When I’m not writing for The Daily Banter, I have a day job writing news, commentary, and analysis for Mic, a new media company targeted towards progressives and millennials. Occasionally I get a chance to do some on-the-ground reporting. On Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to be sent out to do such coverage of the massive protests in New York over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. I wasn’t able to gauge the size of the crowd, though I heard press reports as high as 6,000 attendees. The New York Times reported over 140 were eventually arrested.
Here’s my perspective on what happened, as well as what it’s like to be on the ground as a member of the media during one of these events.
I was previously present for protests in late 2014 over the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown case. Those protests appeared to be smaller, though more intense. Marchers eventually went up the West Side Highway, while I, members of the media and some demonstrators hung back to avoid arrest. From what I heard, eventually the marchers disembarked the roadway while avoiding mass arrest. During that night, police largely did not interfere with the protests, instead marching with the demonstrators. I witnessed just a few arrests, and the cops seemed largely content to keep the protests under control rather than shut them down entirely. I surmised that was likely because the memory of Eric Garner’s killing was still a festering hole in the city’s collective psyche and the department was eager to avoid additional criticism.
Armed with a company DSLR (which I did not really know how to use) and a Mic press pass, I expected things to go roughly the same this time. I was wrong.
Now, months and two dead cops later, the NYPD has demonstrated an altogether more hostile attitude towards #BlackLivesMatter’s public get-togethers. As the crowd attempted to leave Union Square at some time around 7:00 p.m., cops in riot helmets and clutching batons tried to stop the protests from spreading by sealing exits from the park. This resulted in several smaller protest groups marching in separate directions, which I’m sure was intentional.
One cop, a large black man glared at the protesters while menacingly clutching his baton. “Oh, you too?” one member of the crowd yelled. He adopted a more threatening posture. Another, chiller cop asked to see the photo I’d taken of him. He liked it.
As I left the park alongside a group of marchers who found an exit that the NYPD didn’t have locked down, we were bombarded with orders to stay off the streets and ominous threats of arrest. At this point, you could tell that this was not going to be a cakewalk. As protesters entered traffic and shut down avenues, cops attempted to block off streets and yelling on bullhorns. At some intersections, demonstrators were forced to navigate around blockades of men and women with batons and in a few cases what looked like riot armor. As we continued to move throughout the city, protesters were occasionally forced to stay on the sidewalks as an ever-increasing amount of police hardware was deployed.
I saw an entire brigade of riot police on motorcycles, 1984-esque buses with white paper covering their windows, helicopters and countless vans stuffed to the gills with cops and crowd control equipment. While there were regular uniformed cops everywhere, as well as countless Community Affairs officers and white-shirt-wearing brass, I also witnessed what I believe was a special unit organized for the express purpose of detaining activists (you could tell from their extra armor and the ropes of zip-ties on their belts, which the NYPD uses instead of handcuffs during protests). At one point, a white cop in glasses started screaming for his colleagues to arrest a group of us because we had failed to clear the street. Fortunately, his fellow cops did not immediately take his advice.
Being in the crowd, surrounded by people demanding justice, was exhilarating. Being crowded in by that much force from the law was equally intimidating. At times, I and the others with me had to break into open runs, either to close gaps in the protest lines or on rumors that police had begun arresting stragglers. At times, the various groups we had been separated into rejoined to massive cheers, and the march moved forward with renewed vigor. The group I was with took over a section of the West Side Highway at around 50th St. (I stayed behind), but apparently concluded they were too few in number or the cops too aggressive to risk continuing onto the onramps. We passed through Times Square twice, both times raising applause and cheers from the crowd. One woman waving a pro-cop sign was heckled, but not harassed.
Here are photos of two separate arrests I witnessed that day.
A couple scenes of the protest in the streets:
And here’s what I think was one of the best photos of the night:
I want to take some time to clarify that Baltimore this was not. Despite some aggressive rhetoric on the behalf of protesters and the amped-up response from the NYPD, the actual disruption was limited to some stalled Midtown lanes and relatively limited shutdowns of the outbound Holland Tunnel and West Side Highway. Furthermore, as a white dude carrying a press pass and camera (though admittedly not with one of the NYPD-approved press organizations), I wasn’t facing the same kind of risk as the demonstrators. But the experience made it even more clear that New Yorkers live in a kind of police state defined by slavish defense of the NYPD’s power and where dissent is often met with force. It’s scary, and if this is the kind of thing that the relatively well-off citizens of NYC face when they organize, I can’t imagine how bad it must have been in Baltimore this past weekend.
For a photo essay of the march, check out my piece for Mic here. Follow me on Twitter for future updates on demonstrations and civil disobedience in New York City.
Click here to read more of Banter’s coverage of the death of Freddie Gray, what’s happening in Baltimore and the anti-police violence protests rocking the nation this week.