Somewhere toward the end of the third night of street protests after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the five officers killed in Dallas, Bronx community leader Antonio Hendrickson addressed the hundreds of marchers who’d made it to Union Square on Saturday.
Hendrickson, the founder of Lead By Example, a mentoring organization, was talking about love. “We love each other,” he said. “This is about love." Murmurs spread through the crowd. An organizer from NYC Shut It Down, an activist group, said she hoped he wasn’t going to start on “that black-on-black crime stuff.” She and other organizers began moving toward him.
“Black lives matter,” Hendrickson was saying, “but let me say this.” He never finished. Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Akai Gurley, another black man fatally shot by police, took away the loudspeaker.
“There’s no such thing as a good cop,” she shouted. Many in the crowd cheered..
Hendrickson eventually got the loudspeaker back but the marchers abandoned him, so in the end he was talking to no one. The marchers moved into the street on Union Square West facing a double and at times triple line of unmoving cops, and after warnings to stop obstructing vehicular traffic the arrests began.
The march goes on
It was a weekend of protests in New York City after the deaths of more black men at the hands of police in Louisiana and Minnesota, despite the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a deranged man unaffiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement who appears to have been planning the attacks before this recent spate of killings caught on video.
In 2014, as protests for Michael Brown and Eric Garner reached a fever pitch in NYC, another deranged man assassinated two NYPD officers in Brooklyn. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other politicians called for unity and a halt to protests. It was winter. The street protests petered out.
This week, de Blasio and others once again called for measured responses and respect for police. President Barack Obama implored protesters and police to “listen to each other.” In an atmosphere of continued tension, several officers shot a black man in Brooklyn on Sunday allegedly waving a gun. Overall, NYPD officials said they’d received 17 threats against officers by Friday, none found to be credible.
Some protesters took that measured, tempered response, heeding officers’ instructions during marches, focusing on the “bad apples.” Many protesters, of all races and ages, decried the killings but maintained their commitment to large-scale police reform and accountability, some calling this a new “Civil Rights movement.” Prominent Black Lives Matter activists nationwide similarly denounced the killings and stood firm on principle.
At the scene
But this was not the universal tenor of the NYC marches, and fervor of the activists in NYC does not seem to have been muted as much as after the two officers were shot in Brooklyn. Many said it was terrible the cops had been killed but they could understand the killer’s anger. If it’s a score card, said one, the cops are still winning.
Some of the chants of the marchers, which spread infectiously and are shouted by one and all, retain this visceral anger — “NYPD KKK, how many kids have you killed today.”
The march on Saturday was in honor of Delrawn Small, the black man killed in a Brooklyn road rage incident over the July 4th weekend by an off-duty police officer who was also black. It was meant to be a silent march, at the request of the family, said organizers, but soon the chants broke out as marchers went up Broadway.
At one point, a white officer gestured lightly to urge some marchers out of the street. “Please, please, sidewalk, thank you,” he said.
A white protester came up right in the officer’s face. “Murderer,” she screamed.
Then, back in the crowd: “That wasn’t a nice thing to say. I shouldn’t have said that.” But she already had.
“Something is very wrong in America,” that protester, who gave her name only as Ruth, said afterward. The marchers feel it’s up to them to solve it. And if there is a bend toward the radical — a split within the movement — they say it’s because they’ve been here in the streets before, reciting other names: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Many asked this weekend: When is the change going to come? It will only come when we take the streets, they said.
And hundreds took the streets and highways of New York City this weekend—not allegedly throwing fireworks or openly carrying weapons as in other cities, but loud and angry and there. And the police were there to meet them — at first calmly and politely, a rainbow-collection of black, Hispanic, Asian, white, male, female officers in standard-issue uniforms walking alongside the march, withstanding abuse.
Later, this calmness though not this efficiency disappeared, when more militarized Strategic Response Group officers come in with helmets and visors, signaling to each other with fists up in the air yelling “hold,” physically tossing marchers out of the street and onto the sidewalk, making arrests — some 60 through Sunday morning. In those moments anger meets anger, and the true stakes of the protests are plain, and it seems clear that neither anger will dissipate soon.