child dies in this county, every time a Black woman dies in this country, Black women are on the front lines ready to lay down their lives,” she said.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story was unclear about who organized Saturday’s Say Her Name March & Rally In Boston and has been altered to clarify that. The event was led by Karlene Griffiths Sekou of Black Lives Matter Boston, along with Daunasia Yancey, Lanise Colon Arira Adeeke, and a coalition of Boston organizers. Monica Cannon-Grant was a participant and speaker.