NEW YORK — Thousands of New Yorkers over the last few days have taken to the streets in all five boroughs, setting cop cars aflame, braving beatings by batons and suffering pepper spray to the eyes, all so they can scream an urgent message for all the world to hear: Fuck the police.
They marched in Manhattan, where the New York Police Department once gunned down Patrick Dorismond.
In Queens, where the NYPD shot 50 bullets at Sean Bell.
In the Bronx, where an NYPD cop choked the life out of Anthony Baez.
In Brooklyn, where the NYPD shot 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr.
And they marched on Staten Island, where the NYPD stole the breath from Eric Garner’s lungs.
Nearly 2,000 protesters were arrested over five nights as America’s largest city joined a national uprising against police brutality that saw demonstrations in about 140 cities, a mass unrest the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in over a generation.
There were moments in New York when it felt like this multi-racial coalition of protesters, led largely by young people of color, was taking back the streets from the NYPD, a police force bigger than some nation’s armies that’s terrorized this city’s Black and brown residents since its founding.
It felt like more and more people here had come to question the cops’ monopoly on force and to embrace the radical idea of defunding the department, or even the abolitionist dream of a New York without New York’s Finest at all.
And so New York’s Finest erupted in violence.
The videos of tumult went viral. A cop speeding a patrol car into the middle of a crowd of protesters. A cop pulling down a man’s mask — worn to protect against the coronavirus — and pepper-spraying him in the face. Another using a car door to hit a man. One aiming a gun at demonstrators. Another shoving a woman into the ground so hard that she went into a seizure. And another could be heard saying “Shoot those motherfuckers” over the police scanner. The list goes on.
I witnessed cops brutalize and arrest people before being violently arrested myself.
And yet by Monday, New York’s Democratic governor, the city’s mayor and the country’s Republican president had settled on similar solutions to all the turmoil: suppressing this historic uprising with more armed agents of the state.
To the protesters, it felt like their government still hadn’t heard them at all, and probably had never been listening in the first place.
On Saturday in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, thousands gathered outside the Parkside Avenue subway station under the afternoon sun for a series of speeches before that day’s marches. People hung out of windows and draped Black Lives Matter banners off of fire escapes while listening to the speakers below.
“You know how fucked up it is to turn on the news and see another nigga that look like you dead?” a man named Kerbe Joseph asked the crowd through a megaphone.
“If you white,” Joseph added, “and you not in the crowd, not on the fire escape, not on the roof screaming “Black lives matter’ in New York City… then get the fuck out!”
Joseph and the other speakers, all Black or Hispanic or Native American, invoked the names of Americans whose recent murders had sparked the demonstrations rocking dozens of U.S. cities: Breonna Taylor, shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky; Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed while jogging in Georgia by a former cop and his son; and George Floyd, killed in Minneapolis just eight days ago, when a cop pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck and kept it there like a noose.
“We are George!” the crowd chanted.
Constance Malcolm, the mother of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who was killed by the NYPD in 2012, was joined on the podium by her son Chinoor Campbell, who was only 6 years old when he witnessed a white cop shoot his unarmed big brother inside his own home.
A few years ago, Malcolm showed me the bloodstained bath mat she kept on a shelf in her home, from when the cop’s bullet tore through her son’s heart. She couldn’t bring herself to throw it away, she said.
Malcolm has marched in many protests against police brutality in this city, and I once visited her as she slept on the sidewalk outside a Department of Justice building in Manhattan, demanding a civil rights investigation into her son’s murder.
But to the crowd in Flatbush on Saturday, Malcolm argued that such nonviolent actions simply haven’t accomplished what needs to be accomplished.
“We see all the looting and burning buildings down and everything going on, and they call us thugs,” Malcolm said, referring to all the volatile demonstrations across the country, particularly in Minneapolis, where protesters ransacked and then burned down a police precinct.
“I’m not condoning the burning and stuff,” she continued, “but it’s the only fucking way they understand!”
The crowd roared. A short time later, Malcolm grabbed onto a banner that said “Justice for George Floyd,” her surviving son at her side, and led the crowd as it started to march through the streets.
Chants of “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!!” and “NYPD, suck my dick!” and “Fuck the police!” filled Flatbush Avenue.
Residents — many of whom have been stuck in their homes, out of work and sheltering from COVID-19, which has devastated predominantly Black and brown working-class neighborhoods like Flatbush — piled out onto the sidewalks to watch and sometimes join in.
An old man inside a bodega explained to another old man what the march was all about, pointing to his knee, and then to his neck.
People in cars — including sanitation workers in a garbage truck, and the drivers of Flatbush’s one-dollar vans, who are regularly harassed by the NYPD for providing cheap rides for locals in an area with scant subway service — honked horns to cheer on the protesters.
Auto shop workers stepped out of their shop to dance and throw up fists of solidarity. A crying woman screamed “I love each and every one of you!” out of a fourth-story apartment window.
The protesters marched for blocks and blocks. A Black organizer occasionally chided white protesters to stay in the back, to let the Black and brown voices be front and center.
Some in the crowd wouldn’t talk to journalists, and why would they? The predominantly white local and national press has drummed up fear of Black New Yorkers or acted as stenographers for the NYPD.