I went to a demonstration today. Nothing much happened. I went home. Later that night, everything went to hell.
I found the demonstration at the south end of Union Square. It wasn’t a large demonstration. The speakers were mostly young, mostly people of color, while the crowd watching them was more mixed. When I arrived, the people on the steps were arguing a point of strategy with someone in the crowd. They did so forcefully but respectfully: they let him have his say uninterrupted, then answered him. Almost everyone who spoke spoke well: clearly, articulately, passionately. They listened to what others had to say and waited their turn without impatience. It was clear that they hadn’t come out simply to stand around and make speeches, but rather to find common ground, to build a platform from consensus and collective action.
The police were there too, of course, but they had stepped back a little, drawn up in the shade under the trees by a flag that said ‘Prayer Corner’. I wasn’t pleased to see a number of white-shirted officers – my experience has been that the whiteshirts always seem to be a flashpoint for trouble, and I’ve seen some terrifyingly unprofessional behavior from the NYPD’s officer class. These ones, however, appeared content to stand back and let the speakers have their say.
When the march moved off, it seemed to take the police by surprise. The senior officer looked around, realized that the crowd was draining away and hastily strode after them. A moment later, the other two whiteshirts also noticed that something was happening and scampered after their boss, waving for the rank-and-file to follow them.
The protesters moved fast down 14th Street. A line of police vans, lights flashing, leap-frogged them, while the rest of the police contingent followed on foot. I doubt the marchers had any particular permit for the route they took – across town, down through the West Village to Washington Square Park, then back east again to the Lower East Side. The police strategy, however, seemed to be simply to stay with them instead of trying to block or corral them.
A smorgasbord of different police units had shown up. In addition to what you might call ‘vanilla’ cops, I’d already seen a couple of members of the TARU surveillance unit, whose tan chinos and royal-blue shirts always give them a ‘casual Friday’ look. By the time we reached Washington Square, they’d been joined by a handful of cops in black jackets with NYPD LEGAL across the shoulders, and a platoon from something called the Strategic Response Unit.
Taking pictures, I soon fell behind. Not having a skateboard, like one savvy photographer, I ended up grabbing a Citi Bike to try to gain lost ground and get ahead of the march.
By the time I intercepted the marchers again, they were on my home turf in the Lower East Side. I dumped my bike on Norfolk Street and looked around to see the march coming straight at me, flanked by a parallel line of police. For a few moments, it wasn’t easy to tell whether the police were controlling the march or leading it. They raced through the maze of little streets just south of Delancey with a round-faced whiteshirt trotting ahead, waving his hands left and right to direct them, like a conductor steering a skittish orchestra.
Two more ninety degree turns brought us back to the Williamsburg Bridge, and here the cops took firm control. Two lines of police quickly blocked both roadways onto the bridge. They had let the protesters go where they wanted so far, but they weren’t about to let them get in among the traffic and shut down the bridge. The commander deftly marshaled his troops: the familiar faces who’d been with us since Union Square formed up across the Manhattan-bound side, while the Strategic Response Unit with their helmets and zip-ties blocked the Brooklyn-bound lanes. A few burly cops were despatched to defend the rear of the line and prevent anyone from outflanking them via the pedestrian pathway.
The protesters had their own tactics. “White people to the front!” shouted someone, and the more melanin-challenged protesters quickly shuffled into position, forming a buffer between the cops and the rest of the march. White skin may not guarantee protection from violence any more, but the balance of probabilities still favors the pale.
For a few minutes there was an impasse. The cops weren’t about to give ground, but if the goal was to stop traffic, then the status quo was working just fine for the protesters. Then someone abruptly decided to concede the stand-off. There was a shout of “Walk the bridge!” and the protest line dissolved and reflowed onto the pedestrian walkway. I followed the march across the bridge, then left them at the corner of Bedford Avenue.
Later that night, I watched shaky phone videos of police attacking protesters outside the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. A return march to Manhattan dissolved into running scuffles with police violence, vandalism and looting in SoHo.
There’s one narrative about what’s happening now that likes to conflate protest and looting. The authoritarian worldview says that no matter how outwardly ‘peaceful’ the protesters may seem, they’re all really just biding their time, waiting for their chance to break and steal. This is nonsense. You don’t march in the sun all day just so you can steal a pair of sports shoes later. The people who want to smash windows or loot stores are parasites on a genuine protest movement, not part of it.
And it is a genuine protest movement, and potentially an effective one. The people leading the march today struck me as among the most sincere, politically savvy and disciplined protesters I’ve seen. They gave me hope that our democracy might be salvageable after all, that there’s a level of awareness and engagement at the grassroots that could still pull us back from the brink.
I wish I could say with equal confidence that the police I saw weren’t part of the later violence. I had been grudgingly impressed by what I saw today. At least as far as I could see, they were non-confrontational, calm and professional. They treated the protesters with apparent respect.
But we’re currently watching what I can only describe as an ongoing nationwide police riot. Just as recent years have revealed quite how many of our fellow citizens are comfortable with bigotry and authoritarianism, recent nights have demonstrated the truth of everything that people of color have always told us about the police. We’ve seen police, high on the certainty that they can never be called to account, assaulting journalists, deploying quasi-military equipment against peaceful crowds, deliberately hurting and maiming civilians with sticks, gas and baton rounds. Senior figures in New York’s law enforcement community – not even the most thuggish police department on a national scale – are openly contemptuous of elected officials. Talking about ‘bad apples’ rings a little hollow when the whole orchard is beginning to look thoroughly rotten. It’s hard to have confidence in any police officer just now.
I don’t have any pictures of violence to share today. No swinging clubs by lamplight, no city streets wreathed in tear gas. But I wanted to post my pictures as a counterpoint to those images and show that peaceful protest is not only possible, but real. As the kids like to chant, “This is what democracy looks like.”
Don’t forget it.