by: Liz Hynes
Holed up in my apartment alone, the third month of solitude gnawing at my psyche, I watched the world ignite.
Of course I “knew” racism was real, police bias was implicit, the system was broken. Whenever the videos came out, I always took the “right” position: I never defended the cops; always gave the victim the benefit of the doubt; would tell cop-loving relatives that, even if this person had done something wrong, police should not be able to commit extrajudicial killings.
And yet they do. Again and again. They killed Breonna Taylor. They may not have pulled the trigger that killed Ahmaud Arbery, but they enabled the people who did. Since they killed George Floyd, they have killed 258 more and counting. By the time you read this, they may have murdered more than 300 people. They keep killing, without hesitation and without consequence.
(Source: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ )
White people get to choose when to “opt in” to seriously fighting racism. Most of us can spend our entire lives thinking that because we don’t say the N word (not even in a song!), we’re “the good ones”. Sure, maybe some of our friends or relatives will make a stupid joke every once in a while, but we don’t see them very often, and it would be a whole “thing” if we called them on it, and they probably wouldn’t change anyway, so why bother?
I wish I could say I had taken to the streets immediately, but it took a few days. I read the articles, donated to the bail funds, weighed the ethics of protesting during a pandemic. Then I saw this:
“White friends, not being racist is not enough. We need white accomplices. Racists should feel afraid, uncomfortable & unable to move in circles around YOU because YOU call out racism. YOU see color & YOU know YOU MUST PROTECT BLACK LIVES, aggressively, constantly & consistently.” -@christinanthony on Twitter
Christina’s words crystallized the mission for me. An “accomplice” does not sit inside while people are being murdered. They do not prioritize their own comfort over others’ right to survive. They get skin in the game, they take risks, they show up.
I dressed in black, threw on a mask, made a sign, and finally showed up.
You wouldn’t know it to watch the news, which devoted hours of sympathetic airtime to former chiefs of police and aired footage of burning buildings (before they got bored and dropped their coverage altogether), but the actual movement is still very much alive. It’s being led by young Black activists on the ground, their demands clear, their words and hearts heavy with grief. And they are so young.
We shut down the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, hundreds of cars beeping in support, many drivers holding out signs of their own. One woman warns, “There’s a whole bunch of cops waiting on the other side...they’ve got vans and everything. You kids be careful.” Behind my mask, I smile at being called “kids” -- then I look around at who’s marching beside me. I remember the activists who had shared their ages earlier: Twenty. Nineteen. Sixteen. I recall what I was doing at their age -- because again, I got to choose -- and a surge of protective rage claws at my chest. These are kids. They shouldn’t have to be doing this.
When we reach the end of the bridge, an organizer shouts “white allies to the front!” -- we link arms and chant “peaceful protest” as we steadily march rows upon rows of officers armed with riot gear. A projectile sails towards us from the cops. Is it tear gas? A water bottle? A few confused, distracted shouts -- and then the police charge without mercy, throwing people on the ground, clubbing and zip tying them, tackling them four to one.
Whenever things get out of control, you cannot look everywhere at once. You try to film, to keep track of where cops are closing in, to intervene where you can. I am consistently floored by the safety the color of my skin buys me -- if I insert myself between a cop clubbing a Black protester, that cop will usually stop. When a cop’s hand is on their weapon (a gun, a taser, a baton), I am granted a moment of hesitation, too often the difference between life and death. White people get that moment, that pass, that benefit of the doubt. Black people don’t.
We walk seventeen miles, all through downtown Manhattan, across the bridge to Brooklyn, and to Barclays, where hundreds of cops are waiting.
They try to kettle us in, but we out-maneuver them, and reach a standoff across the street. Finally, after nearly an hour of standing face-to-face, they retreat: slowly, and with the condition that we will remain quiet. They don’t want to give us -- or the news -- the powerful moment of cheering while they retreat. They don’t want to admit we won, that protesters de-escalated a situation better than the police ever could, that organizers maintained order and refused to break.
We shut down FDR Drive.
A line of cars is blocking police vehicles from surrounding us, and the drivers -- not even affiliated with our march -- refuse to move. Later on, a waste truck will do a K-turn to block us from police chasing us down a street. Every day we march past apartments with hundreds of people cheering out their windows, even more than the marathon. The mayor says the city does not support the protests, that they do not value Black lives more than they value property. Every day the city proves him wrong.
As night falls and the organizers leave, some new opportunists turn up, and the protest evolves into something else. I witness a few windows smashed, but I cannot find it in my heart to grieve for the mom and pop stores on 5th Avenue. Armani Exchange will survive.
We use garbage bins as barricades and roll them into the streets. The next day, every bin in Manhattan will be gone, and we will have to adapt again.
When the police realize they can’t get to us with cars, they send at least sixty bike cops to chase us down a block in midtown. I get hit, and, thinking it was a protester on a bike, instinctively say “sorry, man, are you --” When I look up, I see it’s a cop. We look each other in the eyes, and I see him make the decision not to arrest me. I’ll give you three guesses why.
