Arts & Culture, Our City

Field Notes from the Paradigm Shift

Vigil and march for Black Lives awakens Boston's subversive potential

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Back when I had a car, late at night, I would often find myself speeding down Circuit Drive in Franklin Park. Entering the drive off Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, I would test my impulses pushing 35, 40, 45 as the road twisted downhill towards the Shattuck . Never in my life would I have imagined that one day, in a time of great unrest, the entire drive from end to end would be filled with demonstrators, white and Black and all in between. This is what happened when droves came out on Tuesday night to protest the extrajudicial killings of Black American citizens George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee, and Ahmaud Arbery.

By 6:30PM, throngs had gathered on hilltops and in the roads all across Franklin Park, centered on the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital playstead. From 5:00PM onward, I could not concentrate at home as I sat on a conference call. I heard choppers overhead, saw protestors with signs spilling down my street towards the park and, tellingly, a blue police van heading south down Washington Street. But as I walked from my house down towards the park, people were coming down in large groups from “white JP” across the Orange Line tracks and over towards the Williams Street gate of Franklin Park. Along the path into the park, supporters had chalked messages into the pavement: “It is not too much to ask for justice”, “#SayHerName”, “Black Lives Matter”.

At the Shattuck playstead, the crowd was armed — with endless amounts of signs, t-shirts, and even masks adorned in support of the cause. I thought as I watched from a tall place above the ongoing vigil: this is Boston’s Sermon on the Mount. Those conducting the vigil had already conducted a ‘die-in’ down in Mattapan and marched up to Franklin Park. Those who came from JP and the Orange Line to catch the march represented, veritably, all of Boston, and by the size of the crowd, you would think literally all of Boston had shown up.

I thought, for how many of these protestors is it their first time they’ve been to Franklin Park? The park upon which Black Boston’s summer revelers descend for picnics and barbecues — it might take years for a Boston transplant living in Cambridge, Allston, or even Mission Hill to make it down here. What did it mean for this rainbow coalition mob to take up so much of the park? What would it have meant under normal circumstances, and what was its significance now?

I didn’t ponder for long. By 6:55, the crowd began to march down from the Shattuck onto Circuit Drive and across the golf course towards Dorchester. Helicopters still circled overhead, and some drones too — were they military or civilian? My thoughts were drowned out by the chants: “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” There was something beautiful about seeing the Franklin Park golf course be democratized for this sort of “civic engagement”. A symbol of wealth and white American culture — a course that radically allowed Black golfers to play when other private courses in the country did not — now flooded with chants and demonstrators. Within minutes, the chant had evolved: “No justice, no peace, abolish the police.

From a rocky knoll along Circuit Drive, I saw police officers attempt to make their way through the crowd, in single file first on motorbikes and then on bicycles. The crowd parted to let them pass, switching chants: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” One cop was almost prevented from passing by a makeshift human chain of three, but ultimately got through peacefully. I was 10 feet above all this, and I could only morbidly think that a gendarmerie could have been standing where I was with guns if they wanted.

But I pressed on. Apparently, at that moment, the small crowd that had stayed back at the Shattuck were allegedly kettled in by police, and nearby Forest Hills station had been closed off by that time. My phone chirped with groupchat messages offering places nearby Forest Hills to take cover, get water, and charge up phones. I kept marching, and what I saw changed by entire outlook on the near ten years I’ve lived in Boston.

The march went on unabated from the Franklin Park Zoo up Blue Hill Avenue, then up Warren Street, and all the way to Nubian (Dudley) Square and beyond, ultimately to BPD Headquarters at Ruggles. Marching through Roxbury, the heart of Black Boston, I saw nothing but an outpour of support from local residents. At every doorstep and balcony, locals cheered, raised fists, and streamed our march from their phones. Even cars trapped by the throngs of people beeped raucously in solidarity. The passengers in some cars even waved signs from their backseats. The marchers would stop their chants to clap with every chorus of beeping or revving of a civilian motorcycle.

One car, driven by a Black woman, paused on Warren Street to take in the spectacle and cheer; her infant sang, through the open back window, and mimicked the chants: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Certainly, for many in the march, it was their first time in Roxbury — not in a gentrified condo, but in boogie down Boston, the hood, the trenches. In my past decade of living here, I couldn’t have imagined such a sight. This was unprecedented unity for unprecedented times. No one caused any mischief or “outside agitation” — every one in sight was truly down with the fight. Even a steady 10-minute rain shower did nothing to dull the spirit.

I scurried away from the march at Nubian Square to attend to my own needs. My pants were sagging, owing to the loose fit and from carrying my belongings — I was walking clutching my waistband, and feared an errant eye would think I was concealing a gun. As I write this, I have little means of knowing what comes next. Certainly my optimistic view of today’s events will be marred by eventual arrests and further police brutality like the violence that occurred on Sunday. But I witnessed history. A paradigm shift has occurred. We can no longer return to where we were before. We are in the midst of an elsewhere.

HASSAN GHANNY is a writer and performer based in Jamaica Plain. He can be found on Instagram @diaspora.gothic

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