We were somewhere in Crown Heights when we heard the shouting on Monday night. My friend, a reporter for The New York Times, and I raced toward the gathering on a pair of bicycles. I lived in this neighborhood when I first moved to Brooklyn and am familiar with its streets. It was much quieter then. Happier, too. As June dawned, it was engulfed, as were so many neighborhoods in so many cities across the nation, in protest—another concrete oasis evolved and outfitted for outrage.
The protests were for George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis last week after a white officer, Derek Chauvin, held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried. Millions of people worldwide have since viewed his death via a cellphone video recording taken by Darnella Frazier, a bystander. Four days later, Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded Chauvin’s charge to second-degree murder on Wednesday, and charged the three other officers on the scene with aiding and abetting. The protests were also for Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by police in Louisville in March, after plainclothes officers entered her home in the middle of the night and exchanged gunfire with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Eight bullets struck Taylor; no charges have been filed against the officers who killed her. There have been many more horrors inflicted on black Americans during the previous decade of protest, since massive dissent against police brutality and the extrajudicial killings of black people sprouted robustly following Trayvon Martin’s slaying in 2012 by George Zimmerman. It’s an inexhaustible list of transgressions, too deflating to rehash.
“What did brother Huey [Newton] say?!” an organizer asked from a megaphone in Crown Heights.
“All power to the people!” the crowd responded.
“We are talking about a system that criminalizes,” he said. “But there’s more of us than there is of them. And where we gotta be?!”
“In these streets!” the crowd cheered.
“And we ain’t goin’ …’” he said.
The surrounding streets were quieter. Police vehicles gathered near Myrtle Avenue, where the protestors met, a foreboding presence keeping watch over a peaceful gathering. Not far from the protest, life resumed as normal, or as normal as is expected during the coronavirus pandemic: families walked, rode their bikes, and pushed strollers with what seemed like a trained ambivalence. A borough was preparing for another night of demonstrations, yet here they were in a bubble of their own peace.
As we moved with the protestors, the Brooklyn I remember came back into focus. The sounds of Pop Smoke and Casanova rained down from high-rise windows. People sold homemade T-shirts on Nostrand Avenue with “End White Supremacy” printed on them. An hour or so later, protestors marched on Marcus Garvey Boulevard, yelling into the evening: “No Justice. No Peace. Fuck These Racist-Ass Police.”
Thousands had gathered that evening in Brooklyn for demonstrations led by mostly black faces, marching up and down Fulton Avenue, near the murals of black laureates, poets, and rappers on Tompkins Street, in the streets, their streets, our streets. Protestors held signs with George Floyd’s face and Breonna Taylor’s name strewn across cardboard while blue-and-red lights flickered behind them. They shouted from the steps of the Applebee’s on Fulton, a melody in their mouths: “Bed-Stuy! Do or die!”
When the protests first began in New York after Floyd’s killing, it felt like the first unpausing of the year. Brooklyn’s residents, like everyone else, have been confined to their homes because of the coronavirus. The disease has disproportionately ravaged the borough, laying bare a different kind of systemic racism, one that leaves black bodies vulnerable to the worst health outcomes possible. The multiple killings of black citizens by police in recent weeks became a flashpoint for mandatory action. The need to protest injustice was enough to override the urgency of social distancing measures. Fighting racism became the primary concern, the virus be damned.
“A lot of people I know have lost their lives to COVID-19, and this is just another rung,” Branda Brumaire, a Canarsie resident, told me. Every year, she said, “it’s the same shit.” “The risk of police is greater than the risk of a pandemic. I’d rather support this cause than stay home.”
It isn’t lost on me that this unpausing serves to refocus the nation’s energy toward ending America’s original sin. On Monday, officials enacted New York City’s first curfew since 1943; that, too, was in response to civil unrest—an uprising in Harlem had broken out after a white officer shot a black soldier. Now, New York is following the example of so many other major cities by forcing its residents off the streets, a controlling attempt to impede peaceful gatherings decrying a system of policing in the United States that was born from slave patrols in the Northeast and can kill black people with impunity. The same city fumbled its attempt to assuage the fears of its citizens in the throes of a pandemic during an unprecedented moment of economic instability. But these protests? This consistent fight to defang the monstrosity of American racism? It has always been here. In some ways, the context of this moment is ironic: We wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but maybe black people should have always worn masks to protect ourselves from this national disease that so many people have finally decided is worth fighting.
As the crowd moved toward the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn a few miles away, I spoke with a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident who prefers to go by “Dottie.” He was frazzled as he tried to make sense of the recent spate of police violence. He says he’s out here marching because he fears for his son.
“We need respect. Justice. It’s hard. I don’t know how I explain this to my son,” he told me. He went on: “How do I explain how we have to be careful because we won’t make it home sometimes? I wish this wasn’t needed. But these dicks,” he said, referring to police, “ain’t giving us no respect.”
It’s crushing to think of how rough this year has been, and it’s only June. Or how rough the week already felt, when it was only Monday. This is the reality of racism for the black American. It cannot be limited only to conscious hate when it has evolved into a complex institution with levers in social and political outcomes perpetuated by generations of white neglect, hate, and supremacy. I wish it was only the visceral malice of individuals that we had to combat. That would be easier. But racism has so many rungs: animosity, privilege, access, apathy, bigotry, a dastardly set activated by countless interactions. It is as present as the air around us: You can’t live if you don’t breathe it in.
