George Floyd Protests: Chaos in New York City - Rolling Stone
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New York City Boils Over

More than 200 were arrested on Friday as New Yorkers protesting the death of George Floyd clashed with police

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Alex Nawrocky

The pepper spray. That’s when it really started to get out of hand.

The police lined up in front of the entry to Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn fired it into the growing congregation of demonstrators before them in high, arching, indiscriminate streams. It looked like a fountain.

Protesters emerged from the crowd one by one, and then many at once. Stumbling. Faces grimacing and red. Hands outstretched for water or milk or whatever they could grasp. Many fell to the ground or bent at the waist to allow a better angle for fellow protesters to wash out their eyes. Before the pepper spray, the crowd had been gathered peacefully in front of the arena, holding up signs and chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!,” expressing their boiling anger at the hundreds of police officers stationed around the plaza, every one of whom represented the system that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on Monday.

The chemical retaliation came not long after 7 p.m. and left the crowd dotted with pockets of anguish and genuine disbelief over how quickly the situation escalated. “People were pushing up against the fence and climbing over the fence,” Molly E., a protester from Ridgewood, Queens, whose face was streaked with milk from attempts to ease the burning, told me. “The cops knocked it down and started charging at people and macing people. People were throwing shit and the cops started charging. They were macing everyone.”

Every time the police charged or sprayed mace, the crowd would retreat for a furious few seconds before pressing back up against the barricade. Some opened umbrellas to guard against the next shower. Milk and water bottles were parceled out to strangers.

Among those hit were state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and state Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. “Look at me right now,” she told Gothamist shortly after the incident. “I would never come out here to be in a position like this. I’m actually out here to ensure that the peace is keeping.”

Any animosity toward law enforcement that may have been suppressed up until this point was now unbridled. Wherever the police were, there were protesters taunting them, chanting at them, letting them know they have had enough of a system that has allowed for the discriminant killing of so many black Americans. They represented all demographics and had come from all over New York to express their unrest. Many of them were dressed in black. Almost all of them wore masks. The coronavirus has kept the city’s residents away from crowds for months, and killed more than 20,000 of their fellow New Yorkers. But this, too, was a life or death issue. The protesters gathered for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and for all who had died before them, and for which there was still no justice. As a result, the demonstrators let it be known with chants throughout the evening that there would be no peace. This uprising is what it had come to in New York City and big cities all over America. This was the pot bubbling over.

Still less than two hours after the protest began at 6 p.m., people started climbing the subway station at the center of the plaza, spray painting FTP (for Fuck the Police) on its exterior. Someone started a small fire near the street and the smell of burning plastic wafted up Flatbush Avenue. The demonstration quickly morphed into a battle for turf, with the police trying to take ground away from the protesters — with riot shields, with batons, with a phalanx of mountain bikes. Demonstrators were ripped to the ground and zip-tied. There was no sense that law enforcement had control of the situation. In the end, at least 200 people were arrested in New York on Friday.

The plaza now cleared, police were able to cordon some protesters onto the sidewalk near the subway station. Cops aligned themselves in the street in front of an NYPD bus that would soon be filled with arrested demonstrators. Protesters yelled at them from the edge of the sidewalk as a recorded warning played on a loop, over and over again, like a fire alarm: THIS ASSEMBLY IS UNLAWFUL. IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST.

This computerized voice never died down, it never lost energy, it never wavered. Over and over again, as the crowd kept chanting, kept trying to offer some counter to this tableau of oppression in front of them. New chants. George Floyd’s name. Breonna Taylor’s name. Black Lives Matter! No Justice, No Peace! Abolish the Police!

THIS ASSEMBLY IS UNLAWFUL. IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST.

THIS ASSEMBLY IS UNLAWFUL. IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST.

THIS ASSEMBLY IS UNLAWFUL. IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST.

The automated police state versus raw, visceral humanity backed into a corner. It was a battle playing out in every nerve center in America on Friday night.

—————

The protest at Barclays followed a demonstration at which around 70 were arrested in Manhattan Thursday night, and another earlier on Friday that began in Foley Square, across from the New York state Supreme Court building and around a sculpture at the square’s center, titled “The Triumph of the Human Spirit.” This protest also began peacefully, with chanting and sign-holding, but when the hundreds who showed up marched north on Centre Street, the police started forcibly removing people from the street who didn’t comply with initial orders to do so. Protesters who responded physically to this force were wrestled to the ground by multiple officers.

“They just came and started grabbing people and arresting them,” recounted Myeil Duncan, a 20-year-old who came into Manhattan from Queens to protest. “They snatched this one girl off the sidewalk as soon as she got to it, and they arrested her and pushed her against the car. It was a young black girl. This guy got basically tackled and put in a headlock by four police officers.”

The tension pooled at the Canal Street intersection, which police had barricaded with motorbikes. Dozens of officers spread out in the street facing the protesters who had gathered at the end of the sidewalk, compressing themselves against its edge to take turns yelling hysterical exhortations at the cops. Some were in tears, pleading. A man read off names into a megaphone: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbury, Eric Garner.

“Is standing silent part of the job? Say their names! SAY THEIR NAMES! SAY THEIR NAMES! SAY THEIR NAMES!” As soon as one chant ended, another would begin. The sun was up. It was hot and humid, standing crowded around this corner of a Manhattan side street. The police stood erect and emotionless.

