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.
“The Only Fuckin’ Way They Understand”
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.
As day turned to dusk on Saturday, some protesters torched their first NYPD vehicle, a cruiser. Flames curled out the windows, just above the car decals declaring the “Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect” of the department. Protesters warned others not to get too close in case the car exploded.
Cops in riot gear pushed back the protesters. A firetruck arrived, put out the fire and then left. And then the battle lines formed.
The NYPD stood in rows in the middle of the street, near a Shell gas station. Protesters formed a line directly in front of them. Both Black and white protesters called for white protesters to stand on the front lines, and the white protesters obliged.
A cycle emerged: protesters would throw projectiles at the cops — glass bottles, stones, the occasional fireworks — and cops would charge into the crowd, tackling and arresting protesters before dragging them back to waiting police vans as the melee subsided and the two sides resumed formations.
Michael, an attorney from Brooklyn, stood on the sidewalk during a brief interlude with his friend Jerome, who did not give their last names.
The violence didn’t start with the burning cop cars or the glass bottles flying through the air, Michael argued. The police started the violence a long time ago.
“Every other week, every other day, we hear another story of a Black man being gunned down or a Black woman being gunned down, and that’s not fair, and then they just get away with it, and enough is enough,” Michael said.
“We’re tired, and, no, we don’t want to be out here destroying cop cars and destroying our own neighborhoods and stuff like that, but that’s the way to —” Michael continued, before his friend Jerome interrupted.
“I’m fucking tired of that shit about ‘We are destroying our own fuckin’ community,’” Jerome said. “We do not fucking own the fucking community! We don’t own this shit! Every year we do not fucking own it. Stop fucking telling us that we destroy our own community. We don’t own shit that is fucking here!”
Throughout the day, some protesters had carried signs calling for the defunding of the NYPD, a proposal that’s moved from more radical corners of the left to mainstream discourse in recent years. The idea is to reallocate a big chunk of the department’s mammoth $6 billion annual budget and instead invest it in housing, employment, mental health services and other non-police remedies for the problems of public safety.
“Just imagine if all of that money, or some of that money, was redistributed in the communities, to the broken schools, to our health care system,” Michael told me as the police prepared to charge again. “Like, come on! These are the communities that need it, and yet we don’t see that. We see police cars patrolling.”
The cops were getting angrier. When they charged this time, a white cop screamed “C’mere, you motherfuckers! You bitches!” while chasing after a young Black man.
A woman who gave her name as Jennifer L. yelled after a cop who had just violently tackled and arrested a protester.
“They don’t have no reason to be scared!” her voice trembled. “We should be scared! We should be scared! What are they scared for? Oh, a few bottles? A few bottles?! How about a knee? How about a knee?!”
Nearby, a young white couple stood stunned and silent holding hands and looking out across all the chaos. Their coronavirus masks were stained with baking soda, used as a treatment for the pepper spray that had left their eyes red and irritated. They’d been roughed up in the last police advance, they explained. A cop had hit the woman in the stomach with a baton.
They declined to tell me their names. “Our names are irrelevant in this whole thing,” the man said. “The lives that were lost are the only names that need to be repeated.”
After every time the cops charged, the protesters reassembled, staring down their heavily armed attackers, preparing for the next onslaught. They chanted, “Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” and “Say his name! George Floyd!”
They taunted the cops with chants of “NYPD, suck my dick!” and climbed atop a city bus abandoned in the street by its driver, arms outstretched as if, for a moment, the city where they lived actually belonged to them.
The battle lines started to dissolve. Cops ran riot after protesters all along Church Avenue as helicopters circled overhead, occasionally shining spotlights down onto the scattered melees.
I started to film the police charge as I walked backward with a group of retreating protesters, my press pass dangling from my neck.
A sprinting cop veered toward me and bumped into me with his shoulder as he ran past, yelling “Get out my way!” even though there was plenty of room around me.
I’d been watching the cops toss around young New Yorkers all day, pressing their faces into the concrete and cursing at them. I was worked up.
“Fuck you,” I told the cop.
He stopped charging after the protesters and circled back to me, shoving a baton into my chest and knocking me to the curb.
