The Seat of a Revolution
A firsthand account of Boston’s Sunday protests and a reflection on revolutionary history.
I was tense all day Sunday.
Something I had been holding inside had boiled over like a neglected pot of rice. It was easy, for a while to keep a lid on it. Sunday, the lid came off.
I had tried not to look at the news before this past weekend; focused instead on my work and the new skills I was learning. I thought I didn’t have the strength to take on the emotional work I would have to do to not only show up for my community in the face of COVID-19, but also then show up in the face of racialized violence too. There’s a big difference between COVID-19 and racialized violence — COVID-19 affected everyone, caused my coworkers and friends to give me lenience, provoked solidarity and gentle smiles unseen among local Greater Boston residents.
Racialized violence did not affect everyone. It did not affect those who could avoid looking forever. I tensed myself on Monday morning for the question “how was your weekend?”, fortunately, it never came. Windows were smashed all along Boylston street. My friend A texted me, echoing my sentiment about how frustrating it was that she couldn’t talk to people at work about police brutality and racist violence — why was one crisis ‘too political’ and the other was not, when both dealt with the loss of human lives?
Try as I might, I could not avoid looking forever. It was not possible to ignore everything, not when it was occurring in the social equivalent of my backyard, felt by family members and friends. Finally, late Saturday night, I began to participate.
I let the news leak back into my life slowly; I watched the gruesome videos. For me, the last straw was the arrest of Omar Jimenez, a black CNN reporter. He was simply in Minneapolis, reporting, as was his job, and speaking gracefully, calmly, quietly to police officers as they inaudibly argued with him. Then, on live television, he was arrested.
There’s something personally embarrassing and unflattering about this, I think, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Maybe the reason the arrest of Omar Jimenez was my ‘last straw’ was that I saw myself in him — an educated person of status and significant fame was arrested on live television for doing their job. I am not famous; but I have status and education of my own — a stable tech job, a fancy degree. When I watched the video of the arrest of Omar Jimenez, I was reminded that these would not be enough to protect me.
Even so, I reassured my friends with gallows humor as I went off to the Boston protests — I joked, “I have money and connections, I’ll be fine”.
What I did not have, though, was leak-proof eye protection.
Earlier that Sunday, while my mind was half-present and my body was still tense, I drove my housemates on an excursion to the Old North Bridge in Concord, MA. I went because of a recommendation from a work colleague, who posted lovely photos of a walk he took there. Given that there’s not much to do during COVID-19, we go on trips outdoors, keeping our distance from others, as the weather warms. Though I have lived in Massachusetts for almost six years now, I had never been.
I had forgotten until just before we left that Old North Bridge was, in addition to being a nice section of Minute Man National Park, the seat of the American revolution.
I had said drily while driving that this was a field trip to be reminded of America’s revolutionary history, and to recognize the great irony of the 1776 revolution compared to the events of 2020.
Yet even I did not expect how ridiculous it would feel. The same super-nationalists who espouse the values of the American revolution, the types of people who would take a vacation to Concord, Massachusets, condemn much less violent acts of resistance happening before them. They drink too much of America’s kool-aid, parroting words like “freedom”, “liberty”, and “democracy” without understanding what they really mean.
I paused particularly long when I reached this plaque, which included quotes from notable revolutionaries.
Concord is beautiful, by the way, almost too beautiful. The backgrounds of photos look like green-screened scenery, impossibly lush and vivid on a sunny day. It’s quiet and serene.
I prepared to head into Boston. I decided I was going, although I’d been warned that I didn’t have enough protection. This was true. I won’t attend again without being more prepared.
I met my friend A at our former college living group, and she at least had swim goggles. The whole evening she would ask me what was happening in the distance — she hadn’t worn her contacts since she’d heard that they would melt to your eyes if sprayed with tear gas. I would narrate the movements of neon-vested police officers and describe the text and images on protest signs — though I could only see because I was wearing my own contacts, and I would have been far too blind without them.
A and I could not find a rideshare to take us to Nubian Square, where the protest was supposed to be departing from. We sat on the front steps of the living group contemplating what to do. Then, we saw a small crowd of people carrying signs and walking — I asked, “should we just tag along with them?”
We merged with this group of young people from Allston.
“Hey! Excuse me!” I had called out, running up to them, asking where they were going and if we could please tag along. I felt like my childhood self at a playground.
“Also, um, I’ve been following you guys for like half a mile,” remarked B, a different girl in the back of the group that I assumed was with them at first. That night, my friend A, myself, and B would stay together the entire protest.