Against the wall at the back of the sidewalk was a 60-year-old musician who asked to be identified as Drummy T. Next to him was a teenage girl with a sign. “I saw some confrontations but it’s mostly been peaceful,” he said. “People have been expressing conflicting ideas and opinions and thoughts, but for the most part it’s been peaceful and that’s all you can ask for. People have had their say.”

He came up from Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn, to demonstrate with the teenager next to him. “I have a child and she is interested in being in the cause for human rights, and so I wanted to accommodate her. When I was younger I was involved in things also. I want her to know how this world works so she can make an effort to make it a better place.”

The crowd eventually marched back to Foley Square, where chants rang out and signs and bouquets of flowers were held high for another hour before they marched south to the Brooklyn Bridge. The helicopter that had been hovering above the protest since it began continued to buzz. As the demonstrators walked, Ricardo Jordan, a 33-year-old down from Harlem, summed up the afternoon.

“We’re fed up,” he said. “We’re fed up with what’s going on.”

—————

The sky started to darken over Barclays as the demonstrators and police struggled for control of Flatbush Avenue, one of the most prominent traffic arteries in Brooklyn. Night hadn’t yet fallen, but enormous rain clouds were rolling in. The street was littered with empty milk cartons, water bottles, and firework husks left over from earlier crowd-control efforts. The cops were still trying to push back protesters, which led to skirmishes that ended with more brutal arrests.

But there were too many people. They stood in the street, facing south with their arms in the air, determined not to let traffic through. “WE’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE!” one woman yelled minutes after another was dragged away by police, who were now leading detainees to a line leading into an NYPD bus. So many were placed under arrest that a B41 public city bus stuck on Flatbush was commandeered. It was soon filled with police and detainees.

After a while, the driver stood up and put on his backpack. He appeared to be refusing to drive the prisoners, which was confirmed by Vice as the official position of the NYC Bus Drivers Union. The crowd of demonstrators corralled on the sidewalk erupted in applause.

After 8 p.m., the police slowly gained control of the crowd, which kept chanting as more were arrested and the sky became dark. Kelvin Valdemar, a 46-year-old in Brooklyn, said the only comparison he could make was the fallout from the city’s treatment of Abner Louima, a Haitian man who was beaten, brutalized, and sodomized in 1997 following his arrest in Brooklyn. “We had something similar to this then,” Valdemar said.

“It’s what we call systemic racism,” he added. “People are frustrated; they’re voicing their frustrations. It’s not something new. It’s been there for a long time.”

Eventually, the demonstration released into side streets, fanning out into the neighborhoods surrounding Barclays. Videos of police brutality and retaliation began to surface online. A woman was violently thrown to the ground by a police officer. A cop appeared to open his door to deliberately strike a man with it as his police car drove down a crowded street. An NYPD van was set ablaze in Fort Greene.

Mayor Bill de Blasio made his way into the borough. “We have a long night ahead of us in Brooklyn,” he wrote on Twitter just before 11 p.m. “Our sole focus is deescalating this situation and getting people home safe. There will be a full review of what happened tonight. We don’t ever want to see another night like this.”

Earlier on Friday, de Blasio held a press conference to address an incident in which a cop punched a man in the East Village earlier in May. The mayor announced the officer will face discipline. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,” he tweeted. “You cannot have a safe city if there’s no trust between police and community, and the NYPD is working to earn and keep that trust.”

Despite a declining crime rate, New York City’s police budget has ballooned throughout de Blasio’s time in office. Though the nominally progressive mayor may be able to issue a heartfelt statement about George Floyd’s death, he epitomizes the political leadership tacitly condoning the police. It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s an America issue, and it’s going to take more than electing new leaders to correct it.

“We have to change the system,” Karina Garcia, a 27-year-old protester from Harlem, told me in Foley Square earlier on Friday. “The system is working just fine; we just have to break it and rebuild it.”

As I was walking home from the protest, I passed the intersection where I remembered hours earlier seeing two other Foley Square demonstrators — Drummy T. and his daughter — as they arrived at Barclays, when it was still peaceful, before the pepper spray and before the arrests. During a press conference on Saturday, de Blasio blamed the protesters for escalating the situation. “Any protester that tries to take the humanity away from a police officer and devalue them just because they are a public servant is no better than the racists who devalue people of color and particularly black men in America,” he said.

It’s impossible to trace any precise point where the demonstration tipped into violence, but it’s not at all surprising that it did. Hundreds of baton-wielding police were crowded into a plaza containing hundreds of protesters spewing vitriol at them. Conflict felt inevitable. But the state has the high ground, and it’s the state’s responsibility to prevent the chaos that erupted through Brooklyn on Friday night — and certainly not to actively indulge in it.

Regardless of where that blurry line of demarcation between peace and violence lies, there is no shortage of video evidence that the police were exacerbating the tension rather than quelling it. They were crowded and called a bunch of names, and they snapped. De Blasio feels sorry for them, but if cops can’t stomach being “devalued” by citizens protesting a murder by an unjust system without whipping the people they’re supposed to be protecting into submission, or assaulting them with a car door, or calling them a bitch and shoving them to the ground, then they shouldn’t have that responsibility in the first place.

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