I try to chase after the wave of cops and help people avoid arrest, but my leg is bleeding, and I can’t move quickly. Thankfully, most people get away. With the protest completely disbanded, there’s nothing more I can do, so I limp out of sight and hobble the thirty blocks home, hoping to remain unseen.
The protest is, and has remained, completely peaceful, the cops trailing at a safe distance until a little after 9:30 -- 90 minutes past curfew. As we march through Union Square, officers line up on one side. We quickly flank them -- “White allies to the right!” -- with our arms raised. When we hear the captain bark instructions, we shout them out to the rest of the group. “THEY’RE GOING TO MAKE COLUMNS -- DON’T LET THEM SPLIT YOU UP -- TURN LEFT, THEY HAVE REINFORCEMENTS UP AHEAD.”
Finally, the captain gets frustrated and shouts, “Enough. Now. Arrest EVERYBODY.”
We shout at everyone to move, and they end up only catching a few of us. At first, I’m able to stay close to the arrests without anyone charging me -- again, three guesses why -- and film our comrades being arrested, reading them the badge numbers of the cops manhandling them, asking if they have phone numbers to call. Then I am beaten back from the arrests as a new wave of cops pushes us down the block, the Washington Square Arch gleaming at the other end.
“We’re leaving,” I shout. “You do not have to hurt anybody. We’re going home.”
Finally, a cop shouts, “THEN RUN.”
They charge, knock a Black protester in a pride flag to the ground, club him and drag him away, four to one. (Weeks later, while camping out at City Hall, I will stare at the rainbow light show above the police encampment and think of what they did to that boy, how he cried out while they beat him.)
They keep pushing us back. Two cops are advancing on me. I will never forget the look in their eyes as one of them snarled, like a cartoon villain, “You’re not getting away.”
“We are going home,” I shout, in a voice almost too hoarse to recognize as my own. “STOP.” It’s not until I watch the video later that I realize how close they were, that I allow myself to feel fear for what might have been. Mentally, I’m always prepared for the possibility of being arrested. But since the curfew, people have been held indefinitely, without bail, without even a phone call. It’s not just the color of my skin that buys me safety -- I work in an industry where I am adjacent to influential people, people who would raise hell if I went missing. Would that make a difference? Probably. There’s also the possibility the police could try to make an example of me. I have yet to find out.
They charge us again and pick people off, at least three cops per protester. Then they finally retreat. Everyone left drifts towards the glow of the Arch like moths to a flame, calling out names, seeing if their friends had made it out. Some are crying, the sounds echoing in the deserted, dimly lit street.
Two girls materialize with packs of water, and we help carry them to the park. We sit around the stone edges of the dried-up fountain, suddenly something more than strangers: “Is anyone hurt?” “Does anyone need a hospital?” “Is anyone lost?” “Does everyone have somewhere safe to go?” “I can fit three people if anyone needs a place to stay uptown.”
It doesn’t last long. The sound of a helicopter up ahead jerks everyone back to reality -- the danger is not yet over. “We’d better get out of here,” someone mumbles. We leave spare water at the entrance, bring some around to the unhoused people who will sleep there tonight, and slip out separate entrances into the still, eerie night.
My apartment is 70 blocks away. All traffic downtown has been stopped. Rumors of tracking makes me wary of switching on my phone to rent a bike -- and anyway, I heard they were locked. The subway stations are crawling with cops. My best bet is to catch a bus; the MTA has refused to cooperate with police; with any luck I’d find a driver who could get me home.
I have never heard the city so quiet -- even during the peak of the pandemic, when the city seemed to collectively hold its breath, ambulance sirens still wailed all through the night. Now all I can hear is the sound of my breath against my mask, my beat-up sneakers scraping the sidewalk. Whenever I do hear a siren, I duck into the nearest alley, or run down the stairs and crouch by the entrance of a sub-basement apartment. There are leaves littered across the front door -- the owner must have fled. I consider sleeping there. This is the first time I’ve felt unsafe in New York. With the enforcement of the curfew, protesters essentially became enemies of the state overnight. At any moment, we could be arrested for the crime of being outside after dark, by the very people I was raised to believe would protect us. All I can think is, this is how some people feel all the time. It was always like this. You just didn’t see it.
After about 30 blocks, I see a line of cops blocking off the avenue at the horizon. I’ll never make it past them. I doubt I’ll make it home at this point. My best bet is my friends’ apartment, on the other side of the street they’re blocking. If I move one block east, I can sneak back around to the entrance, sleep on their floor, and wait it out til curfew lifts at 5.
Mercifully, just when I’m about to make a break for it, a bus appears. The driver tells me to sit low in my seat, below the window, shuts off the lights, and drives me straight past them.
“Stay safe out there,” he tells me as I exit. I thank him; it isn’t enough. I wish I’d gotten his name.
