Last Thursday my friend Mike texted me and asked if I wanted to join a protest against the decision not to indict the officer for the death of Eric Garner in NYC. Garner died while police were taking him down to arrest him. As a divorced mom, I only have certain evenings that I can be civic-minded, social, or watch old reruns of Starsky and Hutch, so I was happy the protest was on one of those nights. Mike and I had both been feeling frustrated and helpless about the Garner news following on the heels of the heartbreaking news out of Ferguson. Another grand jury failing to indict a police officer for a death of a black person. Like the NYC protest earlier in the week, the one in Boston was called to coincide with the lighting of the Boston Commons. I admit was a little conflicted on this point. I wanted to speak out and support racial justice and equality and I have no problem interrupting purely adult events, but as a mother, I didn’t want to be responsible for traumatizing a bunch of kids. I didn’t mind kids seeing us, but protests can quickly turn ugly, and I didn’t want to be a part of a toppled burning tree and kids who would associate racial justice with Christmas haters. I needn’t have worried. The protest was peaceful and orderly and although we stopped traffic in the street nearby the tree, we respected the barriers the police had erected around the ceremony. The kids may forever hear “Black Lives Matter” sprinkled among the strains of “White Christmas,” but I can live with that.
We stood in a crowd that began to grow. Every time we turned to look behind us more people joined. The crowd was encouragingly diverse, especially for Boston, which is pretty white. All shades of skin color and all ages, from gray heads to wispy-haired toddlers. We couldn’t see the speaker, and it was hard to hear, but the chants would flow back to us like the wave at a sports stadium. But honestly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were there, with like-minded people, speaking out. After a while the crowd started to move. Even as I was chanting, a small part of my brain acknowledged the power of the crowd and giving myself up to it. The protest was not an elaborately planned civil rights March on Washington. It seemed more organic. I had no idea where we were going, but Mike and I followed and chanted. We stepped out into the street stopping traffic. For all of Boston’s bad driving reputation, not one driver yelled at us. Some cheered, some looked annoyed, and others just took the opportunity to text with immunity. We went around the tree lighting ceremony and walked up the small hill to the state house. The sight of police in riot gear “lite” lined up along the state house lawn was sobering. They had face shields and were wearing neon yellow jackets. I was somewhat reassured by the article I had read in the Boston Globe the week before about a longer march after the Ferguson decision. The police chief was exuberant that the police and marchers had been respectful and no property had been damaged. He seemed like a reasonable guy and so far this march was reasonable. We stood by the gates chanting while the cops stood in an impassive line. Finally the protesters with bull horns turned us back down the hill and we walked in the downtown streets. It was a little surreal. The traffic at this point was being diverted, because there were no more cars. Police on bikes rode alongside us as we chanted and walked. One of the chants was “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go.” Mike commented that he didn’t like that chant, but being the word girl, I pointed out that it could be interpreted as these racist cops over here have to go, while we support those cops over there who are not racist. Of course, one thrown rock and the cops wouldn’t care very much about the nuances of demonstrative pronouns.
We wound our way down Washington Street and we were getting a little punchy; a guy behind us tried to start rogue chants. Some were kind of funny, like as we were going by a tall skyscraper he started chanting “Take the bank! Take the bank” and then “Take them all! Take them all!” We all started laughing because it didn’t even make sense, and he was laughing too. At the corner of State and Congress we stopped. Again I had that sense of just being in the crowd, in the moment. I didn’t know what the plan was or where we are even trying to get to. Mike and I joked they were just going to march us down State Street into the ocean. But then people started lying down. It was a “die in.” We’d been standing and walking for almost two hours so it actually felt kind of nice, even on the cold pavement in the middle of street. As we looked up into the dark night sky, Mike and I marveled that we’d probably never get to see this view, quite like this again. Then “Take the bank” guy started chanting “Get me a blanket! Get me a blanket!” and we started laughing again. Irreverent? Perhaps. But it occurred to me that the humor would help keep us safe from an anger that could turn into confrontation and get people hurt. Our presence, thousands strong was enough. We were lying in the street and chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” We were making our point without fire hoses, police dogs, and burning buildings. Without riot gear, tasers, and mace.
To fit in my space on the street, I was curled up on my side and the hip I was resting on started to hurt. The ground was getting cold. Finally we got up. It was 8:30. Mike and I, who had both marched on Washington in our 20s—he for the AIDS crisis and me for abortion rights—were tired and hungry. It was time for us to let the young ones carry on without us. At least for the night. A few blocks away we encountered another large river of people parallel to the folks we’d just left. Yes we were leaving the protest in good hands, and we would continue our own education—Mike reading about white privilege and I rereading my books about the Civil Rights Movement.
Black lives matter.