The inevitable convulsions of unrest that played out here and across big and medium-sized cities across the country were long in the making. Seeing the big brute with a badge burrow his knee into the neck of George Floyd finally popped the lid off years of pent-up frustration over blatant inequality across the spectrum of life’s daily functions and interactions.
When the power structure blows off justice and fails to reform a system that keeps producing horrible outcomes, the oppressed will eventually rise up. Add super-exacerbated tension and stress over the virus-driven emptying of pockets and we were aligned for a reaction.
The heartless street suffocation on Memorial Day captured by Darnella Frazier’s cell phone camera was accompanied by her real-time commentary and that of others on the scene. The footage she shot with a steady hand documented how workman-like it all played out for the responding officers. The world-wide audience who watched it online couldn’t believe what they were seeing from Minnesota. Nobody could. Unless you’re black. Frazier panned her camera occasionally to the evil sidekick cop who played the role of lookout/crowd control for a hideously violent and wildly disproportionate law enforcement response to a cuffed suspect.
The primary killer’s arrest four days later came way too late to placate the angry throngs in Minnie and all over the country. The massive distrust over repeated cover-ups, smooth-overs and minimized justice for police officers who kill black men and women in this country had boiled over.
When the Minneapolis mayor ordered the last line of defense to vacate and effectively surrender the city’s third precinct headquarters to an all-out torching three nights after Floyd’s death – it sent a powerful signal for all to see. That precinct house was famous for Burge-like rough stuff – but for it to burn down without a fight put a charge in those watching from afar.
Here, the crowds gathered to protest in big numbers starting the night after Minnie’s third precinct house was lit up. It was a Friday night with warm weather. May 29. Word spread that mobilization would be at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn. NYPD circled the big arena at that intersection with a substantial presence. The mostly organic, leaderless protests in NYC have coalesced around historically famous squares and parks with many of the ensuing marches using one of the East River bridges to go between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s unclear why the plaza outside of the Barclays Center became the big night one gathering spot. I was working that evening but it looked ugly. Harsh words and bottles of water and other projectiles were hurled at men and women in blue standing guard. To characterize it as largely peaceful – as many did that night – didn’t mesh with large swaths of footage that I watched. There were two defining narratives to emerge from that first night via video that went viral on social media: 1. The horribly violent shove of a young woman protester to the ground by a uniformed cop near the arena (in concert with disparaging words and disregard for the clear head injury caused by his aggression) and 2. Firebombings of marked NYPD vehicles in the vicinity of marches later that evening.
The crowds were large and widespread the next day. The dominant imagery to emerge was again incendiary. Two marked NYPD sports utility vehicles near Prospect Park accelerated into protestors blocking their path. Nobody got seriously hurt but it was a bad look. The widespread reaction was that it was a dangerous and hostile action on the part of the NYPD officers driving the two vehicles. I don’t know. Given the climate of brewing hostility and distrust brought by the firebombs the previous night, the drivers likely felt cornered and threatened when the crowd started throwing stuff at them.
The mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio has been unfairly maligned by the NYPD unions (especially the PBA and the SBA) since assuming office in 2014. The unions despise his early, consistent efforts to move away from stop and frisk – and for his public comments in the wake of the Eric Garner killing which brought into focus the reality that minority communities distrust the police. De Blasio was elected largely on his policing views. He’s been treated coldly by police leadership (outside of commissioners he’s appointed) since day 1. It’s been awkward. His inability to broker harmony illustrates the vast power of the police bureaucracy more than his persistent efforts to reform it I believe.
With the virus all but shutting down most forms of life on the streets for the last three months, the police had been out of the news. Their work group called in sick in large numbers and had much lower infection rates than the other essentials. Then all of a sudden – without much notice – the Floyd killing set off a huge logistical challenge. Tens of thousands of people from across the city flooded the streets starting on May 29. In the midst of a pandemic, they came out loud, mostly well-mannered – and with a pretty coherent and modest agenda: Cut by some reasonable measure the nearly $5.6 billion annual allocation to policing (the number is actually $10.9 billion if you include untouchable pension/benefit/debt service obligations). And put the hammer down on cops who exceed the bounds of their duty to protect and serve.
