The Straight Pride Parade was specifically designed to be a contentious event. That was clear from the beginning when organizers tapped Milo Yianopolous, ex-Breitbart editor and right-wing provocateur, to lead the parade. Along with Milo came a slew of far-right supporters, including many members of the xenophobic hate group the Proud Boys. Of course, these choices were a clear signal that the organizers were trying to provoke leftists, so it was not surprising that the protesters, who far outnumbered the parade-goers by more than 2 to 1, included groups like Antifa and Redneck Revolt. Waiting for this potent mix of political agitators on the calm streets of Boston that beautiful late summer morning were hundreds of officers from the Boston Police Department.
Few mid-sized cities in the nation know how to handle violent protests as well as Boston (the notable exception being Washington D.C.). Over the past 20 years, Boston has played host to thousands of protests, many of which have led to violence, property damage, and arrests. Many of the protests that Boston hosts are huge. In the last 2 years alone, Boston has hosted 7 protests with over 10 thousand attendees according to the Count Love project, only surpassed by Washington D.C. among cities with a population of fewer than 1 million people (D.C. saw 10 such protests). Violence is a possibility at each event.
Aside from large scale political events, Boston is also home to some of the winningest sports franchises in history. Since 2000, Boston's professional sports teams have won twelve championships: six by the Patriots, four by the Red Sox and one each by the Celtics and the Bruins respectively. After each of these wins, students from the area’s 40+ universities and colleges traditionally hit the streets to celebrate, often destroying property and inciting violence in the process. Each time, Boston Police have been there to control the crowds.
Needless to say, the Boston Police Department has a lot of practice handling rowdy crowds of potentially violent citizens. Whether the Boston PD is unique in its capacity for crowd control in these situations is a bit harder to say. But considering that Boston is the only city with a population under 1 million (Boston’s population was 694,583 according to 2018 estimates, which is about the same size as Nashville and El Paso) that has such deep institutional knowledge of how to handle large crowds of boisterous people (excluding Washington D.C.), other mid-sized cities that need to prepare for protests in the coming 2020 election year can learn from the Boston Police Department’s handling of the Straight Pride Parade.
So how did they do? In the weeks leading up to the Straight Pride Parade, the rhetoric from both sides had taken on increasingly violent and contentious tones. The Boston Police were especially wary of the leftist counterprotesters and groups like Antifa who often stoke violence at such events since the number of attendees on the protester's side was expected to dwarf the number of Proud Boys and similar violent groups in the smaller parade. “There were statements and information that there would be violence,” said Larry Calderone, vice president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union, “And that obviously ended up being true.”
To prepare, the Boston Police issued warnings well ahead of the event across the Boston area. Demonstrators were discouraged from bringing weapons and anything that could be used as a weapon, as well as backpacks and bags which could conceal weapons. Of course, this did not prevent people from bringing such items. One masked Antifa protestor carried a medical walking stick and limped exaggeratedly along with the rest of the crowd. A musician demonstrated the effectiveness of using a trombone to reach across police barriers to poke Proud Boys in the back of the head. He then blasted them in the face with a good trombone solo when they turned around. Some more sinister-looking groups, such as a John Brown Gun Club and Redneck Revolt, showed up with fully packed military-grade backpacks. But these were exceptions to the rule, and for the most part, the police warnings were effective in reducing the number of items that could be used for dangerous purposes in the crowd.
Early on the morning of the parade, police lined the entire route with barricades. They also stationed officers at checkpoints and metro stations. At least one armored vehicle was stationed midway along the parade route and by midmorning, dozens of squads of officers were patrolling the streets or lounging around at their specified positions. Every Dunkin Donuts, coffee shop, and convenience store from Copley Square to Boston City Hall was packed with officers trying to fuel up for the coming action.
