New Videos Show Massachusetts Cops Brutalizing George Floyd Protesters
Over two nights last year, police in Boston and Worcester used excessive force—including pushing and tackling—while arbitrarily arresting protesters without apparent cause.
Demonstrations exploded across the United States last year after the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.
During protests in Massachusetts, police officers in some cities responded to demonstrators with unprovoked and excessive physical force, indiscriminate pepper spraying, and mass arrests.
New footage shared with The Appeal from Boston from the evening of May 29 and Worcester from the night of June 1, along with the accounts of people present, point to a pattern of police attacking and arresting demonstrators without apparent cause and using excessive force to restrain people.
Carl Williams, a Boston attorney who was at the May 29 action as a legal observer, told The Appeal that what he saw from police was clearly aimed at treating protesters with cruelty, not what was legally appropriate.
“It’s vindictive and brutalistic,” said Williams. “It’s vengeful.”
In December, Williams provided The Appeal with 66 hours of raw video footage that showed multiple instances of police misconduct and violence on May 31. Williams obtained the footage in discovery; he is representing demonstrators arrested at that protest. The Appeal’s reporting sparked a citywide outcry and generated an ongoing investigation by the Boston Police Department and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey told The Appeal in an email that the May 31 body camera footage “underscores the importance of implementing reforms regarding use of force standards, transparency, and accountability.”
“It’s time for all of us, at all levels of government, to ensure we have a system the public can trust and that includes meaningful mechanisms to address misconduct by law enforcement officials,” said Healey.
The new footage shows a similar pattern of unnecessary force.
On May 29, demonstrators with Mass Action Against Police Brutality (MAAPB) marched past the District D-4 Boston Police station at 650 Harrison Ave., in the South End neighborhood, during a nonviolent action in support of Black lives and against police brutality.
Williams, the legal observer, described how about a third of the total group marching that day in protest stopped at the police station, the rest continuing on. As they assembled in front of the station, police in ever more militarized gear poured out of the building.
“People were saying straightforward, truthful, sometimes profane things about the police,” said Williams.
Brock Satter, a member of the MAAPB steering committee, told The Appeal that “tensions were very high” with police during the march. Though Satter wasn’t part of the crowd at the police station—he continued on to Nubian Square—he noticed that the police behavior was more confrontational at the march than it would be in later weeks and months.
“They went full riot gear and that wasn’t the case later on in the subsequent weeks,” said Satter.
Artist and activist Sara Zielinski, who attended the protest, described a sense of unease and confusion from police until just before 7:45 p.m. as officers faced off against demonstrators, forming a human barricade against them.
She described what happened next.
“Suddenly the cops pushed through that barricade and over on the side where I was,” said Zielinski. “A couple of us sort of tried to form a barricade using our bodies to keep the cops [away] who were on this side [from] getting out to and where the majority of people were. And I remember one woman who had a bike just getting pushed to the ground.”
Williams recounted a similar scene.
“It looked like a rugby scrum of people, like pushing and pushing back,” said Williams. “Then I just saw a phalanx of cops push into the crowd—which was not a huge crowd as you can see, there’s not like thousands of people there in the crowd.”
Body cam footage from one of the bike cops on the scene and Zielinski’s videos document what followed.
After rushing the crowd, police began arresting demonstrators and hitting, pepper spraying, and detaining people.
“I don’t know how or why they were targeting certain people” for arrest, said Zielinski.
Williams said he couldn’t tell exactly what police were trying to accomplish by rushing the crowd—whether they were trying to get certain people or just making a show of force—but that it didn’t matter. The attack on the demonstrators was quick and violent.
Video shows officers repeatedly charging toward a green space on the other side of the road from the police station and taking down demonstrators, arresting them for reasons unclear from the footage. Officers also push bystanders who are filming and yelling at them.
The officer wearing the camera became involved, running to the green space across the street as officers restrain one demonstrator, a woman with red hair. The actions that followed, which were also caught on camera for Getty by freelance photographer Joseph Prezioso, show the officer wearing the camera pepper spraying the crowd, which did not appear to be interfering with the officers’ actions.
While it’s difficult to see what exactly is being done to the woman being restrained, observers ask the police to “stop fucking hitting her” and ask “why are you tasing her.” Prezioso’s photo also shows an officer’s fist raised above the woman.
After the officer behind the body camera helps two other officers drag a woman into the station, all three rush back out to the green space in time to see an officer shoving two people, one to the ground, as police continue making arrests.
The Appeal emailed the Boston Police Department with questions about the arrests and police actions in question and asked for comment. The department did not comment specifically about these incidents and said it was trying to compare The Appeal’s descriptions of the videos with its arrest reports. In a contemporaneous press release about the May 29 arrests, the department said protesters engaged in “varying levels of disorderly behavior and conduct” and that four officers were injured during the unrest.
