While speaking to reporters on Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, thoroughly overwhelmed by the police-brutality protests that have swept the city over the past week, turned to John Lennon for solace.
“I don’t mean to make light of this, but I’m reminded of the song ‘Imagine,’ by John Lennon,” he said. “We played it at my inauguration. I think everyone who hears that song in its fullness thinks about a world where people got along differently.… About a world where we didn’t live with a lot of the restrictions that we live with now.”
De Blasio’s pie-in-the-sky musings about a world without struggle underscore his approach to the demonstrations, which is to say that he doesn’t seem to have one other than to cross his fingers — or put on his headphones — and hope everything works out all right. It’s a strategy New Yorkers may remember due to his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in early March.
Determined to remain as out of touch as possible, the mayor has ceded control over the situation to law enforcement, taking every opportunity possible to defer to the city’s aggressive police force, which has been brutalizing demonstrators nightly. He sided with them when they attempted to run over a group of protesters in an SUV, and he sided with them on Monday when, despite his Lennon-inspired anti-“restriction” message, he imposed an 11 p.m. curfew. It was the first curfew instituted in New York City since the Harlem riot of 1943, an event spurred by a white police officer shooting a black soldier.
On Tuesday, de Blasio moved the curfew to 8 p.m., and in the two days since, it has become clear that the confusing, hastily executed order is nothing more than a license for cops to arrest peaceful protesters at will. It is a legal repudiation of the popular protest chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” and in turn the protests themselves. No, these are not your streets, the mayor is saying, and to prove it we’re going to arrest you if you’re on them after a certain time.
Here’s what that looks like:
People stuck in traffic are witnessing NYPD beat up folks on their way home. pic.twitter.com/AkUGPQQOIf
— Josh Fox BlackLivesMatter (@joshfoxfilm) June 4, 2020
According to the poster, Gasland director Josh Fox, this arrest took place around 50th Street and Third Avenue, where on Wednesday at 9 p.m. police swarmed a peaceful demonstration that began two hours earlier with a 30-minute silent vigil in front of Gracie Mansion. Demonstrators marched south from the mayor’s Upper East Side residence, wending their way into midtown Manhattan. “Fuck your cur-few!” they chanted as 8 p.m. came and went. Signs read, “We See Police Get Away With Murder,” and “Defund the NYPD,” and “Resources, Not Police Forces!”
“It was [de Blasio’s] own Blackout Tuesday,” Patrick Bobilin, one of the vigil’s organizers, tells Rolling Stone of the curfew. “He blacked out our demands. They asked for an end to police violence — they got more police violence. People marched all night, they got a curfew. It shows an unwillingness to lead and an unwillingness to control police violence.”
A few cops in riot gear walked alongside the demonstrators as they marched. Every few blocks, the crowd passed an intersection with a police presence. There were no altercations. The most anyone threw at law enforcement was a middle finger. At times, an NYPD vehicle drove in front of the demonstration, which was exuberant, inspiring, and thoroughly peaceful. People sang; people cheered. Overhead, people banged pots and pans and clapped out their windows in support. Curfew had been broken, but police were around and there was no indication anyone would be arrested for being out after nightfall.
But at 9 p.m., a full hour after the curfew passed, the crowd arrived at 50th and Third, where police suddenly descended on the demonstrators, ripping them off bikes, forcing them from the crowd, and zip-tying their hands. People were confused. People were scared. People were pleading for restraint. It started pouring rain. In the end, around 60 protesters were arrested at the intersection, according to NYPD Police Chief Terence Monahan.
“We are one with the protesters. We’re out there for each other to fight, but not with the people who want to cause mayhem for our city,” Monahan told a scrum of reporters after the tension settled.
“We move in tactically, we take people out,” he added. “We will let people leave, we will allow people to protest, but if they start violating the law, we’re going to take action.”
But by no stretch of even John Lennon’s imagination could the word “mayhem” be applied to the demonstrators the NYPD swarmed on Wednesday night. The only law violated was the one de Blasio installed the previous day, seemingly to no other end than to give the NYPD free rein to indulge their fantasies of carrying out “tactical” operations like the one sprung on the hundreds of New Yorkers marching against police brutality when they arrived at 50th and Third.
What was once a scene of hopeful, communal demonstration twisted into a blur of glistening black body armor, rain-specked face shields, and red and blue lights, as one final chant rang out from the crowd:
“Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!”
The NYPD didn’t seem to hear it.