The weather was offensively nice — like a sunny day on a funeral. In a strange way, it was the most normal I had felt on a summer evening in Boston in a while. If you ignored the signs and occasional gas masks and protective gear and goggles, the main thoroughfares of Back Bay were teeming with young people, as they would have been in years past. People enjoying a summer evening, you might have thought, if you watched from a distance.
Until we reached Boston Commons.
The commons was swarmed with people.
Grocery carts of water, milk, and provisions on the sidelines.
Megaphones, speakers, organizers, groups and sections.
The last thing I remember that could have been comparable was the Copley Square protests, and before that, the women’s march, which may have been larger.
The crowd amassed around the State House, a building I hadn’t paid much attention to before. The thrum of helicopters whirred in the background — I looked up at the sky and counted, three.
“Some of them are probably just the news,” I said, unsure who I was reassuring. I always found helicopters at protests unsettling, their ambient noise an ominous reminder.
The State House was domineering, secured by spiked iron gates in front of the mass of bodies. Behind the gates, a line of neon jackets, police officers. In other cities, protests may have been before police precincts, which are usually not particularly impressive buildings. But somehow I felt the stature and architecture of the state house amplified something. It silently absorbed the chants of the crowd, housed officers who flitted in and out of crevices on its face.
Protest organizers and speakers stood at the steps to the closed gates, leading chants through speakers and megaphones. I realized it was the largest crowd I had been in since the start of COVID-19.
Before we entered deep into the crowd, my friend A and I exchanged our numbers with B, “just in case”. We joked that protests were the only time we could make friends these days. I am continually intrigued by how people remain people, no matter how serious the situations— there will still be humor in the mix of emotions, fumbling of words, nervous smiles. We formed these strange bonds; new acquaintances you entrust with your life.
We stood for two hours as the day turned to night.
There were three powerful moments that stood out to me.
The first is when protestors kneeled. I didn’t get a great photo, but bodies around me, bodies as far as I could see, dropped to the ground in a united wave. The crowd chanted for the police to do the same: “TAKE A KNEE / SHOW YOU CARE”.
I did not expect any of the officers to abide. I was a little surprised at the audible disappointment I heard — “it’s so easy, why won’t they just do it?” “literally they’re all cowards” “f**** 12” — not chants but remarks and conversations, the chatter of a crowd. (‘12’ is code/slang for the police)
The protest was very peaceful. I find that protestors are kinder and more polite than the crowds of most concerts I’ve attended, and these were no different. People said “excuse me” and “do you mind?” as they shuffled toward the front or out of the sides, and were met with “of course” “go ahead” “would you like some water?”
It did not feel significantly different than the Copley protests or the women’s march, except in both cases the police around the crowds were not the direct target of the rage. But the crowd itself — still calm.
A man in front me, however, a tall white man wearing an American flag baseball cap, kept shouting aggressively at inappropriate moments. He was making the people around him — the black people — uncomfortable, especially because they were trying to listen to the Black Lives Matter organizers speaking at the front. I heard a group of older black women softly express their annoyance, and when some eruption came from further back in the crowd, they remarked louder, “Nah, no, we not doing that. You’re not gonna ruin this for everybody.” They looked back to where someone had spray-painted “F*** 12” on plywood covering some structure. “That’s the black soldiers’ memorial. They’re spray painting on the black soldiers’ memorial?”
B leaned in and said, “I wonder if that guy’s one of those undercover white supremacists.”
The next morning I would read about how there were many white supremacist extremists present at protests all over the country, including Boston’s.
Many Claim Extremists Are Sparking Protest Violence. But Which Extremists?
Amid a rush to assign blame for violence and vandalism, accusations that extremists or outside agitators were behind…
The second moment is when the Nubian Square marchers arrived.
Nubian Square is at the center of Roxbury, one of Boston’s predominantly and historically black neighborhoods. A path cleared through the crowd as several hundred people marched up the hill and in front of the state house.
This was the group A and I had initially meant to join, before tagging along with the Allston group. They had marched far, three miles from Nubian Square to the state house. I was initially surprised (and admittedly, comforted by) the diversity of the State House crowd — but the Nubian Square crowd was, simply put, more black. I felt for them. This group was more likely full of people who had truly borne the brunt of Boston’s continuous, systemic racism, across their whole lives and multiple generations. A, B, and myself were college transplants, we were not born and raised in this city as some of these protestors may have been.
