I’m sickened that a white, Minneapolis police officer sat with his knee on the neck of George Floyd while Floyd begged, “I can’t breathe.” I’m sickened that his fellow officers stood by and allowed it. Between 2013-2018, “the rate at which police killed black men was higher than the US murder rate (Vox)”.
I was even more saddened by the number of videos I watched of police using excessive force against protesters: pulling people out of their cars and flattening their tires, pulling a man’s mask down and spraying tear gas in his face, a police car driving into a crowd, firing paint canisters at residents simply standing on their own property. It’s not just one city or one police officer. It’s a lot of both. And it’s every race and color that’s being affected, quickly turning to distrust of a department that is meant to protect and serve. I could no longer sit at home and read about this. There are black people posting videos asking for help, saying that they’re tired of protesting alone. I wanted to stand in solidarity with them and show that I support their cause.
I found protesters gathered at Union Square, sitting, waiting. A white guy rolled up on a bike and started doing some sort of shaking dance as if he were having a seizure, black and white guys played hacky sack and skateboarded, and an Asian woman played with her two young kids. I joined some others talking to a black artist about his displayed paintings and made some new artist connections. A shirtless white man laid on a mat on the ground singing chants out of a book. A black man came by and kicked his display down, snatching his book from him and throwing into the park. The chanter stood and started preaching to the protesters: “What he does to me, he does to you!” He continued shouting cryptic messages, attracting onlookers. “Why do you stare?” At the same time, two black girls got in an argument in the park, screaming back and forth at each other until eventually two male friends—black and Middle Eastern—had to drag one of them away. The Middle Eastern man carried a sign that said “Jesus Gives Grace.” Lots of other signs were represented, the most popular being “Black Lives Matter.” Across the street, Nordstrom Rack had constructed wood over its windows. Whole Foods and Best Buy were currently finishing theirs.
An old white New York male with his belly hanging out of his shirt carried a large sign that said “I CAN BREATHE. HEAR ME ROAR!” A black man with a hoarse voice, from screaming the night before, began to attract a crowd. He shouted that he was arrested last night, but he’s back here today. He and other supporters of different races rallied the crowd with speeches and leading chants:
Call: “No justice!”
Response: “No peace!”
Call: “Fuck the…!”
The fat man with the sign began one:
Call: “What do we want?!”
Call: “When do we want it?!”
He screamed that he couldn’t hear us and asked his questions again.
Other phrases were chanted in unison: “Black lives matter!,” “I can’t breathe!,” and “NYPD suck my dick!” It was harder for me to get behind the third one. If we’re talking about the police from the videos using excessive force, absolutely! In fact, choke on my dick. However, I have to believe that there are some who want to help enact change from within. I have to believe that some joined the police force because they actually want to protect and serve. I knew such a man. He had a huge heart. He was white, and he was shot by a white man.
Eventually, a woman asked if we wanted to start marching. The crowd was in unanimous agreement. We marched west down 14th Street, continuing our chants as we filled the streets. Occasional drivers would honk their horns to add some noise, eliciting an eruption of applause and cheers from us, the protesters.
At the Hudson River, we continued north up Highway 9A, halting traffic heading south as we surrounded the cars. Many other drivers contributed honking horns to the noise. We zigzagged west and north through the neighborhoods shouting, “Come outside!” to the onlookers from their apartment buildings. Down one street, some of the protesters were lifting car door handles to trigger alarms and add to the noise. One man started beating on a car window, but was quickly shut down by the protesters. “What the fuck man! You’re not helping our cause! We’re not out here for that.” A woman behind me said, “He doesn’t know whose car that is. I have a car. If someone broke my window, I’d be pissed.” Our crowd grew in size as onlookers joined us and marchers from other areas met up with us. We easily took up a city block.
Another call started: “Whose streets?!”
Crowd: “Our streets!”
An old white man in the march was lecturing someone: “Peaceful protests don’t work!” We passed a bus stop with a poster of the Minneapolis white police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The caption above it said “LOVE LIFE.”
Another call started: “Hands up!”
Response: “Don’t shoot!”
And another: “White silence…!”
Response: “Equals violence!”