From what I saw, the police tried to let the protests play out without much intervention initially. Marches across the East River crossings and on primary thoroughfares were allowed – in fact – were escorted – without prior consent or approval. In the first couple days, there were documented instances of baton-swinging and pepper spraying without clear-cut justification but given the breadth of action on the streets, there appeared to be greater relative restraint on the part of law enforcement here versus other cities. No gas was used. The manageable, productive trajectory of momentum from robust protests the first few days here offset the isolated flare ups between cops and civilians.
Then it fell apart – on the night of Sunday, May 31. That’s when groups of young people ran roughshod over high-end retail in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. Many of those stores in Soho had signaled apprehension about what was to come way back in April. Way before Floyd was killed. Many of the shops in Soho had boarded up at the outset of the city’s shutdown and many of the neighborhood’s residents fled to second homes. Soho had been eerily quiet in broad daylight way before the protests started. When Soho got ransacked without much resistance from law enforcement on that Sunday night, the Mayor (reportedly under pressure from the Governor) imposed a curfew.
It didn’t work. Looting the next night struck at places considered untouchable in Midtown. The flagship Macy’s store got wrecked. Stores selling expensive goods up and down famed Fifth Avenue were somehow allowed to fall without a fight. Major thoroughfares in the Bronx burned. The East Village woke up to find broken glass, compromised storefronts and stripped out inventory in beloved businesses. A proud community was stung by the meanness of struggling, barely standing Mom and Pop shops getting smashed up. Many shop owners had already quit from impossible equations brought on by the pandemic. “For Lease” signs are a better than 50-50 proposition in the East Village – up and down 1st and 2nd Avenues especially. The few left standing should have been immune from window bashers under any measure of fairness. Unfortunately, they weren’t.
Publicly, de Blasio downplayed the looting and tightened the curfew.
This is clear. Curfews don’t work. Looters have little if any linkage to the protests besides some cover. And the last thing this city needed as it finally neared reopening was an extra layer of disincentive to run a business.
All the curfew did for the week it was in place was give police a green light to chase, corral and arrest protestors who opposed the sophomoric notion that one had to be back in their apartment by 8 PM.
The looting stopped either because it petered out or the plywood was too much of a bother. In the case of the Saks store on Fifth Avenue, razor wire and a team of private security guards were installed.
With a force of 40-thousand covering the five boroughs, one would have hoped for better NYPD protection from the smash and grabbers. My suspicion is that cops’ feelings got hurt when early coverage of the protests tilted against them. Not to indict an entire organization but what better way to leverage sentiment than to give the looters some leeway. How else to explain the free-for-all in Herald Square that whole week. I was up there on June 5 and it was still mob rule in broad daylight. Streets in the 30’s from one side of Manhattan to the other were not fit to be walked safely.
The city’s health metrics allowed for re-opening on June 8 but only the hardiest opened their doors. Two weeks later, the barber shops opened and restaurants could serve a plate to outdoor diners.
As June nears July, the protests have waned with focus now on occupation of the space around City Hall. It’s a round-the-clock stay by a revolving group of hundreds demanding a $1 billion dollar cut from NYPD in the budget proposal due the week upcoming.
Not knowing how to construct a city budget with dramatically shrunken revenue, I’m in the camp that firmly supports the notion we need a well-trained, use-your-head, walk-the-beat, keep-the-peace, wear-the-uniform and make-the-community-feel-safe kinda police force. I support harsh discipline and full public disclosure when cops act like bullies or racists and are called on their misconduct by the public they serve. Let’s have fewer racing squad cars and more standing on the corner interacting with the community. I believe members of the force should reside in the five boroughs. It’s clear we have to completely back off weed smokers and women who sell sliced mango in the subway.
At the same time, we need some kind of system to deal with dangerous criminal activity so the young and old residents of the densely packed neighborhoods we live in can feel safe at night, on the train, in the park or on the walk to the post office.
I’ve heard some in the abolish-the-police movement say cops are enforcing a stacked system. They’re defending the rich against the poor. White against black – in the form of suppression through incarceration. All true. But their institution is backed by doctrine they didn’t write.
Change the laws. See what outcomes they produce. Make it possible for the easy-to-identify neglected communities to share in the same educational, housing, job and recreational opportunities. It’ll be a smaller pie for the next several years – but equal it out.
Given how low it’s all gone here – first from the virus – and then the anger over policing – it feels like a chance to start from scratch. Many of those who typically control the agenda in NYC – with their money and influence – have left. While they’re gone, the chance to reset is a big one.