The police presence itself was more unnerving than comforting. Perhaps it was the fact that the day itself was so beautiful with bright sunny skies and just hint of Fall in the air. The contrast of the weather with the geared up police and black armored trucks was peculiar. Combined with the irony of hundreds of heavily armed officers sitting around on the streets doing nothing, the overall picture sent a confusing message of alarm and relaxation to passersby. More than a few of the hundreds of tourists who were still trying to visit Boston’s famous landmarks that morning asked officers whether they should stay in the city. Locals simply ignored the scene and went about their business as usual.
The strange sight of hundreds of riot police and regular police officers hanging around casually on the streets of Boston all morning became a noticeable feature of the entire event. Later, after all of the action was over, Boston city councilor Michelle Wu criticized the police, saying, “Why did we need to have so many law enforcement officers in general & so many in particular with riot gear?” Wu noted that having so many police present, many of whom were wearing riot gear, set the “tone” for both sides Saturday.
“Having that many officers from all across the region, including paramilitary units from outside Boston, set a tone of tension/conflict for civilians AND fellow law enforcement,” she tweeted. “We need to understand how that decision was made, especially [because] 2020 won’t be the quietest of years.”
By the end of the day, 36 protesters had been arrested and 4 officers were injured. The most significant skirmish took place at the end of the day between a smaller group of a few dozen protesters and a few dozen police while the rest of the officers looked on. At that point, Boston police officers indiscriminately sprayed the crowd with pepper spray, prompting swift criticism. After watching videos of the action, Wu called for a more careful review. “The vast majority of officers in the videos showed restraint, from what I could tell. The City should look into the usage of pepper spray—the short videos don’t show provocation & also don’t give all context.”
The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association defended the use of riot gear and crowd-control tactics at Straight Pride Parade, noting that police had intelligence about impending violence and that four of its members are still unable to return to work five days later as a result of injuries sustained during the event. “We’re here to protect everybody’s rights,” Caldarone added.
For other cities across the country looking at the event in Boston as a guideline for handling future protests in 2020, the takeaways are anything but clear. The Boston Police Department and Mayor are both unapologetic about the overabundance of police officers. In a reference to the 2017 protest in Charlottesville where a protester was killed by white nationalists, Mayor Marty Walsh contended that being over-prepared is better than being underprepared: “I’ll be second-guessed all day long, but, if somebody lost their life on Saturday, we’d be criticized for not having enough police protection out there and not having enough protection,” the mayor told WBUR. “Unfortunately, we needed it Saturday.”
But other city officials are not so sure. Wu cited a 2017 Washington Post study linking militarized police departments to an increased likelihood of civilian deaths. “My biggest takeaway from the videos & feedback is that this reinforces why militarization of police is harmful.”
There is, of course, a bit of a 'chicken and egg' problem in Wu's reasoning. Does the militarization of police forces cause more violence, or are protesters becoming more violent and thus create the need for better-armed police forces? In other words, to put it in the context of Boston's Straight Pride Parade, would more violence have happened had there been fewer well-armed police on the ground?
These sorts of counterfactuals are very difficult to address without better data about policing and protesting. For smaller cities with less experience handling large contentious protests, Wu's criticism is both a warning and a trap. The warning in her statements is that cities who over police public gatherings could create more harm than good. But the trap is the idea that less police would lead to less violence overall. What matters is not only the quantity but also the quality of policing.
The missing variable in that statement is training. As Boston's Mayor pointed out, no one died in Boston on the beautiful sunny day, and the Boston PD, as over-prepared as they were, are largely responsible for that outcome. But Boston's record of excellence has been earned over the decades through training and experience. Not only does Boston have thousands of officers at its disposal, but they have years of hard-won experience dealing with crowded and chaotic street action.
Overall, the takeaway from Boston for smaller cities, then, is that more police is better than less police in order to properly execute crowd control measures, but only if the police are well trained and know how to handle protests in which chaos and violence is a possibility. If police are not well trained in crowd control tactics, then they could do more harm than good. Smaller cities probably will not be able to manufacture overnight the decades of experience that Boston has in dealing with public demonstrations, but with a little bit more training, many cities would be able to avoid a Charlottesville-style tragedy.