This past weekend, in an effort to distract me from helping her with her homework, my ten year old daughter suddenly asked me, “Daddy, did you march with Martin Luther King?” While I knew this had nothing to do with Genghis Kahn and Medieval History I indulged her for the moment and said, “No, sweetie. I wasn’t there.” She looked at me a bit indignantly and said “Why not? Don’t you care about civil rights?” I’m not sure what I was expecting her to say, but it wasn’t that. “Well, honey, in the first place I was about eight years old. In the second, I didn’t really know much about it that time.” That seemed to satisfy her for the moment although I could tell she was at least somewhat disappointed. While we hadn’t really talked much about the protests at home, kids have access to news all over the world these days and I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was on her mind. So Monday night, motivated somewhat by guilt, somewhat by duty and somewhat by curiosity (I do consider myself a journalist and if you’re not going to cover something this big, then what are you waiting for), I decided to venture out of my home in midtown Manhattan and participate in the evening’s events.
The streets of Manhattan are generally busy no matter what time you go out, although obviously less so during a pandemic. But at 7pm on Monday, the crowd at Bryant Park on 6th Avenue was loud and plentiful. The death of George Floyd was the reason for the protests of course, in cities from New York to Anchorage; from New Orleans to Cheyenne. Many of those marching were carrying signs or joining in the chants. Those chants ranged from “I Can’t Breathe” to “Justice Now” to something I really can’t repeat in polite company but seemed particularly aimed at the city’s police force. I am not sure how many protestors there were, but good lord, the line seemed endless. Watching on the sidelines, their eyes looking wary but calm, were the police. I’ve lived in New York a long time; seen a lot of craziness happening including the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, but I’ve never seen this many police out at one time. Knowing there were protests also going on in Chelsea and Brooklyn, not to mention the ordinary needs of a police force in a major city, I started to wonder where they all came from. Surely New York City doesn’t have THAT many cops on the payroll, but it wasn’t a question I was going to stop and ask.
The people I started out with were with was just a trickle, a small handful of folk until we got to Bryant Park. At that point it seemed to just explode, with people coming from everywhere – from the east side, from downtown, from the west side, through the streets and up the subway entrances. There were old and young, men and women, from all races apparently, although that was not so easy to be sure of as ninety percent of the people protesting with me appeared to be wearing masks. Onlookers waved and took pictures, cars honked either in support or because they were being kept from going to their desired destinations. We marched from 42nd street to 57th Street, which is Central Park. At that point protestors stopped right at the park’s entrance and many kneeled as speeches were given about Mr. Floyd and the state of the country.
I don’t know who exactly the ringleaders were or how they communicated but it was obvious that at least some of the protests were being coordinated. It was decided to meet up with another group that was on the east side, so we started heading down that way. Up to this point the protesting had been vigorous but contained. It had been passionate, but measured. I saw a variety of emotions on the faces of the people marching (at least from what I could make out) and they were a mixture of concern, passion and anger. What I did not see was fear. Marching through the streets of the city with a bunch of screaming protestors, the police on all sides of you, armed with guns, would seem to be enough to make most rational folk at least a bit on edge. Out of the thousands who were there, I was apparently the only ‘rational’ one in the bunch. No one else seemed to have the slightest trepidation about being where we were and what was going on around us.
So around 8:30 or so it started to get dark and I was a good two miles from home, at which point I decided to call it a night and make my way from the east side to the west side. And this is where it started to get a bit dicey. As I walked from avenue to avenue, at any given moment, seemingly out of nowhere, a group of protestors would be running (and I mean racing) past me. I couldn’t tell if they were running away from something or running to something but followed closely behind then were police cars, with their sirens blaring. No one was taking notice of me, neither the fleeing protestors or the police, for which I was grateful. It was almost like being invisible. Like the entire scene was going on around me. And oddly enough, at no point did I really sense any feeling of danger, despite the yelling and loud horns. I heard there was looting in the area, although I didn’t witness any of that. What I did see were protestors taking the metal gates that were being used to block the sidewalks and dragging them to the middle of the streets so the police would have to stop and drag them back before they could proceed. And this seemed to happen on every block I passed; I was starting to feel like a character from the 1970’s film “The Warriors”. I just wanted to get home.
At some point close to 10pm I made it back to my apartment building without any further incident. Walking between 9th and 10th Avenue the mood on the streets was unconcerned, a little blasé if you will, as if they either didn’t know or didn’t care what was happening less than half a mile away. That’s sort of the thing about New York. Terrorist attacks, pandemics, protests, looting…..there’s a pervasive feeling in the air that no matter what craziness life throws at us, we can handle it. The sun will come up tomorrow and with it will be new challenges. New situations. Just stay safe and keep the faith.
All photos courtesy of T. Sportiello