The protestors continued their march to Flatbush Avenue, a major thoroughfare in downtown Brooklyn. Black children raised black power salutes from the back seats of navy blue sedans. Every few blocks, people banged pots and pans as if this flock were anointed, as if these black lives were essential citizens on the front lines fighting an insidious disease, the “pandemic within the pandemic,” as Brumaire called it. It was as though these folks marching were as important to saving the world as our doctors and nurses.
New York is familiar with these kinds of protests because the city’s residents have felt this pain before. Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant, was killed by four officers in 1999 who mistook him for a rape suspect with no evidence and fired 41 shots at him in the Bronx until he died. In 2006, plainclothes and undercover officers shot Sean Bell 50 times in Queens on his wedding day. Eric Garner was choked to death by an officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as his colleagues watched. Garner cried as he uttered the same words in 2014 that George Floyd said last week: “I can’t breathe.”
The people here have never forgotten that.
“Don’t forget what the fuck happens to us right here in New York!” a man in the crowd said around 10 p.m., as the crowd chanted the names of victims of police brutality. A few people began weeping. “We love y’all,” he continued. “We just want y’all to love us back!” When he was finished speaking, a woman turned her portable speaker on to play “Mercy, Mercy, Me” by Marvin Gaye.
Randy “Rude Boy” Brown, a Jamaican American and a professional MMA welterweight fighter in the UFC, stood nearby, holding a flag that read “Stop Racist Killer Cops Fuck The Police.” He said he was out here to “stand for justice with my brothers and sisters,” one of the many black athletes who’ve turned up at protests to fight racism, including Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon in Atlanta, and Deshaun Watson in Houston.
“We want them to arrest those other cops and charge the other cops and we will disperse after that happens,” Randy Brown told me on Monday, referring to the Minneapolis officers who stood by as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. “But until then it’s fuck their curfew. Nothing has changed. This is just the tipping point. This has to happen for change to happen.”
That pain and that rage were palpable at Monday’s protests. Yes, for the last week, fires have spread, and the nation has burned as rebellion turned America from a powder keg to a lit explosion, but so many of us have lived in this land, with this weight and these burdens, for our entire lives. Revolution has been an inextricable piece of American history, from plantations to the Boston Tea Party. Protests are raging in American cities because the extrajudicial killings of black people by agents of the state are unbearable. Criticism of how those protests are carried out misses the point: When police officers kill black people and are rarely punished, we must remember that change cannot come without resistance; when justice is not an option, other avenues of discord must become ones.
Mpanja Rwakibale, a 22-year-old Ugandan American living in Bed-Stuy, says police have been a terror in this nation for far too long. I asked her if something shifted in the last week, if these recent police killings actually moved the needle.
“It feels like something is changing this time,” she said. “When Ferguson happened, the people commenting and saying bad things was such a large group. Now when I get on social media I see more people I wouldn’t expect to start to care.”
“Like who,” I ask her.
“Like white people,” she says.
Recent research seems to support that sentiment. This week, Monmouth University released a study that found that 57 percent of Americans believe that police officers in difficult situations are more likely to use excessive force against black people. It’s a 23-percentage-point increase from 2016, when registered voters were asked the same question after Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, and a 24-point increase after a grand jury didn’t indict Pantaleo for killing Garner in New York.
Some of that essence was tangible when the crowd made its way back to Barclays Center on Monday after curfew hit. They knelt in protest, like Colin Kaepernick. They bawled with the rage that James Baldwin detailed. They chanted and hugged and cried. Together. White hands holding black ones and shielding them from police. Black ones gripping brown ones as they sang the names of the fallen. On this night, the police didn’t appear to care as much about the protestors as they did guarding the shopping centers and the basketball arena on each side of the crowd in the middle of Atlantic Avenue—even as black boys bounced through downtown on dirt bikes as the crowds cheered. It was serene. It was a dream, and felt even more like one a night later when police trapped protesters on the Manhattan Bridge. Monday’s gathering was a rebuke with a smile, a protest and a declaration of love, a respite from the violent clashes happening nationally in previous and subsequent nights, both in New York and elsewhere. The reality of racism in this country so rarely allows me to think that peace is on the horizon. But, for a few hours, at least there was tranquility in Brooklyn and, perhaps, possibility.
As my friend and I peeled off from the crowd near midnight on an empty Myrtle Avenue, a bus driver stood outside his vehicle. “You at the protests tonight?” he asked her. “I was the guy honking!” He beamed as he held up a video on his phone of the march. “I like this,” he said, smiling down at it. “I like this right here.”
The crowd continued to march and sing into the darkness, rage and peace collected together like a dancing flame. The police followed them, close. And as I turned my back, fearful over what could happen, I also felt a smile creep across my face. My ears perked up to a wondrous hum sweeping across the Brooklyn night.
The blare of “Black Lives Matter!” blazed through the air, louder than the whirs of the following helicopters, skids of police tires, and thump of black-issued boots. Magic moved from the streets to the sky. If only for a New York minute, Black Lives mattered more than the police who were sworn to protect them, and have so often failed.