As demonstrations against police brutality and abuse of Black Americans spread across Boston on the night of May 31 and early morning of June 1, the city’s police department was out in force.
Many officers wore body cameras. During the unrest, the cameras recorded hours of footage that the department subsequently stored.
That footage was given to attorney Carl Williams, who is representing some protesters arrested that night, as part of a discovery file encompassing 44 videos and over 66 hours of footage. Williams assembled a team of volunteer lawyers and law students to pore over the videos to find exculpatory evidence for his clients. What they found, however, was something more.
The hours of video, given exclusively to The Appeal by Williams, show police officers bragging about attacking protesters, targeting nonviolent demonstrators for violence and possible arrest, discussing arrest quotas and the use of cars as weapons, and multiple instances of excessive force and liberal use of pepper spray.
“It’s this mob mentality,” Williams said of the police behavior. “And I use ‘mob’ as a sort of a double entendre—mob like the mafia and mob like a group of a pack of wild people roaming the streets looking to attack people.”
The Appeal shared sections of the footage with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who said that in her view, police behavior in the videos is indicative of the very issues that demonstrators were marching to bring attention to.
“I have not watched the entire video, but the snippets that I have seen are incredibly troubling,” said Rollins, adding that she has sent the clips to her special prosecution team.
The Boston Police Department has opened an investigation into the revelations in the videos, Sergeant Detective John Boyle told The Appeal. Citing the investigation, Boyle declined further comment.
The May 31 Boston demonstration, part of a nationwide movement that was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, officially wrapped up around 9 p.m., Black Boston co-founder Toiell Washington told The Appeal. Washington said that her group was one of the main organizers of the event and made a conscious choice not to work with police because of the nature of the protest.
“We didn’t work with any city officials and we definitely didn’t work with the police,” said Washington. “We didn’t have that conversation with them.”
To Black Boston, working with the department on a protest against police brutality would have been hypocritical and counterproductive. The group did not encounter any resistance from police during the march and demonstration, Washington said, but that changed as the night wore on.
“As soon as it got dark, they started things,” Washington said of the police. “I have many friends that were attacked, and they did nothing to provoke anyone.”
Washington said that police turned the city into a “war zone,” barricading protesters and passersby alike and causing destruction and terror.
Activist Yaritza Dudley and other people The Appeal spoke to backed up that version of events. Dudley, who is Black Boston’s director of events, was not officially involved with the group at the time. She told The Appeal that she and her friends endured a harrowing escape from downtown Boston as police attacked them and everyone around them with tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence. That behavior wasn’t surprising to the young activist—but it was a major moment nonetheless.
“It just goes to show that Boston is no different, is no better than any other city that you see with open attacks and police brutality,” said Dudley.
Lauren Pespisa, a Boston activist, told The Appeal she remembered seeing “more cops that night than any other, except shortly after when the National Guard came out.”
“The daytime march was extremely peaceful and the cops held back, then once the sun went down there was a lot of tear gas and police cars driving haphazardly into crowded streets,” said Pespisa. “They shut down the MBTA and had battalions of riot cops around every corner gassing us.”
“Start spraying the fuckers,” says one officer, wearing camera X81416368, at 1:21 a.m. UTC on June 1. (Times are set for UTC on the cameras referred to in this story—five hours ahead of Eastern time.)
Over and over in the videos, police officers are seen deploying plumes of pepper spray at demonstrators, often without warning or provocation. Crowds of protesters with their hands raised are regularly attacked and sprayed by officers on bikes and on foot. At times, demonstrators are rushed by surprise by officers spraying at will.
In one clip, when a man with a gray beard approaches a crowd of officers with his hands raised, an officer to his right sprays him with pepper spray from close range directly in the eyes. In another, a woman with blue hair is surrounded by officers and sprayed in the face at close range by one officer.
Rollins called the liberal use of pepper spray on display in the videos “disturbing” and said her team was looking into it. She added that she hoped the woman with blue hair had filed a complaint.
The officers appear enthusiastic about using the chemical weapon and unconcerned with whether to arrest demonstrators. In one clip, timed at 1:52 a.m., officers advancing on a crowd are pushing one young man standing with his hands raised.