To Williams, the body cam footage, combined with what he saw on the ground and what Zielinski recorded, are indicative of what he says is the out of control nature of the Boston Police Department—whose officers act with impunity even when they know they may be recorded.
“You have police that fully think it’s their job to go out and seek personal revenge right now and use the powers, the policing powers that they’re given, to seek revenge,” said Williams. “It’s terrifying to think that’s the case. And one would also wonder—what aren’t we seeing?”
As bad as things were in Boston, in Worcester they appeared even worse. That didn’t surprise Williams, who noted that Boston police are less likely to take the kind of aggressive actions that Worcester cops do. Part of that is the history of organizing in the bigger city, he said, that has made Boston’s police less comfortable with overt displays of hostility and aggression toward the public.
“It’s somewhat a testament to organization and resistance and community pulling together,” said Williams. “I think that’s historically been a little bit harder in Worcester.”
To Marie Brouillette, a member of Defund WPD, the videos show what’s been well known to Worcester residents for years about police behavior. Yet public opinion has largely been against demonstrators, said Brouillette, which illustrates the challenges of advocating for change in the police department’s treatment of the public.
“It was not a great learning moment for the city,” Brouillette said. “Nothing came from it in terms of police reform, police abolition.”
Defund WPD was formed after demonstrations on the night of June 1 as a response to police misconduct, violence, and the seeming lack of accountability that the department has enjoyed for decades. According to Brouillette, the Worcester police have a pattern of misconduct that’s led to millions in lawsuits paid out by the city—but officers appear to be rarely disciplined.
That’s part of a pattern that was on display during the night of June 1. In a press release about arrests from that night, the police department described the crowd on the night of June 1 as “violent and chaotic.” When asked about the arrests and the charges of bad behavior, the Worcester Police Department referred The Appeal to the district attorney’s office; the office declined to comment on open investigations against demonstrators.
A report by Clark University on police treatment of four students arrested that night—Jay Verchin, Sarah Drapeau, Glynn Crum, and Lyndsay deManbey—found that police mistreated the students, who did not behave violently. The report sparked an internal investigation in the Worcester Police Department; no findings have been released.
Richard Cummings, a freelance photojournalist who was on the scene at Main Street and arrested at 11:24 p.m., told The Appeal that police started off hostile to the crowd, citing things he overheard while behind their lines.
“They were talking about how they wanted to kill this person, how they were watching out for that person, and they had eyes on that person,” Cummings said.
Joseph Hennessey, an attorney for several Worcester arrestees, gave The Appeal footage of their arrests. He said his clients “were all aggressively thrown to the ground far exceeding the necessary use of force to arrest.”
“They were punched, kicked, choked, knees in their backs and rib cages and all endured significant pain for no reason,” said Hennessey.
The videos show a pattern of what appears to be unnecessary force.
Verchin, who filmed himself on a Facebook live stream for 45 minutes starting around 11:45 p.m., told The Appeal that he left his home and began filming after seeing his friends’ footage of the protests and realizing it was close by and that his friends were among the crowd.
“I wanted to make sure they were OK,” said Verchin. “Strength in numbers is important.”
After about 40 minutes, riot police began advancing on Verchin and the other few protesters still on the street. As police began deploying what appeared to be tear gas—police reports only disclose the use of peppery gas and rubber impact bullets—Verchin, fearing an asthma attack, said he began making his way home, hiding behind a tree to avoid being a target. When a police car pulled up next to him, he said he turned and started to head home as quickly as possible.
“That didn’t happen,” said Verchin. “I was tackled violently. I got cuts on my legs, my hands. My phone—my phone flew out of my hand and got cracked and then kicked to the side by another officer and just left on the street.”
He was nearly in his driveway when they took him down around 12:30 a.m.
Drapeau, a friend of Verchin’s, ran toward him before being tackled by another riot cop. She was arrested for running across Main Street “screaming and waving her arms” and interfering in Verchin’s arrest. Video that Drapeau took that night instead shows she is filming Verchin’s arrest as it takes place.
Crum and deManbey, her partner, also went out to watch the protests and keep an eye on police behavior. The two filmed from 10 p.m. to midnight, recording police using pepper pellets and smoke bombs. Around midnight the two went inside but went back out after hearing police were using a dog on someone.
That someone was Javier Amarat. “I’m not resisting, I had so many cops on me,” said Amarat, recalling that moment.
Amarat, who had been walking outside with his cousin and a friend, was inside his cousin’s car near Main Street, when he made a remark about nearby officers. They immediately pulled him out of the car and arrested him.
