A Dispatch from the New York City Protests, May 28th to 31st
I was born a few years before the Seattle WTO protests of 1999. The first images I remember from television were of the invasion of Iraq, but I saw nothing of the massive, global marches and acts of resistance that accompanied them. Occupy was over by the time I was in middle school. The first time I was arrested—briefly, and without being processed—was at a BLM action for a man named Jocques Clemmons. (The site of this demonstration was the Metro Nashville Courthouse, which was burned May 30th following a protest in response to the killing of George Floyd.) I’ve since been attacked by armed militia members, punched by neo-Nazis, hit by counter-protestors’ cars, and maced and beaten by police. And like most of my generation, it was the Black Lives Matter movement that brought me into the streets.
The first nights saw radio cars were burned, shop windows smashed, and protestors savagely beaten, run over, and maced by police. It had been years since I’d seen anything like it, and I didn’t stick around long. The weekend of the 30th brought larger popular demonstrations. These were led primarily by BLM organizers and notionally “peaceful”, which became a less popular condition as the march progressed and the police were emboldened.
This march, on May 31st began in Union Square and progressed up to Trump Tower, diverting to Bryant Park after the police blocked the surrounding streets. Organizers encouraged protestors to occupy the roads in order to maintain distance from the police squads on the sidewalks. Spontaneous chanting broke out, often in contrast to the organizers’ favored numbers: Instead of “Hands up, don’t shoot”, we would yell “NYPD, suck my dick”.
The police concealed their badge numbers with much greater consistency than their faces, while extremely few protestors went without masks. I stuck to the head of the pack, which stretched three or four blocks behind us. I didn’t see any windows smashed or police vehicles damaged. We paused for nearly an hour at the police precinct at 43rd and 7th, where I again found myself pressed against the barricades in front of the building as the crowd filled the streets. I saw only one attack by the police, after we left Times Square for the Supreme Court building, though the cops didn’t hesitate to push us away from the scene when dozens began congregating around the victim.
Our momentum was regularly interrupted by the organizers inviting us to take a knee or listen to a few words from a battery-powered PA which was impossible to hear from further than a few steps away. The crowd became more frustrated and more vocal. Members increasingly argued against the organizers’ decision to halt for us to continue moving—the police could split us from the rest of the march or seize the chance to kettle, beat, and arrest us. A convoy of police vans tore down the side of the road we were marching on toward the courthouse, striking a number of protestors, but the organizers intervened to stop us from retaliating.
The march halted at the courthouse for half an hour. Some organizers spoke about their experiences with the police in New York through the tinny speaker. After a few minutes, an unidentified official emerged from inside the building to kneel at the top of the steps, flanked by security and far above the crowd. The crowd cheered a bit, which made me uneasy—wasn’t this gesture an echo of the act that killed George Floyd, not genuflecting to the crowd? He made a V-sign with his hands and went back inside shortly after.
We then continued across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn to connect with another demonstration heading toward Barclays Center. At this point, a distinct faction of protestors had become visibly fed up with the organizers’ leadership. After starting onto the bridge using the pedestrian walkway, a few people leapt across the barrier onto the three-lane highway. I followed. The drivers accommodated us and there was no police presence on the bridge, and all three lanes were quickly shut down. The majority of the marchers quickly joined the contingent on the roadway, where jubilant teenagers on BMX bikes took selfies of the march behind them and the view from the bridge. A few took the chance to tag the bridge with BLM slogans, light a joint, or change the song on their portable speakers.
Anxiety mounted as we reached the end of the bridge, which was concealed from view by a sharp turn. Would there be police waiting for us? A helicopter and at least one drone had been following our progress, and we linked arms in the front ranks in case we were rushed. There were several rows of police waiting, but they moved aside, and we continued marching toward Barclays, shutting down the lanes of traffic on either side. Again, the drivers here were thrilled to see us. They cheered and honked and held their fists out of their sunroofs and we streamed past, pulling us in for selfies or reassurance. The police made an effort to shut down traffic using commandeered MTA buses, an event which was greeted with much less enthusiasm by drivers.
A few protestors smashed the windows of empty police cars on the sides of the road, and the organizers used the people’s mic to encourage us to publicly shame anyone we saw starting fires, damaging property, or retaliating against the police. Most of the crowd didn’t seem to take this seriously, but I saw no more police or private property damaged on the way to Barclays.
We were met by the largest force of riot police I’ve seen in New York. They were lined up on the rooftops, behind barricades, on both sides of Atlantic Avenue. We paused for maybe an hour for speeches and kneeling, and many protestors began to drift away. Others, frustrated by the kumbaya tone, began to encourage the crowd to confront the cops. They had run us over, maced us, and sent a woman to the hospital with seizures after shoving her to the ground just the day before.
The organizers began to lose influence, and the police began to advance into the crowd. We were slowly pushed from the square in front of Barclays to the street, then into a small courtyard across Atlantic Avenue next to a Stop & Shop. From deeper in the crowd, protestors launched bottles of water into the ranks of police, who responded by attacking whoever happened to be nearby. Stand-offs ensued for about an hour, as police occasionally attacked a lone protestor and then had to fend off the crowd swelling around the victim.
