Boston community leaders held a vigil Friday night at “The Embrace” statue on Boston Common ahead of authorities in Memphis releasing video of the police beating of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died days after he was pulled over.
On Thursday, five former Memphis police officers were charged with murder and other crimes, including aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping, in connection with Nichols’s death. During a news conference earlier Friday, family members of Nichols urged protesters to remain peaceful.
Addressing the crowd gathered at “The Embrace,” Mayor Michelle Wu said Nichols’s death had effects far beyond Memphis, undermining public trust in police everywhere.
“His mother and family had to bury him almost three weeks ago, after a horrific act of violence took him from them,” she said, a short time before the video was made public. “We know the footage is going to be released tonight, and we know what it will show: that five police officers took his life during a traffic stop.”
“To all of our communities, but especially to the Black and brown men of Boston: You deserve to feel and to be safe, in your cars and in your homes, in our streets, in our stores, the places where you work and live and celebrate,” she said. “Please know that we see you and we love you, and Boston will not rest until we live up to that promise.”
The Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown, associate pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, led a prayer calling for the end of “business as usual” in interactions between police and Black Americans.
“Lord we all stand here, and we are thinking about Tyre’s family in Memphis,” he said. “We’re thinking about the families in our own communities who have suffered in this way. And oh God, though we condemn police violence in all its forms against the citizenry, we stand here grieving because it’s another Black life that has been taken from us.”
Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston, the organization that installed “The Embrace” in tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, noted that Memphis was the site of King’s assassination in 1968 as he advocated for sanitation workers whose slogan was “Am I a man?”
“Today we are thinking about Memphis and Brother Tyre, and the slogan of today is still, ‘Am I a man?’” Jeffries said. “Seeing the humanity in each of us is the cornerstone of true change. Experiencing another heinous display reminds us that no family should feel this pain, ever. And there’s still work to do.”
“This is a problem that confronts us all,” he said. “This is a problem that we need to defeat together, as a family, as a community.”
Elsewhere on the Common, about 80 people gathered for a demonstration that also addressed victims of police violence closer to home, including Saiyed Faisal, who died from a bullet shot by a Cambridge police officer Jan. 4, three days before Nichols’ fatal confrontation with Memphis police.
“No good cop in a racist system,” they chanted. “No one’s free in a racist system.”
Speakers at the demonstration, organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said the importance of body cameras is shown through Faisal’s case, which has not progressed nearly as far as Nichols’.
“We still don’t know the names of the police officers like we do know the names of the officers in Memphis,” said one PSL Boston organizer, Joe Tache, in an interview. “Here in Boston, as we fight for justice for Tyre ... we also need to uplift [Faisal’s] case as high as we can.”
One speaker, who asked to only be identified as J.D., said Nichol’s murder was racist, even though all officers involved are Black.
“Whether it’s a Black cop, a white cop, an Asian cop, a queer cop, a trans cop, a woman cop, a racist cop is a racist cop,” J.D. said to the crowd.
Simple reforms like hiring more Black and brown officers doesn’t solve the problem of police brutality, Tache said during an interview. Rather, he said, policing as an institution should be uprooted and rebuilt.
Another speaker and PSL member Suhail P. Purkar shared a similar view of diversity among public officials.
“In Cambridge, we have a South Asian mayor, we have an Asian city manager and we have a Black police commissioner,” Purkar ,25, said to the crowd. “And yet we still do not know the names of the killer cops that murdered our Saiyed Faisal.”
At a public meeting last week, Cambridge Police Commissioner Christine Elow said the department has not released the officer’s name because they have not been charged with a crime. The shooting remains under investigation.
Cherry Robinson, who participated in the march, said she is sick and tired of seeing videos of police killing people.
“It was horrific to see the [Nichols] video, knowing that we continue to employ these people and they continue to do this,” Robinson,44, of Rockland, said in an interview.
“Let’s be real: This is a war on Black America,” said one speaker, a 23-year-old Cambridge resident and MIT student who asked that his name not be published.
Andira Alves, a 30-year-old from Dorchester, said, “It’s the whole damn system that’s guilty.”
After a series of speakers from various organizations, more than 100 demonstrators marched through downtown Boston.
“Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” and “Justice for Tyre,” the crowd chanted. Their voices echoed as they traveled past the Common into the Theater District before looping back toward the State House.
One man held up his fist in solidarity as the crowd marched past him on Stuart Street.
Police erected barricades on several streets near the Common. The police presence was heavy, with lines of officers watching stoically as the crowd passed by.
The anticipated release of the video prompted law enforcement to prepare for protests or unrest.
Boston police on Friday issued a full-call up — in which all available and able officers are called to work — ahead of the release of the video, according to two City Hall officials and one law enforcement official with knowledge of the move.
Full call-ups of Boston police officers have occurred in recent years when the department is expecting large crowds, including Super Bowls that have featured the New England Patriots and a 2019 “Straight Pride Parade.”
Boston police typically does not detail strength-of-force numbers, and on Friday a department spokesman declined to confirm the full-call up for that reason. The department has more than 2,000 sworn officers.
A spokesman for Boston police said as of late Friday night there were no arrests or disturbances related to the protest.
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe Staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.
#TyreNichols pic.twitter.com/awpkMviGdt— Mass State Police (@MassStatePolice) January 27, 2023
Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.