Boston: This city has witnessed an extraordinary awakening and outpouring of #BlackLivesMatter political demonstrations over the past week and a half by a new generation of activists who are determined to change the very face of a city not known as a bastion of racial justice.
In the days before Thanksgiving, upwards of 2,000 protesters swarmed downtown’s Back Bay and Dudley Square sections to express outrage and grief in the immediate aftermath of the St. Louis County grand jury decision not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. At one point, demonstrators passed by the South Bay Correctional Facility, where prisoners held up handmade signs that bluntly challenged police violence.
Thousands more gathered at the Boston Common last week to protest a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury’s no-indictment decision against police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke hold death of Eric Garner. The protest, organized by We Are the Ones, coincided with the city’s official tree-lighting ceremony, and for a brief moment demonstrators shut down traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Tufts University students held four-and-a-half-minute “die-ins” in Davis, Porter, Harvard and Central squares in honor of the four-and-a-half hours Brown’s body lay in the street in Ferguson, Mo., this past August.
Boston’s tumultuous and at times ugly history of racial violence, most popularly recalled during the roiling anti-busing demonstrations that gripped the city in 1974, makes it an unlikely site of racial-justice activism. Despite its deep abolitionist and Quaker roots, pervasive segregation, blatant acts of racial violence and denial of injustice remain ingrained in the psyche of the city that calls itself the “cradle of liberty.” The Boston ACLU’s recent report documenting disproportionate stop-and-frisk procedures experienced by people of color has offered further evidence of a city steeped in deep racial division.
These recent demonstrations represent both the local face of a national social justice movement and a grassroots effort to center calls for racial justice on the radical democratic activism that is gripping the nation.
In particular, Boston’s #BlackLivesMatter activism has been striking because of the racial and class diversity of its participants as well as the manner in which young millennials seem awakened, impassioned and energized to engage in long-haul political struggle.
The participation of Boston-area black, Latino, Asian-American and white college students has been especially encouraging. Tufts students helped organize a protest that drew hundreds of area college students and others in an effort to disrupt, educate and raise consciousness about a wide range of social justice issues:
In this sense, Ferguson has become a seedbed allowing the flowering of multi-issue activism rooted in the slogan “Black lives matter.”
And in Boston as around the nation, this requires educating and raising the consciousness of all citizens, especially white Americans, about concepts of power, privilege and history that are often absent from national media coverage of the deaths of Brown and Garner—coverage that has, for the most part, downplayed the sophistication, depth and breadth of these escalating protests.
That an important strand of this movement is taking shape outside of historically central sites of black activism is not only remarkable but nearly miraculous.
Nationwide, the protests have echoed the heyday of 1960s social and political activism. In that era, cities like Birmingham and Selma, Ala., became part of a national and global lexicon. They became metaphors for struggles for human dignity and citizenship that touched evil larger than segregation and required remedies beyond the vote.
For many black residents, Boston was the Selma of the North in the 1970s—a city wracked by racial division and violence, exacerbated by willful denial. Forty years after the busing crisis, racial oppression continues in Boston. But the #BlackLivesMatter movement offers substantive hope that racial justice may become as important a part of this city’s legacy as its sports teams, universities and revolutionary heritage.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.