They began to cut the crowd into smaller groups, so each gathering was encircled by cops at least twice over. I linked arms with the people to the left and right of me and we tried to resist their advance, remaining still as they pushed forward. The police turned their body cameras on, a bad sign.
A baton cracked against my collarbone and I was shoved in the chest. The protestors to either side of me held tightly to my arms so I wouldn’t fall and be trampled or beaten if we were overrun. The line of demonstrators I was a part of held firm, but the police broke the ranks further down and cut us off. They began to mace some of us, and I saw a tall, slim man picked up and thrown two or three yards down the street. The rest of the police continued pursuing the smaller groups within the larger area they had encircled, leaving my line face to face with a roughly equivalent number of cops.
As is natural in these moments, we started talking shit. We castigated them for covering up their badge numbers (mysteriously, they left the corresponding digits on their helmets visible), for beating us over a couple of thrown plastic bottles of water, and for defending a Stop & Shop instead of the people who paid their salaries.
A small woman to my right looked the officer across from her dead in the eye and said, “Officer, have you got a family at home? Do you have daughters? What would you say if one of them brought home a black man?” The cop stared into middle distance, sweating.
“I know what you’d say. Those people are fine, I just wouldn’t want my children to marry one. And I tell my children the same thing about y’all.” Another water bottle dropped delicately into their ranks, and they started shuffling forward, batons held out to our chests.
“What about you, officer, would you let your daughter marry a cop? I don’t think you would. Forty percent of you are wife-beaters, and I’m not surprised, you fucking cowards.” A black police officer in a white shirt appeared, walking quickly between our line and the police. He started shouting at them to uncover their badge numbers, to make some space between us and them. He turned to our group and said the police would be going home, they’ll be retreating now, as long as we don’t charge after them. As they began to back away, a few protestors rushed forward and the police charged us again. I was knocked off my feet by a baton and couldn’t see what happened to the people around me. The black captain returned, shouting at his men to stop, to step back, and they did. They lined up along the sides of the street, letting the reconstituted crowd pass. Cheers erupted, and consolidated: “NYPD, suck my dick.”
After the protests, I left the city to spend a few days with friends. Most had participated in the protests along the East Coast and all were devoted Sanders supporters, and we were eager to speculate about his reaction to what we had just seen. His concession to Biden in April had stuck in our throats—why surrender just as a global pandemic exposed the corruption and profiteering at the heart of our broken healthcare system? Now, we hoped he would recognize the protestors’ struggle for justice and acknowledge it as his own. When he did speak, it was not what we had hoped to hear.
As outrage at police brutality spread across the country and demands to defund the police gained ground, Bernie Sanders issued a statement on June 3rd calling for Senate Leader Chuck Schumer to reform the police. Violence against protestors across the country had been thoroughly documented and widely circulated. Many Sanders supporters who had defended him against accusations levelled by black activists against his record on race felt betrayed. But just how justified is our outrage and disappointment?
After all, it included some laudable demands: Legislation allowing police to be prosecuted for “recklessness”, increasing the transparency of disciplinary records, abolishing police immunity in civil cases, creating community review boards to oversee police departments, and prohibiting transfers of military equipment to police departments. He also recommended funding to create a “civilian corps of unarmed first responders” to augment, support, or replace police activities—something which could combat the figures showing people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police and 50% of victims of police killings have some kind of registered disability.
Other provisions, however, fell into the mainstream of neoliberal law-and-order ideology. Despite waves of public support for abolition and defunding, Sanders recommended a perverse scheme for incentivizing “good” recruits to join police forces by increasing salaries. This is what we would expect from McKinsey, not a democratic socialist. After the Ferguson protests, Sanders called only for increased access to education and job programs for black people. Admittedly, he’s come a long way. But Sanders also dropped out of the primaries and endorsed Joe Biden, a man who encouraged the invasion of Iraq as far back as 1998 and whose plan for protecting Americans from police violence included a recommendation to “shoot [them] in the leg instead of in the heart”.
Bernie, despite an integrity and consistency exceeding that of any member of the American political class, has always been a gradualist and a moderate. His capitulation to Biden only reminded us of those weaknesses. We supported him because he was truly the best option available for improving the lives of the vast majority of Americans, not because his vision perfectly mirrored our own or out of a belief in reform solely through the ballot. It is no surprise that Sanders’ beliefs have been surpassed by popular resistance—history has demonstrated time and again that this is how we achieve more just and democratic societies. Sanders’ remarks to Schumer underlined what we have always known: Electoralism is not going to move politics forward. Look instead to the streets.
 In the beginning of my time protesting, there was a bill proposed to my state’s legislature which would grant immunity to those who hit protestors with their cars. It was halted in committee but likely contributed to the number of times I and other protestors were struck. The experience is at first shocking—“What kind of person would accelerate into a crowd of children, the elderly, and their neighbors after being delayed on their way to Olive Garden?”—but if you see the car coming and time your jump right you can avoid the worst of it.