I don’t know how many cops piled on top of me, but there were a lot. A knee or a foot pressed my head and neck into the concrete. Hands tugged at my legs and arms in different directions while different voices issued impossible demands.
“Put your left hand behind your back!” The way my body was twisted, I couldn’t. “Stop resisting!” I wasn’t.
I asked them to look at my press pass. I told them I was a journalist. I begged them to get my phone, which had fallen out of my hand during the fracas.
“Shut the fuck up,” I heard one cop say.
When they cuffed me and stood me up, a white cop, maskless and with rage in his eyes, came within a few inches of my face. “Fucking asshole,” he called me.
Again and again, my press pass clearly visible on my neck, I pleaded for the cops to get my phone, worried that I’d lose so much of what I’d documented that day. The cops refused, leaving it on the street before escorting me to the police van.
If this is how they treat a white journalist, I thought.
“Nigga, I Ain’t George”
As the cops escorted us into the 67th Precinct, we passed a hulking white cop on his way out into the street. He wore a “Punisher” skull patch on his bulletproof vest, a popular fascist ode among cops to the murderous vigilante comic-book character.
Inside the precinct lobby, a tired and demoralized cop stood by the front desk as new detainees were brought in for processing. He had only three years left until he could retire with a full pension, he told me. “If I could, I’d drop my belt and walk out of here right now.”
The officers then put me in a cell with 15 other guys. Everyone had been arrested at the demonstration; most were Black or brown, save for me and three other white guys. The cops wouldn’t provide anyone with masks, and it was impossible to socially distance.
One of the white guys had a badly broken foot, bare and swollen on the cell floor. He pleaded with the cops for medical attention, and the cops assured him it was coming.
“You’ve just been lied to,” one of the other guys in the cell quipped.
Despite the circumstances, there was camaraderie, and the mood was almost buoyant. One guy polled the cell: Was this anybody’s first time in jail?
Only a few hands went up.
“I’ve been arrested 16 times,” said one respondent, a seasoned activist and protest medic. The cell erupted into cheers and applause so loud that three cops came to check on us.
Everyone started sharing their stories. One guy described liberating an NYPD riot shield from a police van earlier that day. He’d carried it through the crowd as everyone cheered.
Another guy described why he was dressed in sweatpants, an undershirt and Adidas slides.
He’d just stepped out of his apartment to check out the protests, he said, when cops tackled him. One of the cops pressed a knee hard into his neck.
‘Nigga, I ain’t George!’” he said he’d told the officers, before using his strength to briefly free himself.
A little after midnight, cops arrived to take me to another precinct where they told me I’d be processed and released. My cellmates wished me luck and told me to stay safe.
The cops put me back into the van and we drove to the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park. There they put me in a cell by myself and through the bars I could see a fresh batch of arrested protesters arrive in the lobby, including two Black women who were bleeding from the face.
“You’re murderers for hire!” one of the women screamed at the cops as she stood cuffed and crying, waiting to be put in a cell. “You’re murderers for hire!”
I was released and issued a summons to appear in court later this year for a charge of “refusal to disperse.”
A short time later, a spokesman for the New York City mayor’s office told my HuffPost colleagues in a statement that they “apologize” for what I had “experienced tonight.”
It’s unclear if any of the other hundreds of people arrested over the last few days have received such personal apologies from the mayor.
Instead, Mayor Bill de Blasio said officers had shown “tremendous restraint” during the demonstrations. On Monday, de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented a curfew in the city and announced they’d double the number of cops on the streets.
President Donald Trump, while he was threatening to sic the military on anti-racist protesters, used federal police to tear-gas protesters near the White House to clear space for a photo-op in front of a church Monday.
New Yorkers continued to protest on Monday anyway. A woman in Brooklyn stood atop a car holding a sign that read “Radical action brings radical change. #BLM.”
As they took over the Brooklyn Bridge, the sun setting over the Manhattan skyline, a single car accompanied the protesters as they walked, driving slowly with “Fuck Tha Police” blaring from the speakers, a raised Black fist reaching out of the sunroof.