The press has been full of news about protests over the cop-killing of George Floyd. I went to three early ones that I could get to from my Brooklyn home without taking public transportation.
On Saturday, May 30, I heard that a crowd was at Bedford and Tilden in Flatbush near the Sears parking lot where Covid-19 testing has been conducted for several weeks. When I got there at about 5:30 p.m, I saw two to three hundred people milling in the street.
They had marched for miles until police blocked their way. The Sears parking lot is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and protected by the Air Force. The protestors were not a threat but the cops would not let them march further south on Bedford.
Many wore masks, but not all. No one was distancing. That was the most frequent illegal activity.
The cops stood just as close and fewer wore masks.
There were multiple confrontations.
The stoops were occupied by local residents cheering on the protestors.
The few signs were homemade, indicating that not much planning went into this march. A lot only had acronyms. I know what BLM means; I had a little trouble with FTP and ACAB.
I counted race and sex. Both groups were very diverse. There were more white protestors than there were white cops. The white-shirt NYPDs were mostly white and the blue-shirts were mostly non-white (but diverse non-white). The former are the older generation, who have risen to positions of authority.
Terence A. Monahan, the top cop of the NYPD, was very visible, his four stars gleaming in the sun.
There were a lot of women on both sides.
In the eighties, a time when I dealt with a lot of NYPD officers who were not thrilled about women joining the force, the men told me that women weren’t big enough or strong enough to be effective police officers. At that time cops had to be a minimum height of 5’6″ — which eliminated most women without really trying. I was impressed with the sheer number of short women of all colors, facing down the protestors along with the men.
I only saw two women white-shirts.
Around 7:00 p.m., I followed the crowd as it ran back up Bedford. When I got close to Snyder, I saw a cop car on fire.
I found out later that it had been left unguarded on that street. Someone had smashed the side window and tossed something inside that caused a fire.
Soon FDNY came and put it out.
Across Bedford, the Youth for Christ Ministry Inc. was singing and praying into a very loud microphone. If they had been protestors the NYPD would have taken the megaphone away, but they were just doing their usual Saturday night preaching.
All evening I saw bottles flying through the air and a couple fire crackers. Several people were pepper sprayed. I didn’t see what prompted the pepper sprays so I don’t know who provoked whom.
People poured milk on faces to reduce the pain. Milk is slightly acidic. Pepper is alkaline.
Only a few protestors were arrested.
Three public busses were present to haul off arrestees but they weren’t used.
Arrestees were put into cop cars.
The next day (Sunday afternoon), I went to a protest at Grand Army Plaza that was advertised as “family friendly.” There were many children among the thousand people who gathered at an entrance to Prospect Park and walked through the park to the plaza. They were 99 percent white. I also saw some Asian protestors.
As they walked through the park carrying their BLM signs, picnickers clapped.
They hung out for an hour before a PA system was set up and speaking began. Cars sweeping around the plaza honked their horns in support. There was a little more distancing and a few more masks than Saturday night, but only a little.
I saw only one cop car and no uniformed police. Now we know the key to keeping protests peaceful: bring the children, not the cops.
Tuesday evening, I went to my third protest in the streets northwest of Prospect Park. The participants were about 95 percent white. As was true on Sunday, most were twenty-somethings, but there were more bikes than children.
I didn’t see much gray hair; us old geezers were scarce.
Signs were plentiful, mostly written on cardboard.
Different people passed out masks, bottles of water, and granola bars.
Social distancing was among the missing. As far as I know, there were no flying objects and no arrests.
People milled and marched through the streets for about two hours before heading downtown.
At a couple intersections, men spoke from very tall step ladders.
One talked about God.
Another talked about violence, urging protestors to avoid it.
I saw a dozen cops observing. They weren’t blocking anyone’s path.
There were no confrontations. I left in time to get home before the 8:00 p.m. curfew.
I’ve heard a lot of expert interviews on racism in America, so I think it would be useful to put some of this into historical context. I’ve been reading and writing about this for over 12 years while researching my almost-done book, so feel as informed as any of the experts.
The ideology of white supremacy didn’t start with slavery — which is as old as civilization. It originated as a response to the abolition movement of the 1830s. By the 1850s, slave owners and their supporters were arguing that slavery was a positive good because Africans were inferior to white people and couldn’t handle freedom.
After emancipation, Southerners struggled to restore slavery by another name. That very convoluted history can’t be summarized in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that by the end of the nineteenth century there was a movement to institutionalize white supremacy. That’s when the segregation laws were passed and state constitutions rewritten to disfranchise persons of African descent.
During the Civil War, white slaveowners had portrayed their slaves as docile and loyal, devoted to looking after the families who owned them even while the white men of the plantation were away fighting to keep them enslaved. In subsequent decades, white people portrayed these same people as sex-crazed brutes who had to be kept in check with violence. Elites in the South created the “cult of white womanhood” to justify “protection” of white women from Black men. Black people started migrating north in large numbers to escape white violence.
The 1920s was probably the zenith of white supremacy. The second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan could elect governors and senators as well as local town councils throughout the South and occasionally in other states. The cultural consensus in the North as well as the South was that white supremacy benefitted both Black people and white people. Some scholars (especially anthropologists) were challenging this belief. But the cultural consensus didn’t begin to shift until the Holocaust became public knowledge. The realization that Aryan supremacy (a refined version of white supremacy) had led to genocide undermined its legitimacy.
During this time, the ideology of white supremacy became frozen in the South while it became fragile in the North. The Southern civil rights movement began in the South in the 1950s and spread to the North in the 1960s. It came to California in the fall of 1963 when I was a college student at Berkeley. Like young people today, I spent the next year going to demonstrations, going to jail, and going to court (as well as going to class).
Unlike today, we were denounced by pretty much everyone in authority. Governor Pat Brown said we were endangering other people’s lives. San Francisco mayor John Shelly said we were “wild, irresponsible and thoughtless.” All the news media denounced our “outrageous tactics” (pickets and sit-ins). We were particularly condemned because most of us were white.
Contrast that with today.
The number of people who actively support white supremacy is too small to be statistically significant, at least in Brooklyn. Protest signs said FUCK WHITE SUPREMACY. (In the sixties, putting “fuck” on a sign would have resulted in an arrest for using obscenity.)
The subsequent protests I went to in June, as well as the ones I saw in the media, continued to be overwhelmingly white. Pretty much everyone in authority except the president supports the protests.
What’s missing from the sixties? Non-violence. While the bulk of the demonstrators weren’t violent, a few were. I don’t mean the criminal opportunists who looted. But the protestors who threw rocks, bottles, and fire crackers. The ones who defaced or burned cop cars may have been showing off their bravado but they weren’t helping the cause. Violence attracts attention but it undermines legitimacy.
In the sixties, we were trained in non-violence, mostly by CORE, and constantly urged to practice it.
When I was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965–66, we were taught to go up to anyone who was picking up rocks and put our hands on theirs while urging restraint. When there were enough of us, we surrounded anyone who looked like he or she wanted to bust anything — be it people or property. The practice of non-violence gave our protests moral authority. It made us strong.
Non-violence should be the legacy of the sixties, not just protest. Where is non-violence now that we need it?
Copyright © 2020 by Jo Freeman. Jo’s tweaking her next book, Tell It Like It Is: Living History in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 1965-66.