History Repeats Itself: Scenes from New York's Ferguson Protests
It was hard to discern who among the throngs crowding the sidewalks last night was in Midtown for justice and who was there for vacation.
At 44th Street at around 10 p.m., a group of British tourists exited Toys 'R Us with several bags in their hands, walking uptown. Two blocks north, there was a collected rally against police brutality and racism, spurred by a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The protest had started at Union Square with a luminous sign that read "Black lives matter" and marched the 20 blocks north and west to the city's busiest thoroughfare. The tourists, typically, looked confused.
Between fifty and a hundred people were participating in the protest under the lights of Times Square marquee, most holding signs that read "END WHITE PRIVILEGE," "BLACK LIVES MATTER," "WE WANT RESPECT," and "POLICE BRUTALITY IS A DEADLY FORCE." At one point, as the group chanted "No justice, no peace, no racist police," a white man in a long-sleeve black t-shirt started yelling back, "But it's only white people! Why is it only white people?"
It wasn't only white people, as the three black teenage girls next to me pointed out to each other. It also wasn't the point, they said. One of the three told me she thought the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson was "disgusting," but expected. The chants, accompanied by a bongo beat and claps, continued and grew in dissonance.
Seventh Avenue was barricaded by NYPD officers and tourists taking photos from the sidewalk. A couple stood a distance away from the rally and took a selfie with the group to their behind. The officers, stone-faced and bored, faced the crowd. While previously protestors had gathered into a swelling circle that turned inward, with the strong encouragement of the rapper Q-Tip, who had shown up unnoticed, the crowd turned toward the officers, screaming defiantly:
"NYPD / KKK / HOW MANY LIVES HAVE YOU STOLE TODAY?"
The line of cops appeared unfazed as the crushing crowd began to move out onto Seventh Avenue and back downtown. On the way south, I noticed a white bearded man with an Anonymous mask propped on his head with a sign at his feet that said, "END WHITE PRIVILEGE."
The march downtown grew and more voices joined. From the tail end to the start, the rally must have been hundreds of people strong; Q-Tip, who had been instigating the march back south, was screaming at the top of his lungs: "HANDS UP, DON'T SHOOT." More people recognized him and the volume of the chants grew as protestors walked down Seventh Avenue, back from where they came.
One photographer glided by on a skateboard, snapping photos as he went. A group of three women linked arms, joining in a call and response: "Whose streets?" "Our streets." The mass grew larger. A man who looked like Shaggy from Scooby Doo was running around with a gallon bottle of water asking if anyone wanted some.
It was only when the rally turned onto 23rd Street that the situation grew somewhat precarious. Cars hadn't been prepared for the oncoming protestors, and responded, naturally, by coming to a complete standstill. All of 23rd Street, and then Sixth Avenue, began to look like post-apocalyptic New York. The rally politely stepped around cars and their video-recording passengers and continued onward downtown. When it turned onto Fifth Avenue, windows in millionaire high-rises began to light up. In one apartment near Tenth Street, I caught a glimpse of a man in a t-shirt and shorts watching the protest from his dark living room. Several other apartment owners huddled out over window terraces. It was nearing midnight, but the determination for justice had not and would not be quieted.
Uptown, simultaneously, protestors were getting arrested and jostled by police as they took over RFK Bridge. In this leg of the rally, Times Square had been shut down, then all of Seventh Avenue, and eventually Fifth Avenue, where the march carried its heartbeat into Washington Square Park and through the arch.
A woman named J.D. was walking beside me, and for a second we talked about the unseasonably warm weather, a small reprieve for our shouting voices. We were both covered in sweat and heading toward City Hall.
J.D., who lives in Harlem, had come down from 42nd Street, where she worked. She had listened to the result in the kitchen at her job, praying that it could be different.
"History repeats itself," she said. She listed the names of every black person killed in America in the past year alone. Every time she named another innocent and recounted the circumstances under which they were killed, she remembered one more. "Oh did you hear about the man shot in the dark stairwell?" she said. "Or the young boy who was playing with a toy gun?"
"His poor mother," she added.
The parade continued to march, and voices all around us yelled over and over, "Hands up, don't shoot / hands up, don't shoot / hands up, don't shoot."
[Photo/Video by Dayna Evans/AP]