I was just about to leave for The Iron Heel rehearsal yesterday when I heard that protests about the Baton Rouge and Minnesota killings were taking place at Union Square, only a couple of blocks from the rehearsal studio. So I left a few minutes early to see what was going on.
My train let out at 6th Ave — a couple of blocks west of Union Square — and immediately encountered a stream of protesters. They had gathered at Union Square, but were now on the march (to Times Square, I later learned). As I took this picture, they were chanting “Hands Up; Don’t Shoot!” As I walked along the march, different groups were chanting different phrases. “Black Lives Matter”, “No, Justice, No Peace!” I passed hundreds of people along 14th Street.
As I approached the core demonstration I saw 6-8 police wagons speed in the direction of where the march had headed. (I later learned over 3 dozen demonstrators were arrested at Times Square)
This was the scene at Union Square.
I only had a few minutes there and then I had to get to rehearsal, which was a surreal experience. Socialist action is a central part of the play I’m in. At one point in the play, we hand out socialist literature. Someone had handed me a piece of socialist literature in the street just minutes ago. This is the right play to be doing.
Rehearsal ended at 10. I’d heard by now that the protest had moved to Times Square, 30 blocks north. I’d also heard that there had been arrests. I debated whether I should go; my assumption was that it would be over. The closer I got, the more I began to get the feeling it probably was. So many families and tourists were out, behaving normally, taking walks, eating ice cream cones. But when I got to 42nd Street (about 10:30) I found the demonstrators were still out in substantial numbers. The odd thing about this location is that protestors were surrounded and far outnumbered by tourists, some of whom watched them as a kind of local spectacle for their enjoyment as a tourist experience (“Hey, look at this characteristically crazy New York thing they’re doing”) and others of whom were more concerned with Elmo and Grover and where they were going to go for after-theatre drinks. Few that I noticed heeded the protesters call to “Join us” but I was heartened to see that some did. I had time to observe the protesters now. They were all colors and all ages and peacefully coalescing to get their message across.
They were coming down the Broadway sidewalk when I first encountered them. The banner says “It Stops With Cops” It features a painting by artist Michael D’Antuono, whom I later spoke with that night without realizing it.
At this point, the protest spilled into the middle of the intersection (in the middle of the street in the busiest intersection in the world) and stayed there.
After a few minutes police arrived to remove them and it turned into a standoff.
The commanding officer got in front of his men. Then a pre-recorded announcement came over the police van’s P.A. system (not unlike the subway narrator’s voice but more ominous), declaring that was an “illegal assembly”, that it was illegal to block traffic, and ordering the crowd to “disperse” or be “subject to arrest”. Somewhere around this time, I looked over and there was Spike Lee, watching. He saw me see him (how could you not stare?) and I didn’t want to be so crass as to photograph him, but it was him.
This group of officers came up behind, on the other side of the protesters. I’m not sure the protesters realized it but they were encircled in a kind of net. A third line of officers was actually lined up across 7th Avenue. If there had been a rout and protesters had tried to run in that direction they would have run into a wall of cops.
The demonstrators doubled down at this stage and sat down right in the middle of Times Square. Can you see the line of cops standing next to them? They almost get lost in the sea of people.
At this juncture, the protesters decided not to push it; they left the street and started heading north through the pedestrian mall, past the Elmos and the Naked Cowboy, etc.
There were several of these militarized S.W.A.T. guys by the old recruiting station. Hard to know in these crazy days if they were there for the protests or if they were part of ordinary Homeland Security ops.
By this point, the protest seemed to get swallowed up by the tens of thousands of ordinary people who happened to be in Times Square. For a while there, I actually lost the march!
Then I spied a bunch of cops heading north and headed where they were going.
The protesters now occupied 46th Street. The cops returned and resumed their P.A. announcements. Here, they were fairly effective at breaking things up. Lines of cops separated the sidewalks from the streets so the march wound up in three groups. It got hard to see the group in the street. I heard a scream at one point, but it was a false alarm. Someone shouted “Fuck Da Po-lice!”
Protesters and onlookers intermingled, with an ironic Broadway show as backdrop.
As you can see, walls of cops block both sides of the street.
Onlookers. Even Lady Liberty is photographing the event.
By this stage my phone battery was dying so I made for home. Heading east on 46th Street I passed several police wagons, standing at the ready for mass arrests. I tried to get a shot of whoever was sitting in the van, but I didn’t dare get too close or be seen — I didn’t want to be the one in the van.
In the middle of all this, a good friend had let me know about Dallas. It wasn’t until I got home around midnight that I heard the awful news in its entirety, which changes the dynamic of events yet again. I’d had a busy day and hadn’t even caught up properly with the Minnesota story yet. Events are unfolding so rapidly it has become impossible to keep up. It goes without saying, I hope: the unacceptability of random killing is the bottom line. I want police officers held accountable for their own murders, and I want those guilty of killing police officers held accountable every bit as much. Those five Dallas cops weren’t the guys who shot those African American men, and even if they were, we have courts to address their cases, and legislatures to address the systemic problems. Electing leaders who are committed to addressing these problems is the only way, since peace, not bloodshed, not revenge, is the goal. Do we want guilty cops put on trail and held accountable? Yes. Do we want random cops KILLED? No way. My cousin’s a cop, my fiance’s cousin’s a cop; cops caught the burglars who robbed my house; the bravery and heroism of the NYPD on 9-11 is the stuff epic poems are written about. Day in, day out, they do some of the most important work there is to be done in this world. All anyone is saying is don’t give them a blank check, a license to kill. That’s not how it’s supposed to work in a democratic republic. The guilty must be held accountable.