Protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge, June 2, 2020. Photo credit: tetiana.photographer / Shutterstock.com.
Since March, sirens have become a consistent soundtrack where I live in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. For weeks, this was the sound of ambulances, ushering thousands to nearby hospitals from the predominantly African American area, hard hit by the pandemic. But in recent days, the sirens have carried a different meaning.
Night after night since Friday, a garrison of NYPD officers has aggressively patrolled much of Brooklyn, in response to the anti-racist uprisings led by black youth who have taken to the streets.
Since last week, I have joined a number of these protests.
They began on Friday night, May 29, when thousands of us surrounded the Barclays Center arena. The chants went up: “Justice for George Floyd.” “I can’t breathe.” “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” “I can’t breathe.” “Fuck the police.” “I can’t breathe.”
The readiness with which the police grabbed, slammed, struck, and pepper- sprayed protesters without provocation has been as vile as it is unsurprising. They arrested over two hundred people that night.
I did not see firsthand the burning of a police van in the adjoining wealthy neighborhood of Fort Greene that night. Many more police vehicles have burned since, although somewhat fewer in New York than some other major cities.
This speaks not to a lack of militancy and rage on behalf of the protesters here, but rather to the fact that here we face an unparalleled force in the NYPD — the largest police force in the world, 40,000 strong.
Even one cop car on fire in New York carries immense symbolic weight: a chink in the seemingly impenetrable armor of an occupying army. For readers who might recoil at the sight of an empty police van ablaze, I invite you to think further about the meaning of the NYPD for black life in this city.
It was New York cops, after all, who choked the life from Eric Garner on Staten Island, who shot dead Akai Gurley in the stairwell outside his girlfriend’s Brooklyn home, and who gunned down 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his grandmother’s bathroom. The list of black lives cut short by police violence is a grim reminder of the discriminatory law enforcement for which the NYPD is notorious.
On Saturday, I joined a joyful crowd of thousands as they marched through Flatbush under blue skies and low hovering police helicopters. Seven years earlier, I had watched furious protesters flood into the same streets following the NYPD shooting of Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old black child. But this demonstration, while more placid, was far larger.
We moved slowly, closely. What an abrupt change this was after ten weeks of isolation, sheltering in place, and practicing social distancing. Now we moved as one, packed tightly together, our faces sweaty behind our masks. (Most of us wore masks; most of the police did not.)
Of course I thought about the risks, the danger of spreading the coronavirus in this setting. For the black youth in the streets — and for those of us joining in support — the risk spreading or contracting the virus is weighed against the necessity of fighting the older, no less deadly plague of racist police violence. Indeed, these protests take aim at the same white supremacist system, which has put poor black communities at higher risk of COVID-19 contraction in the first place.
By nightfall on Saturday, the large and peaceful procession had given way to scattered scenes where protesters were confronted by police in Flatbush. For the most part, the Brooklyn protests have since consisted of thousands of people filling the streets for hours-long marches, with a scattering of spray paint directed at police vehicles. Clashes with cops have been few and far between, while police presence has been consistently heavy. In Manhattan, meanwhile, protesters have looted high end chain stores and burned police vehicles, and the arrest numbers have been much higher.
But the locus and shape of this revolt is likely to keep shifting. If the pandemic lockdowns warped our experience of time through the repetition of endless homebound days, the uprising’s constantly changing forms give one a sense of time accelerating. It is both exhilarating and inspiring; the most energetic and potent social eruption I’ve experienced, which shows no signs of stopping.
I have not observed any of the “outside agitators” that numerous politicians blame for the righteous rage exploding on my city’s streets. I have seen local young people standing up and fighting for their lives; and I have seen many thousands choosing to support them. I have been involved in anarchist organizing in the United States for a decade — and I can assure you that radical leftists are too few to be capable of carrying out a nationwide popular uprising.
But more to the point: the suggestion that oppressed black communities cannot and would not themselves rise up is as racist now as it was when the Ku Klux Klan blamed communists for inciting black people’s organized revolts against white supremacy. Like many others, I’ve been citing James Baldwin on this issue: “It is a notion which contains a gratuitous insult implying, as it does, that Negroes can make no move unless they are manipulated.”
The other pernicious myth circulating, which I have written about at greater length during previous moments of confrontational protest, is the media trope of protesters “turning violent.” A categorical error is made when commentators speak of a violent “turn.”
Any circumstance in which cops take black life with impunity, any context in which it is still necessary to state that Black Lives Matter, bespeaks a background state of constant violence. The violence is already there, in the conditions of everyday life in many black communities, where citizens are forced to live in constant proximity to death, whether through police violence or the effects of impoverishment and insufficient healthcare services.
If this wasn’t already clear, the pandemic’s unequal distribution of harm has exposed the deadly wages of widening inequality combined with structural racism.
For the most part, it has been riot police escalating the violence during these protests. And America’s profound legacy of ongoing white supremacist violence set the scene, long before anybody took to New York’s streets in this historic moment.
— 5:00 pm, June 2, 2020
Natasha Lennard is a journalist and the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life. She teaches at The New School.