Back on Main Street, Crum and deManbey live streamed what was quickly becoming a dangerous situation.
“The streets were near empty of people, but the police in armor seemed to have doubled,” said Crum.
That was when Crum and deManbey saw Drapeau being tackled outside Verchin’s home. Crum turned her camera toward the arrest as riot police charged her and deManbey.
“I moved to lay down and my phone was knocked out of my hand—still apparently live streaming to Facebook,” Crum told The Appeal. “The phone landed with the camera pointed directly up a few inches in front of my face as I was pinned down on my stomach.”
Veronica Pasquantonio, was attacked around 1:15 a.m. outside Maria’s Kitchen restaurant also on Main Street—some five blocks from where Verchin, Drapeau, and Crum were arrested. Pasquantonio said she and her boyfriend, Chris Euga, were targeted by a group of police after she objected to officers shoving other demonstrators. Pasquantonio described the treatment she received as in line with what she saw during the five years she lived in Worcester before moving to Westport, in the southeastern corner of Massachusetts. Her experience living in Worcester was why she returned to the city for the demonstration, she said.
After an officer pushed one young Black man, Pasquantonio said she told him to “keep his hands to himself” because the group was complying.
“He ran at me, called me a stupid bitch, punched me in the face and pushed me in the doorway of Maria’s Kitchen while two other cops were punching me in the ribs,” Pasquantonio said. “One was hitting me in the knee with batons until they could get me out of that corner. I was screaming because I was being assaulted and my boyfriend turned around and immediately was punched in the face.”
Police fell upon the pair, and the end of the confrontation is shown on video.
“They got me down on the ground,” said Pasquantonio. “I saw three sets of feet in front of me and I had one on my back. I could feel his knee on my spine and they were choking me with my sweatshirt.”
Finally, police let Pasquantonio get up and dragged her to a police van.
“I couldn’t stand on my right knee,” she said. “It was completely swollen.”
When she asked, officers refused to give her their names or badge numbers.
Pasquantonio believes her treatment was at least partially racially motivated.
“When I was being punched in the face, one of them asked, ‘Is the reason why you’re here because you’re an N-word lover?'” Pasquantonio said. “My boyfriend’s half Cape Verdean. And I couldn’t believe those words came out of [the officer’s] mouth. I felt like I was only being assaulted for standing up for equal rights for Black citizens.”
Nine people arrested in Worcester on June 1 have the exact same arrest reports up until the supporting documentation of their arrest, so police credibility on the reasons for the arrests—disorderly conduct, failure to disperse during a riot, and the like—is at best suspect, said Hennessey. Combine that with the video documentation and the case against the demonstrators is weak, he says.
“None of which occurred that evening was the result of protesters overreacting,” said Hennessey. “Police arrived in full riot gear and officers began pushing people with their batons. Similar to a cross check in hockey or lacrosse. People were thrown to the ground for no reason, causing tempers to escalate. It was like the police wanted this reaction.”
That pattern isn’t unique to Worcester.
Boston police behavior two nights earlier shows the extent to which problems in that city’s department can’t be swept under the rug, said Williams. The body camera videos show a pattern of misbehavior and abuse that leaves the prospect of reform lacking, said Williams, because it raises the question that if this is the behavior caught on tape, then what happens when the cameras are off? Promises from city leaders like former Police Commissioner William Gross—who retired Jan. 29—that the department is listening aren’t enough, he says.
“The Boston police’s general position is things in Ferguson don’t happen here,” Williams said, referring to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in the Missouri city and the response to the unrest that followed. “At the same time, they’re attacking people with their newly acquired clubs and their newly issued pepper spray.”
Williams’s brother Christian filed a public records request for use-of-force reports—which are required to be filled out whenever force is used—from May 29. The department told him it has no responsive records; press officer Sgt. John Boyle further clarified to The Appeal that no reports have been completed. “There are reports from that night, they’re just not in their final stage,” Boyle said.
The actions taken by police across Massachusetts against demonstrators last year came as no surprise to Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League. Ahmad, who had not seen the footage from Worcester and Boston but was told about the contents, said the misconduct tracks with what she’s heard from others around the commonwealth.
“What we saw and heard from folks this summer was really consistent with how the police and law enforcement probably respond to people who are standing up for racial justice or for their civil rights,” said Ahmad.
Satter of Mass Action Against Police Brutality believes that police involved in violent misconduct and attacks on demonstrators should lose their jobs and face criminal prosecution—concrete actions that would show the commonwealth is serious about reform.
“People are focused on real results and that’s not what we’re seeing,” said Satter. “We’re seeing continued downplaying and more or less just window dressing in terms of changes.”
“This is a systemic problem,” he added. “And unless we dig into that deeply, we’ll never get to the root of it.”