In New York City, Police Brutality Is Bringing People Together

By Aaron Miguel Cantú

Photo by Aaron Cantú

Last Thursday in New York City, thousands of people marched from 14th Street to Times Square to protest a very American brand of unhinged police power. The show of paramilitary suppression against mostly black folk the night before in Ferguson, Missouri, had pissed everybody off, from radicals to moderates, and the glowing embers of unrest needed only a breath of oxygen to spark their latent flame.

In New York, those oxygen breathers were actually a bunch of commies from the New York City Revolution Club, a local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The party’s website looks like an old Maoist pamphlet gone digital, but its members were keen to seize on the outrage over police violence that has recently gone mainstream.

It started in Union Square, where activists affiliated with the National Moment of Silence for Victims of Police Brutality campaign (#nomos14) had planned to organize a vigil for victims of police brutality. While the vigil gathered, a second group began forming around members of the Revolution Club, who were joined by another leftist group, People’s Power Assemblies. They held a large yellow banner aloft and made incendiary remarks about mass incarceration, police violence, and capitalism.

The reason people knew to go to Union Square was the vigil, but as people gathered, it was clear many wanted more than just prayers. There was enough fury on the ground that it seemed like it could turn into a genuine uprising. 

Did communists hijack a vigil? Maybe, but who cares? The militant rhetoric was what many needed to hear, and demonstrating was cathartic. It didn’t matter that some of the people leading the crowd profess a cultish devotion to a chubby wannabe-Lenin named Bob Avakian; what mattered was that people of all backgrounds came together to tell the state that enough is enough. And the fact that so many were drawn to militancy suggests just how tired people are of the status quo.

Shortly after 7 PM, the Revolution Club and People’s Power Assemblies began leading a march down Broadway toward Times Square, while the vigil stayed to observe the planned moment of silence. The vast majority of people marching, many of whom were still dressed in business-casual attire, were unaffiliated with any of the groups, and few seemed to know who was actually directing the action.

Photo by Aaron Cantú

The swarm of marchers eventually grew to a few thousand, as onlookers joined and word spread on social media (one woman told me she left dinner at a nearby restaurant to join the march after seeing photos of it on Instagram). Demonstrators walked through the streets, chanting and halting traffic, while tourists on sightseeing buses snapped photos from above.

The NYPD tried to corral protesters in Times Square, but many circumvented the police and charged down another street. After cops kettled several dozen people for nearly an hour, most were freed, save for five people who were detained.

Jason “JJ” Woody, one of the men arrested for “disorderly conduct,” later told me it didn’t matter who was leading the protests.

“There were thousands of people,” he said. “It was the people who did it. Everybody—we were all part of it.”

The fervor of the night signaled more than solidarity with Ferguson: It revealed a groundswell of people tired of racist policing, in New York and beyond, and everything that comes with it: militarism, mass incarceration, dead black men and boys, immunity for killer cops and an aggressive, selective enforcement of a growing litany of laws. And unlike Occupy Wall Street, dominated at least early on by white people, many of those who gathered in Union Square were young people of color.

“This is a black issue, and we can’t be afraid to say that,” said one speaker in Union Square.

That’s a sentiment shared by more than just people on the street that day. Noel Leader, a former NYPD sergeant who leads the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, a coalition of black law enforcement officers who oppose racism, has publicly called for both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to be fired over the widely publicized death of a black man, Eric Garner, who was choked out by the NYPD for selling loose cigarettes.

The cop who killed Garner has still not been charged, another signal that impunity is the norm for NYPD officers, who have also killed Ramarley Graham, Nicholas Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and many others; all unarmed, all whose killers were given a slap on the wrist, if that.  

And with the NYPD still overwhelmingly targeting black and Hispanic men to enforce laws everybody breaks equally, not to mention laws that target poor people, there’s a sense that the begrudging, fear-based tolerance of racist policing is giving way to a youthful strain of resistance that no liberal mayor can quell.

This resistance comes in many forms, and where it goes will depend on what grassroots groups are doing right now.

Marco DeWalden, a 19-year-old New York native who performs on the subway with the dance crew 2 Live, says he’s been arrested or cited over seven times for dancing on the city’s trains, including three arrests since January.

“Once you get arrested three times, you don’t qualify for tickets, you go straight to the precinct and from there you go straight through the system,” he told me.

DeWalden spoke with me at a press conference organized by Busk NY, a group that advocates for arts in New York’s subway, as well as New Yorkers Against Bratton, which has organized past demonstrations against the NYPD. Arrests of train performers of all colors have jumped 500 percent since the election of liberal mayor Bill de Blasio.

Photo by Aaron Cantú

Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with New Yorkers Against Bratton, said his group is holding public education campaigns in communities of color about broken windows policing in order to build awareness of the strategy.

“I think if we don’t have a citywide conversation about broken windows policing, people are just going to be guessing as to why policing is closing down in and around their lives,” Trujillo told me.

“Broken windows” refers to the aggressive policing of low-level quality-of-life crimes, a strategy pioneered by current Commissioner Bratton. These offenses range from bike riding on sidewalks to dancing on subways. An investigation by the New York Daily News found that 81 percent of the people busted in the last decade for quality-of-life crimes—carried out under the broken windows policing strategy—were black or Hispanic.

Educative outreach was also the rationale behind a new mural in the Bronx for Eric Garner and other victims of police brutality. The mural blends commentary on police brutality and gentrification with QR codes and phone numbers that enable targets of police harassment to get in touch with legal counsel.

“The interactive part is the most important part of the mural,” said Raul Ayala, the lead artist of the piece. In total, a dozen young people painted the wall.

The coalition of activist groups who worked on the mural, which are united under the moniker Peoples’ Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability, also hosts Know Your Rights info sessions and cop-watch trainings for people in highly-policed communities, teaching members of the community their legal rights when dealing with and observing law enforcement.

“Everything we do to watch our communities is helpful,” said Aidge Patterson, a leader with People’ Justice, at a recent cop-watch training in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Photo by Caroline Yi

Yet despite activists’ efforts, there is a well-founded sense that those at the top are not listening. For his part, Commissioner Bratton insists that the NYPD is not a racist organization, and that his brand of quality-of-life policing targets behavior, not people. 

“Are there more minorities impacted by enforcement? Yes. I'm not denying that," he told Huffington Post. "But it's not an intentional focus on minorities. It's a focus on behavior."

An NYPD officer who recently ticketed me while I biked on a sidewalk in my neighborhood echoed this sentiment. I had been on the empty sidewalk for less than ten seconds, and was two blocks from my apartment, but it was a dangerous enough move on my part for police to bravely drive their car onto the sidewalk for the protection of the community.

Photo by Aaron Cantú

One of the cops acknowledged that his ticketing me was “bullshit,” but insisted he had to do it because of orders from up the ladder. As his partner ran my ID and wrote my ticket, we talked about Eric Garner, the protest in Times Square, and the unrest in Ferguson.

The author's summons ticket

“It’s been a hot summer, with all this stuff happening everywhere,” he told me. “It’s not a race thing. It’s because these are the neighborhoods where you have the highest rates of crime.”

For what it’s worth, 93.7 percent of the people in my neighborhood, including me, are either black or Latino.

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