As we approached Penn Station, police cars pulled up from the east. About eight officers rushed out of the vans and jogged to get ahead of the crowd. The protesters in front weren’t having that though and turned the march east down 33rd Street. The police had to backtrack and continue jogging to get back ahead of the crowd. Many of us liked this and some shouted, “The police aren’t leading us! They follow us!” A couple protesters threw some water bottles at the police officers, causing two to chase one of them. It was a heightened moment for all involved, but many of us protesters were condemning the throwers’ actions, similar to the man trying to break a random car window.
To help mitigate this, the protesters in front stopped us and had us all take a knee. We started chanting, “Peaceful protest!” It helped calm down the situation and we continued marching, still zigzagging so that the police officers were forced to follow us. Their batons were in hand now and their numbers grew to about twenty.
As we walked, a protester had a conversation with the police chief, trying to get him to join us. I heard the chief say that he entered the police force so that he could help change it from the inside.
We marched through Times Square, stopping at the north end where someone again asked us to take a knee. Some protesters were worried about the police barricading us in, but it was too late to get the masses moving again. With the protesters all taking a knee, a chant began for the officers, “NYPD, take a knee! NYPD, take a knee!” One officer stepped forward, then two more. The protesters and I lost our minds. We ran forward to start cheering, boldened by the solidarity. A protester standing on a concrete barrier started shouting for the police chief to take a knee, to set an example for his officers. Once the chief took a knee, another half of the officers joined him. The protesters seemed overjoyed. It felt like a moment where both sides had sort of come together.
The march continued zigzagging through streets. Some talked about going to Trump Tower, but when we got to 5th Avenue, police cars had it blocked. A helicopter hovered overhead. The march eventually turned south back toward Union Square. The “NYPD suck my dick” chant hung around, despite our sort of bonding moment.
Once the police officers stopped following us, there was talk by some protesters of breaking into Urban Outfitters. Others talked them out of it. But then we passed Minotti, a furniture store, and it had a hole in its glass the size of a small trash can. Things went south. Protesters started dragging trash cans into the street and dumping them. Some of the trash piles were lit on fire. Fireworks were lit off and firecrackers made loud POP, POP, POP noises like cap guns.
Further ahead an optics eye store was broken into. The security alarm was blaring as people rushed in to grab what they could carry. This was not what I signed up for.
More large concrete planters were overturned, the flowers’ roots grasping to keep the soil together for their lives.
Rothmans, a men’s clothing store, had its glass door broken. Protesters jumped over the broken glass to loot the store. One walked out with a backpack, tore the tags off, and walked away in the other direction.
Back at Union Square, barricades were dragged into the street. Some protesters talked about hitting Best Buy, but they had already boarded their windows earlier. Further ahead, protesters had broken the windows to an NYPD police van, flattened its tires, and sprayed graffiti all over it. They were shaking it as if to roll it. A group of about twenty police officers rushed them and they all fled. The closest vandalist was chased by a single line of police officers until he outran them. The officers returned to the van to stand guard around it as the rest of us passed. One woman shouted, “Does that make you mad? ‘Cause we mad!” AMC Theaters had multiple holes in their windows from brick-sized objects.
We passed Westside Market, a 24-hour grocery with its produce displayed outside, and I hoped nothing would happen to them. At that moment, protesters started screaming. A white Camry was swerving through the crowd, trying to hit protesters. I had to sprint to the sidewalk to avoid the black man driving. Some chased after him. “Get his license plate!” Then the crowd about-faced and began walking south in his direction. One protester was talking about looting the stores in Soho. Fire was set to another trashcan and loaded with more trash to create a bonfire. Two fire trucks showed up to handle it, laying on their horns to get through the crowd.
Our numbers reveal our power. We have the ability to halt traffic, vandalize public areas, and loot stores without any consequences. We’re angry. We’re angry that the system allows police officers to get away with murder. We’re angry when excessive force is used unnecessarily on our right to protest. We want justice, and we want it now.
But looting stores does not help our cause; neither does vandalizing the city. Some of those protesters may not have been protesters at all, just taking advantage of the opportunity. A lot of things need to change and if we want to do that, we need to set an example.
Vox. “The anger behind the protests, explained in 4 charts.” 31 May 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020/5/31/21276004/4-charts-anger-police-killing-george-floyd-protests