"Where are all the cops?" M. asked as we inched our way along East 47th Street.
There were police around. Just not very many of them. They lounged in groups of two or three by the side of the street, chatting and laughing, paying little attention to the marchers. When even modest-sized protests seem to attract small armies of more or less heavily-equipped police, the absence of police at this one was almost eerie.
And there was certainly nothing modest about the dimensions of this protest. The mayor's office put it at around 400,000 people, and while it's hard to judge numbers when you only have a worm's-eye view of things, it certainly felt large. It was definitely the largest protest that I had ever been in.
It was also one of the most relaxed protests I've ever attended. The marchers might have been angry with the turn that US politics has taken, but they expressed their anger with jokey, quirky signs. "Ctrl-Alt-Right Delete" read one sign; "Resist Bigly" urged another. A few were angrier: "I Will Not March Quietly Back to the 1950's" said one. Another showed a picture of a coathanger and the words "Never Again".
3rd Avenue south of 42nd Street was blocked off by a line of empty city buses. Were they waiting for the street to clear so that they could make their way uptown, or had the NYPD pressed them into service to shuttle eventual arrestees off to jail? Neither, as it turned out. They had apparently been parked there as a static defense against the kind of truck attacks seen in Nice and Berlin.
Commentators on the Internet were quick to point out the difference between the policing of the majority-white Women's March and the smaller (but still large) Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, blaming the much more aggressive policing of the BLM protests on institutional racism. There's probably some truth in that, but the Occupy Wall Street protests were at least as heavily policed as the BLM marches, and OWS was a remarkably white affair. My own suspicion is that it had to do with 'optics'. It looks bad for the police to aggressively police a march mostly composed of middle-class white women, but they find it a great deal easier to justify heavy-handed actions against 'young anarchists' or non-whites. What the women's march demonstrated was quite how much latitude the police actually have when determining how to police a march.
Not everyone supporting the march was white or middle-class, however. On 42nd Street, a cleaner leaned from an ornate Renaissance window, stretching out blue-gloved hands and waving her duster to cheer on the marchers. Something made me think that she understood better than anyone why they were marching.