“We gotta start spraying more,” the officer wearing camera X81417350 says.
“You out?” he asks another police officer offscreen, holding up a can of pepper spray. “I got a little left.”
“I want to hit this asshole,” he says, gesturing toward the young man being pushed back. “I’ve used two of these already—I’ve got a little left, I want to hit this kid.”
Williams cited those comments in particular as indicative of the attitude police in Boston take toward demonstrators and the community.
“This is not law enforcement,” he said. “That’s not what they’re doing right there in the streets, ganging up on people using weaponry.”
“And they’re enjoying it,” he added.
Officers assaulted demonstrators in various ways throughout the evening, often without any clear sense of purpose or reason. Using batons to compel crowds back, officers with cameras are seen pushing down people trying to get out of the way and comply with commands.
One officer, wearing camera X81329588, rushes a person on a moped who is trying to comply and clear the area. The officer charges him, shoving him off of the vehicle, for no discernible reason and with no provocation. The attack came at 2:08 a.m.
In another clip, outside Boston Common at 2:44 a.m., the same officer charges a young Black woman holding her hands up and shoves her violently to the ground with a baton. The officer says nothing when he does this and does not arrest her.
In the aftermath of the attack, the officer and his cohort push back other demonstrators expressing concern for the victim, who they say is still lying on the ground. The officers do not respond, instead marching forward with batons pushing demonstrators out of the way.
Marchers were exercising their First Amendment rights, Rollins said, and for the police to attack them with such ferocity is disturbing. Police behavior should be held to a higher standard, she added, and protesters expressing anger at officers is no excuse for violence.
“These are people exercising a constitutional right to be out,” said Rollins. “And there is no requirement that they be pleasant or silent when they are out.”
Those not wearing cameras are also seen assaulting demonstrators. One police officer, wearing a fluorescent jacket, looks back at camera X81417350 and then hits a young man in the stomach. The victim of the attack had been complying, walking backward with his hands up in front of his attacker.
The officers also appear to target certain demonstrators for violence. In one clip from 1:26 a.m. near the Common, a group of officers on bikes react strongly when a demonstrator kicks a tear gas canister back at them.
“Let’s get this fucker,” says the officer behind camera X8141668. “Let’s get him, lock him up.”
Although most of the abuse on camera happens without arrests, there are some instances of demonstrators being taken into custody. One video suggests that the reason for this was to meet arrest quotas.
At 4:52 a.m., the officer behind camera X8142975 gathers with other police officers, including a sergeant, at a rendezvous point. The conversation between the officer and the sergeant is revealing for what it implies about arrest quotas—a policy that has caused controversy in Massachusetts in the past, particularly around State Police ticket quotas.
“How many ya got?” asks the officer as the cameraman exits his vehicle.
“Just one, female,” he replies, lifting his hand.
The sergeant, after an unintelligible exchange, declares, “then we’re done” as he walks over to the vehicle. “That’s 10.”
The officers then realize the number is only nine, but the superior officer appears to think that number is satisfactory.
“I mean, theoretically, we could take one more,” he says, appearing to dismiss the idea.
Officers repeatedly appear to not realize they are being recorded.
In one instance, a commanding officer approaches the man behind camera X81413955 and hands him a necktie with a price tag still on it, presumably from a store looted during the unrest.
“It’s pretty nice,” replies the cameraman, adding that it’s a “$50 tie.”
The commanding officer quickly leaves the area, turning his back on the camera. Meanwhile, the officer with the camera appears to pocket the item. The Boston Police Department did not provide a case number, evidence log, or any information about the tie.
In another clip, a sergeant approaches the officer behind camera X81331058 and begins telling him about using a police vehicle to attack demonstrators.
“Dude, dude, dude, I fuckin’ drove down Tremont—there was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around,” says the sergeant, laughing.
“So then I had a fucker keep coming, fucking running,” he continues. “I’m fucking hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, ‘get the fuck—’”
At this point the officer behind the camera pushes the sergeant’s head away and walks off in the other direction. He comes back a few seconds later, saying, “it’s on,” about the camera.
