Tonight I went down to the demonstration for Eric Garner.
I used to have an idea for a bar where you could only go if you were sad, just to be around other people who got it, to be away from people with moods that would make it worse.
This is what it felt like to me. It was a way to be around people who all felt that the way the justice system works in cases like these is unacceptable.
Of course, I’m there for my sanity and conscience, and other people are there for their lives. It’s not the same reality, or the same struggle. I’m there as a witness and a body. But it feels good to be there as a witness and a body, especially when the movement was so powerful and well-defined that just the presence of witnesses and bodies could say something, without the need to speak.
I just wanted to be there.
I started across the Brooklyn Bridge a little after eight, caught up with the crowds in the Financial District before nine, and ended up marching until after midnight, got diner food, got on the train a little after one, and finally got home around two.
Here are some things I saw and felt, without a real sense of organization.
There were a lot of different people in the crowd, but they were pretty much universally peaceful, and were by and large conscientious, determined, and bold. The leaders were mainly black men, which seemed appropriate, but men and women of different races also did some rallying.
Compared to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, this group was much more decisive, effective, and composed. There was very little silliness, and not a lot of “look at me” behavior (when it did happen, it came almost solely from white folks). When people did stand up and talk, it was to quickly direct the crowd into an effective action.
It was impressive.
The object seemed to be to tie up traffic, make a clear message, and move on. It reminded me in a way of the Marine unit from Generation Kill, at the tip of the spear in the Iraq invasion: maneuver warfare, making decisions on the fly, everyone cooperating. But there was no violence in this war, and very little destruction.
At one point, some guys in balaclavas, who looked to be college-aged and white or Asian, ran out and threw some garbage into traffic. Other protestors quickly picked it up without comment and the march continued.
At another point, people were banging the hood and trunk of a car after it tried to run people over, a story described later.
Other than that, I saw nothing beyond people banging harmlessly on trash cans.
I often hate crowds, but I felt proud to walk with a group like that, especially in silence. As the night went on I became better able to read the plays, see where things were going, and understand the tactics. I helped out relaying commands and moving to the right places at times.
The crowd became addictive. For hours I kept thinking I should stop to eat or go home, but it flowed so smoothly from one place to another that it always felt right to keep going. The energy was up, and the momentum of a march is really strong, particularly because just silently doing a really basic human activity matters.
At one point, the crowd emerged at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and blocked the incoming traffic. It was this big empty highway flooded with light, and the crowd quickly moved in to form a circle. Traffic stopped. A leader had everyone sit and have a moment of silence for Eric Garner. It was a powerful moment in a kind of surreal setting.
The overall strategy by the police seemed to be to let the protests continue with as little incident as possible. This is what Bill de Blasio implied with his speech on Wednesday, and by and large they kept to it.
Sometimes they just walked alongside the crowd and chatted casually. Sometimes they stood around and redirected the crowd. At one point, they helped control an aggressive driver who wanted to drive through the protest, and told him to keep his vehicle still until the crowd passed.
There were some angry cops on the line, though. At one point, they grabbed a guy out of the crowd walking through traffic. I didn’t see what he did. Another time, a guy was talking back to some cops who were squeezing the group, and they shoved him against the hood of a car and arrested him.
At times they seemed to want to redirect the crowd just to show they could. If there were enough people and the cops were moving on the fly, the crowd would run the blockade, and the cops would seem to acquiesce. Other times, they would have a preemptive barrier, and hold the line. But most of the cops did not seem keen on arresting people or provoking folks. Very few had heavy gear, and most carried solid batons, not the telescoping kind. I never saw anybody get hit.
At one point, just before midnight, the crowd was going down a street in far western midtown, I don’t know the name of the neighborhood, and there were high buildings on either side and a helicopter overhead with a spotlight, and a huge line of cops and vehicles at the other end of the block. There was a gas station at the corner, and the parking lot was barricaded with motorcycles. It felt like a trap, it felt like there was going to be a mass arrest. But they stood silently and a lot of them smiled, and they just pushed the march north again up the avenue.
I looked into the eyes of drivers as we walked through traffic. It was interesting. Some of them were amused, some were supportive, most who were not tried to hide it. Support came from everywhere, disapproval came almost exclusively from well-dressed white people – middle aged drivers, and young people texting annoyedly from the backs of cars.
It’s amazing how good for morale it is to hear a car honk. It’s sort of a social break, and they get joy from it, and the crowd responds immediately with cheers. There were people looking on from windows, restaurant employees coming to the front of doors, hotel doormen raising their fists in support. It’s hard to describe how happy everyone felt; I think the joy really came from the unexpectedness of the contact, or, even when it was expected, the bridging of a gap. The crowd alone, which was solemn but had a different, slower kind of pride, couldn’t generate that feeling without outsiders.
It was exciting when people would join in. In Murray Hill, a man wearing a suit – no cold-weather gear at all – started talking to me. He told me he’d been marching for a few hours. He was a Republican and worked in finance and was out there because he was disgusted by the way Garner was treated, but was really proud of the crowd, and amazed to see that kind of thing happen in New York.
Seeing how far humanity extended into the city was refreshing. Part of it is that it changes the tenor of silence, when you realize more people aren’t okay with that kind of thing. In the diner I stopped at, not only were all the employees in support, but the blonde CNN anchor seemed to get it.
Of course, the world isn’t all like that. In the scariest moment of the night, a white car – upscale, American-style late-model sedan, with a big hood implying a strong engine, pushed through the crowd. People moved in front of it to stop it, and the car stopped for a moment and then accelerated. As it turned, a few men put their hands on the hood to try to stop the vehicle, and it pushed through them. Some of them moved off to the side, two of them went up onto the hood and windshield, and the car kept going down the street (35th street) at a dangerous speed that made me afraid it was going to kill someone, it seemed like 30 miles per hour. I was running down the street and yelling, some other guys were running more closely behind the car. I don’t know how when it got to the end of the block there was nobody on the hood and nobody lying in the street, so they must have gotten off okay, but the disregard for human safety is terrifying.
These are the folks behind the worst of the cops. If you can have that kind of aggression directly, looking someone in the eye as you do it, imagine what you’ll let other people do in your name. That kind of callousness is something you see in speech a lot, but usually those people let other people put it into action.
I never got a look at the driver. Two guys got the plates.
Back to reality
Of course, when it’s al over all of us go back to our different realities and society is still the same and I have all kinds of struggles and things I need to do but it is not for now, on a daily basis, worrying about being killed by police, and nobody would begrudge me my property and status, and soon I’m going to go worry about my own things, and if things change it will be because of people who actually do things, not because of what we think or say, no matter how that feels for our sanity.