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Protesting Past Curfew in New York City


Early in the afternoon on Monday, I walked down Broadway in Greenwich Village. I saw broken windows at Warehouse Wines & Spirits, a Citibank, and a Foot Locker. To prevent more scenes like this, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an emergency executive order that afternoon, imposing the first citywide curfew since 1943, when an uprising in Harlem was sparked by a white police officer shooting a black soldier. “WHEREAS, the City remains subject to State and City Declarations of Emergency related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19; and WHEREAS, the violent acts have been happening primarily during the hours of darkness, and it is especially difficult to preserve public safety during such hours; and WHEREAS, the imposition of a curfew is necessary to protect the City and its residents from severe endangerment and harm to their health, safety and property,” de Blasio’s order read.

On Monday night, thousands of demonstrators responded to the new 11 P.M. curfew in the only possible way: by staying outside for as long as they could. As the clock struck eleven, I joined a group of several hundred marchers making their way down Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They had begun at the Barclays Center, travelled east down Eastern Parkway, and were now doubling back west, almost making a full circle. An ancient gray Volvo station wagon kept the walkers supplied with water and Cheetos, dematerializing and rematerializing like a ghost ship depending on the police presence. (“We zip around, that’s what we do,” the driver, who was white, told me, when I asked how he had managed to avoid getting pulled over.) At Grand Army Plaza, there was some discussion about whether to split forces and take the park. “There’s no need to go in circles, let’s stay right here,” one demonstrator suggested, but she was overruled. “I’ll walk all night,” another vowed, as they turned down Washington Avenue, chanting, “Fuck the curfew.”

Over the weekend, police and protesters had been in sustained confrontation at particular spots of contention: Flatbush Avenue in front of the Barclays Center; the Eighty-eighth Precinct, in Clinton Hill bordering Bedford-Stuyvesant; particular intersections in Flatbush. Now, as the numbers of protesters grew, and they settled on the strategy of breaking into ambulatory groups, the dynamic changed. Marchers, now monitored by police in the air and on the ground, would for the most part walk, for as long and as far as they could, with violence mostly contained to the moments when the police blocked them at intersections or bridges. This gave the false perception that things had calmed down when, really, they had simply evolved.

On Monday night, in spite of the curfew, looters ransacked stores in Manhattan and the Bronx but, in the end, much of the documented violence was perpetuated not by them but by the police, as they took protesters into custody. With the curfew, the Mayor appeared to have given the N.Y.P.D. carte blanche to arrest whomever it wanted after nightfall, and process them through a crowded Central Booking, which raised some questions: Whose health? And whose safety? And whose city, exactly, was protected by the order?

No single body was organizing the demonstrations on Tuesday. Activist groups would announce rallies on social media, and other activists would compile and disseminate the information.

Supporters at home monitored police scanners and Department of Transportation traffic cameras to keep people on the ground updated. The first of the rallies had begun at 1 P.M., in Foley Square. I took the subway there, from Bushwick, and my train car was populated almost exclusively by protesters. After our long spring of sweatpants, fashion had returned: one demonstrator wore pink digi-camouflage pants and a rhinestone headband; another, a tie-dyed sweatshirt with an X-ed out happy face. Everyone in New York City under the age of thirty had a destination now.

Except for security guards and workers at the few fast-food restaurants that were still open, the Financial District was utterly deserted. Did anyone still live in Manhattan? “This location of Au Bon Pain will close on May 17,” photocopied announcements on a deserted bakery read. In sharp contrast to the outer boroughs, where pedestrians still jostled on the sidewalks as they did their errands, a sense of abandonment pervaded the neighborhood. One reason the movement has grown so quickly is the ease with which New York’s streets and sidewalks can be navigated right now. The city’s signage remained frozen in its old context. It was hard not to notice how much of the advertising insisted on goodness and detoxification, on ethics, heritage, and authenticity. “The coffee you’re about to enjoy was roasted: 5.2 miles away,” advertising on the darkened windows of For Five Coffee Roasters chirped.

Marchers distributed snacks, water, and first-aid supplies—along with milk and saline solution, to treat the effects of pepper spray.

By the evening, thousands of protesters who had begun their day in Foley Square were still roaming the city, even as other groups continued to convene: a gathering at Stonewall, organized by the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project and Decrim NY; another on the steps of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park, organized by Black Lives Matter. By 6 P.M., some four thousand protesters had arrived at the Mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, on the Upper East Side. The group was large enough to cover several city blocks. They shared mutual applause and thank-yous with health-care workers from Lenox Hill Hospital as they turned and marched south, down Lexington Avenue. The police managed to cut one half of the group off from the other, but the two nodes had lives of their own, and continued, amoeba-like, one south and the other west. As the latter group walked crosstown on Fifty-ninth Street, a brigade of officers on motorcycles could be seen speeding west down Fifty-seventh street. Later, on the West Side Highway, a few dozen protesters from another group would be arrested.

The group I followed paused for an hour or so outside the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle. The police guarded the front entrance, which was also protected by metal barriers. At one point, a man in a suit and tie emerged from the hotel, flanked by two officers, to survey the scene. “Who do you serve?” the protesters asked. “Blink twice if you’re not racist.” Standing on one of the pillars that marked the entrance to Central Park, a white, bearded man wearing a safety vest blew a shofar to cheers. A slight figure climbed on a concrete barrier and asked for quiet. “My name is Diamond Carter and I am a sixteen-year-old gay woman,” she said. She wore a Snoopy shirt and spoke on a white megaphone given to her by a stranger. “Everybody’s angry. Everybody hates the police. But not everybody’s bad. We need to work on love. We need to do this shit together. Togetherness, that’s the only way we’re going to get through this.” The crowd cheered.

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