The four flights up to my apartment are excruciating. I drag myself inside, wincing as I peel off my clothes, revealing bruises I don’t remember getting. That one’s from the bike cop -- but what’s on my hip -- did I get clubbed? I clean the scrapes and collapse gratefully into the hot shower, leaning my head against the cool tile, thinking I could fall asleep there. But I don’t. It’ll be some time before I can sleep normally again.
“Does anyone know how long this lasts?” I shout, my face dripping wet, grasping blindly at the people guiding me out of harm’s way. “I have a deadline in the morning.”
I hadn’t even intended to march tonight. I had paused my writing to attend the nightly vigil outside Gracie Mansion, and figured I’d head home immediately after. But once a three-piece band showed up and started playing Bob Dylan, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s a peaceful march, as always, but also an especially joyful one. I unexpectedly run into a good friend I’ve seen at other marches. People are singing and dancing as the band plays on. Then, out of nowhere, just a few minutes after “curfew,” the police attack. As I try to film a cop with his hands around someone’s neck, another officer throws water into my face. Why would he --
Oh. It’s not water. I shout for help; good samaritans show up to immediately wash out my eyes.
When you get pepper sprayed, it hurts to keep your eyes open. It is easier to shut them, to live with the dull ache, to hope it might fade on its own. But you have to endure the brief, intense pain; you have to fight through it to see clearly again. I think that’s how skeptics -- especially white people -- should look at this movement: a little pain, a little discomfort; a small price to pay for finally seeing clearly.
I didn’t get the moment of the cop with his hands around someone’s neck on video, but I did record a different cop beating a Black protester, only to stop as soon as a white protester intervened. Are things getting more clear now?
A thunderstorm explodes from the sky immediately after the cops break us up, soaking everyone and re-activating the pepper spray. Had the NYPD waited five minutes, the protest might have disbanded peacefully on its own. But they don’t want peace. The police want to kill Black people with impunity, and if you even think about making that hard for them, they will hit back twice as hard, to remind you that they could kill you, too, anytime they like.
I drag myself home, bruised and battered and still half-blind, and finish writing. I’m grateful that I’m too exhausted and hollow to cry -- tears drag up what’s left of the spray, and the cycle starts all over again.
Police killed Deon Kay on Wednesday. A car plowed through protesters in Times Square last night. 100 days later, the fight goes on.
The kind of change we fight for is dismissed as too radical, too disruptive, incompatible with the “real world”. But the world has changed. This is not the same country it was six months ago. And that’s not something that should frighten us -- it’s an unprecedented opportunity. There are going to be more pandemics, more climate disasters, all of which will continue to disproportionately affect people by race and class -- at first. Eventually, it will come for us all. (Why do you think all these billionaires want to colonize space?!) Any attempt to perpetuate our current system is futile and unconscionable. If we don’t live to see its utter demise, our children will.
These are the conditions from which new worlds are born. It’s happening already: restaurant laborers have adapted to impossible conditions in order to stay afloat. Activists have formed community fridges and trading posts full of goods for people to take, without charge, no questions asked. Many have gathered on stoops to successfully prevent evictions, saving the homes of people who are strangers to them. In March, when the future was still a blank, terrifying void, when nowhere on earth had recovered, I saw a cellist asleep in Central Park, her case open next to her, a few bills trembling in the barely-there breeze -- the only movement in the entire city, it seemed. An old woman -- who probably shouldn’t have even been outside -- put a few bills in, then sat down next to her and read a book, keeping watch until she woke. “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe” is not just a chant. It’s a promise.
The tools that keep our current system alive -- the profiteers, the career politicians, the for-profit media -- they want us to hate each other. They bathe in the blood we draw from each other and only grow stronger. They want us to be afraid, to distrust each other, to forget anyone exists but you and your needs and your survival. They want us to forget our destinies are interlinked. But the reality is, time and time again, when manmade systems fail us, people take care of each other.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel fear. Protesting at this level is scary. You’d be mad not to be frightened, marching towards a line of people who could kill you in five different ways, while your only means of defense is a cardboard sign. The only reason I’m able to overcome that fear, the only reason that doesn’t seem like an insane thing to do, is because I know I’m not alone.
To be very clear: I am sharing this story because I was asked to, and because I think it’s vital to share as many records as possible of what is actually happening, versus what’s been cherry-picked to be shown on cable news. This is meant to be read with the enormous asterisk that it’s a very narrow account from one white woman in one city. I can’t promise that I’ve seen everything, but I can promise that I’ve told the truth, and that I’ll keep showing up, listening, and learning. I hope you will too.
Another asterisk: I’m no leader of this movement. At best, I’m a foot-soldier, maybe a recruiter. Most days, I’m just a record keeper, a resource disseminator. We all can and should help the cause however we can, but most importantly, we need to listen to the activists and organizers leading the effort on the ground. These words should be read in addition to, not instead of, their accounts of what’s happening.
I wish I had shown up sooner, but I’m here now, and I’m not leaving. Let’s keep it up for another hundred days, and another hundred after that, until we build a world that’s safe and beautiful for every single one of us.
Stay loud. Stay safe. Black lives matter.