Vicma Desir stood with her two children on the edge of the Holy Name rotary in West Roxbury Monday night, holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of her pregnant belly. Around the trio, a crowd of more than 1,000 protesters stood with signs calling for justice and police reform, and took a knee with their fists in the air, in response to the police killing of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis.
The night prior, Desir had fallen asleep watching the news of Sunday night's protest escalating into violence, with her 12 year-old daughter, Victoria. “We fell asleep watching the looting, and it was upsetting,” Desir said. “I just thought that it was important for her to see what the protest is about and what the movement is about — and not the aftermath.”
Hundreds of helmeted police stood ready with batons but Monday night's event began and ended with no violence.
Desir says she lived in West Roxbury for fifteen years before moving to Dorchester. As a black woman, she says she was incredibly happy to see so many people take a stand against racism in her old — primarily white — neighborhood.
“It's mainly white protesters, as you can see, but it's okay,” Desir said. “They came out and they're showing support, and empathy and compassion. I am really excited about the turnout."
For protester and Hyde Park resident Gretchen Van Ness, protesting feels like “the most important thing” she can think to do at this cultural moment. “Police violence is wrong. The racial inequities throughout our system are wrong,” Van Ness said. “As a white person, I know many of my white friends are desperate to find something that they can do to be a productive ally, to be as courageous as the people of color that we see on the front lines and the young people who have across the country who are raising these issues and fighting back against the violence that they see.”
The vigil was organized by West Roxbury resident Tonya Tedesco, who kept the event intentionally silent — with no speakers or soap boxes — for a reason. “It's important that white people show up for issues around racial justice because it's on us to address racism, it’s our job,” she said. “We just wanted it to be a vigil and not give any inroads for people that want to disrupt the message. We thought that just our presence would be a starting point.”
Tedesco says she thought “maybe fifteen” people might show up — and was heartened by the crowd of more than 1,000. The turnout, Tedesco says, represents a gradual change in attitudes around racial justice and equality in the neighborhood. “It often has felt like I am one of only a few voices fighting for racial justice in West Roxbury,” she said. “I feel like today indicates a shift. It's giving me hope among all the despair.”
Yet just up the hill, Louis Murray, who has lived in West Roxbury for 25 years and chairs a local pro-Trump Republican organization, stood surrounded by a small group of white men, mostly West Roxbury locals, keeping a watchful eye on the activities below.
Murray said that while he “respects the first amendment rights of Tonya Tedesco,” he accused her of “calling for complete anarchy” in a tweet she posted Sunday night asking the mayor to tell the police and national guard to “stand down.”
Murray also wasn’t thrilled that Monday’s vigil utilized the “Black Lives Matter” symbol of a raised fist. “I personally don't agree with the Black Lives Matter movement, it was founded upon a myth,” Murray said. “The myth that 'hands up, don't shoot’ actually happened. It didn't happen.”
Tedesco stood in the rotary long after the vigil ended, waiting until every protester had cleared the area before heading home. “I just hope that people take this energy and keep it going, because systemic racism isn’t going to be fixed with one stand out,” she said. “We really need to get at the root of this. Boston is no different than the rest of the country. We are not past racism by any stretch of the imagination.”