The sergeant quickly changes his story.
“Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all,” he says. “My windows were closed, the shit was coming in.”
The officer then apologizes.
“This thing just fucking went on automatically,” he says.
The comments about the car indicate a callousness on the part of the officer—regardless of whether he actually did it—considering the use of cars as weapons in recent years, Rollins said. She singled out a car attack at the Charlottesville, Virginia, counterprotests to the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017 that killed left-wing activist Heather Heyer as an example of what vehicles can do when used in that way. Hearing a police officer laugh about it, she said, was not a good feeling.
“This individual appears to be taking pleasure in the fact that this happened or is gloating,” said Rollins. “I’m a member of law enforcement now as an elected district attorney, and I’m not proud of that when I see that. And I want to be proud of the behavior that we see with law enforcement moving forward.”
Not all officers are comfortable with the department’s approach to dealing with demonstrators. Criticism pops up at 3:38 a.m. from the officer wearing camera X81329486 as he and other officers take stock of the night.
“You know what was fucked up?” he says. “We’re pushing the one way, someone’s pushing them the other way.”
“There was no plan,” he says.
Another officer, wearing camera X8145069, says at 2:21 a.m. that the city is in an “absolute war.”
“This is insane,” he says, adding, “I didn’t think Boston would be that bad.”
To Washington of Black Boston, the police behavior shows the ineffectiveness of armchair commentary on how people of color “should” or “shouldn’t” protest police violence. Civil disobedience doesn’t come with an instruction manual—people can protest how they want—and to suggest that the reaction is inappropriate without applying empathy to the plight of the victims of the situation is the opposite of solidarity.
“They cannot tell us how to channel our emotions during situations like this,” said Washington.
Today, Washington and Black Boston are concentrating on continuing their efforts to ensure that the way things are done in Boston and around the country with respect to Black and brown people are changed for the better. The old way isn’t working, Washington said, and solidarity depends on unlearning the paradigms of the past.
A similar conversation is taking place nationally. Leaders in Washington and around the country are debating the ramifications of the acts of police violence that led to the new civil rights movement that erupted over the summer.
A number of local, state, and federal leaders in Massachusetts have been outspoken in their support for the movement. On Wednesday, the Boston City Council voted 8-5 to restrict the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against demonstrators—a measure with roots in the protests in late May and early June.
Representative Ayanna Pressley, whose district encompasses three-quarters of the city of Boston, has been an indefatigable voice in Congress favor of police reforms. The Appeal showed her office portions of the above videos, particularly the ones focused on use of pepper spray and physical violence.
“The inexcusable actions of officers in these disturbing videos make painfully clear why our communities are standing up, speaking out and demanding decisive action to combat the public health crisis that is police brutality in our nation,” Pressley said in a statement. “We can and must advance bold and systemic policy change at all levels of government to bring an end to the toxic culture of police impunity that has fueled these abuses and begin to legislate true justice and healing for our communities.”
The ACLU of Massachusetts has been trying to obtain the videos from that night and other nights of protest since June. The Appeal shared a compilation of clips from the file with the organization before the publication of this article.
“We have seen a compilation of BPD body cam footage dated from June 1; if accurate, the footage raises concerns about excessive force,” Ruth Bourquin, ACLU of Massachusetts’s senior and managing attorney, said in a statement. “We are grateful that the body camera footage brought these incidents to light. We note that BPD has failed to produce these body cam recordings to the ACLU, in spite of a request from the summer that is the subject of pending public records litigation.”
Bourquin added that the behavior of the officers in the videos is antithetical to the principle of free assembly and the right of people to go out in the streets to demand justice. That right should not be infringed, she said.
For her part, Rollins promised change is coming. She issued an appeal to Bostonians that they trust her with information about the police.
“I want people to feel comfortable sending that information to me,” Rollins said. “I want people to feel comfortable enough filing a complaint with the Boston Police Department if that is the entity that engaged in, you know, problematic at best, criminal at worst behavior,. And if they don’t feel comfortable, I want them to file it with me or one of their Boston city councilors to get it to my attention. And we will review everything.”