And I knew that Boston, by some measures, was America’s most racist city.
The third moment is this:
As it neared 9PM, the organizers called for the crowd to disperse. They reminded white protestors to protect the black people around them. I felt relieved. I looked at A and B — “should we start heading back?” — and we moved, together, through the swath of people and away from the state house. It was peaceful the whole time, I thought — but I didn’t want to wait for that to change.
That evening, the terrace of the state house was initially empty. Slowly, it was populated by officers who emerged to look on at the throng of people — some in riot gear. I leaned in to A — “if they disappear, we should go”.
We walked, all relieved, down Beacon street. We talked about all the injustices the protest was for, about the election, life as recent graduates, on the way back to my parked car. I offered B a ride back home. Again, the walk back felt strangely normal — groups of young people all around Back Bay, as there would have been in summers past.
In the crowd, mobile internet had started to fail as the local network was overloaded by the masses of people. As we walked away from it, I could check Twitter again (I’d been live-tweeting the whole evening). To my dismay, on the #bostonprotests tag, people were saying that the police were becoming more aggressive at Copley mall. Time-stamped videos displayed proof.
“What — but we were just up there?”
Just 10 minutes after we’d left the commons, or maybe before, escalation had already started occurring. We were all confused — the crowd had been dispersing, albeit slowly given that there were so many people. Why escalate the situation now? What happened? What were the police doing?
It felt as though the chaos was following us block by block as we walked down Beacon. We were walking parallel to Boylston street, where much of the escalation was occurring. We heard more and more sirens. But we were walking away, and away. I dropped off B and A in Allston, which took me further in the opposite direction of escalation. It also meant I had to take a circuitous route back to my own home from Allston, away from roads clogged with squad cars.
At home I was overwhelmed with more and more videos of escalation, tear gas, mayhem. B texted us — “It was great meeting you both, really happy we left when we did.”
If we’d been just 10 minutes later, it could have reached us. I had not had protection. I was shocked at how narrowly we’d gotten away. I told a friend that I was sure my ancestors had whispered in my ear. The things that occurred that night were insane.
The police had shut down the red line. Dorchester and Roxbury, the neighborhoods the Nubian Square marchers would be coming from and likely lived, were accessible via the red line. They’d also shut down the subway stations around the Commons, like Park Street Station. It didn’t make any sense. If they wanted people to disperse and move away, why did it seem like they were trapping them where they stood without giving them a chance to leave? Why did they pepper spray and tear gas people just 10 minutes after the call to disperse?
I felt a wave of sadness, frustration, anger. Having been present myself, I saw how difficult it would be to determine the cause of escalation on the protestors side. I imagined a journalist or cameraman, standing where I stood, would not be able to see exactly what was happening on all sides of the crowd. It would take a network of observers paying close attention, and even that may not be sufficient. In addition, I could see how journalists prefer ‘official’ and ‘reliable’ sources — the police will always be the official source in events like this. The police, an organized state body, could more easily control the media narrative than a diffuse group of ‘angry protestors’. I braced myself for headlines the next day and warned people to be cautious of what they might read.
Sure enough, A texted me the next morning in dismay — “ugh, all the articles from last night’s protest so far are basically saying that the protestors started all of it.”
Protests peaceful in Boston by day turn violent at nightfall
BOSTON (AP) - A Sunday afternoon of mostly peaceful protests in Boston broke at nightfall when protesters clashed with…
An example from AP News: “As the march ended around 9 p.m., protesters clashed with police in downtown Boston. A police cruiser’s rear window was smashed by a skateboarder. Police also tweeted that their officers were pelted with bricks, rocks, and glass bottles.”
The framing here was clear to me — a quote from the police twitter account, no statements to the contrary. We can see why — the mass of individuals is less ‘official’, less ‘reliable’, which translates to less ‘factual’ for major news sources, though many continue to cover blatant inaccuracies and lies when told by ‘official’ sources, such as the president, in the interest of ‘fairness’.
Such is the case when you are mounting an insurgency.
I kept thinking of the quotes I saw at Concord.
“I haven’t a man who’s afraid to go”
“Will you let them burn the town down?
This city, of all places, should understand. This city forgets its promise. Slaves enlisted in the revolutionary war with the promise of freedom, and after the war was over, were put back into slavery. Massachusetts’ officials, government, and some citizens forget their own history. But we do not forget ours.
I cannot keep the peace for you, anymore.