We were discussing a large 2003 protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“Where was I?” my now-teenage neighbor asked Sunday as we marched down Fifth Avenue as part the People’s Climate March.
“Your mom didn’t want to bring you, because it was going to be dangerous. The police were going to be crazy,” I responded. “And she was right.”
In too many protests during the Bloomberg era, police conveyed to demonstrators that dissent was in itself a suspicious act — an intrusion on a street that rightfully belonged to traffic and commerce, not protesters. On Sunday — and even during the illegal Flood Wall Street action on Monday in which more than 100 demonstrators were arrested — the police were restrained, and the atmosphere was peaceful.
I’m a longtime New Yorker, and a chronic protester, because history shows things don’t change unless people demand that they do. From abolition of slavery to gay rights, NYC’s dissenters have often helped to change history.
But under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, the city’s message to protesters was often this simple: Shut up and go home.
Demonstrators were routinely penned by police barriers so they couldn’t move about freely, a practice known as “kettling.” Demonstrators were often surrounded by officers wearing riot gear. In some cases, officers escalated confrontations and, as lawsuits and complaints from the Occupy Wall Street era show, some demonstrators were treated with unjustified force.
But I felt Sunday’s march was a safe place to take my 8-year-old son. There were few barricades, but protesters could leave and return to the area with ease. Officers seemed relaxed. Some even chatted with demonstrators and passersby.
As Arun Gupta wrote in the political magazine CounterPunch, “I haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of protest in New York.”
It’s too soon to say whether this week marks a new era in the NYPD’s relationship with protesters.
So far, it seems that the Mayor Bill de Blasio-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton regime may be more tolerant of dissent than the Bloomberg-Kelly team ever was.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.