It took less than half an hour for a fight to break out. A trio of counter-demonstrators were infiltrating the pro-New York Police Department (NYPD) rally outside of City Hall in Lower Manhattan. There was plenty of pushing and shoving, fueled by a repetition of "Go fuck yourself." It was every Facebook conversation you've seen over police brutality in recent weeks playing out in real time.
On a cold Friday night, about 40 to 50 people had gathered to show their support for the boys in blue, a delayed response to the city exploding with protests over the recent grand jury decisions not to indict the cops who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both unarmed black men killed by white police officers. Organized by a group known as "Thank You NYPD," the banner slogan stated "Blue Lives Matter," a play, of course, on "Black Lives Matter," the three words that have come to define the nationwide anti-police-brutality movement.
"The rally is a collaborative effort from the 14,000 members of the page who want to show their support while our officers get spit on/assaulted/and mocked," the founder, who wished to remain anonymous, told me over Facebook beforehand. "But they will be the first ones called into action when a problem arises. It's not against the protests. It's just a way for the people who appreciate them to say thank you."
It didn't take too long for that idealistic scenario to dissolve. Almost immediately, a larger group of counter-demonstrators arrived, sparking emotional name-calling back and forths over the five-foot-long No Man's Land that divided the two masses. Chants of "Obey the law!" followed by "Or get killed!" followed by "Get a job!" followed by "Racist fuck!" In between, actual police officers remained the calm and collected ones, holding back these people like angry ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, ready to kill each other over them.
"I know prejudice—I'm not prejudiced. I believe in society and its laws," Andrew Imsandi, a pro-cop protester from Long Island, told me. "These demonstrators are deluded; they can't understand the statistics. More police officers die each year than minorities."
Imsandi praised former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani for cleaning up the city and bringing respect back to the badge in the 90s. He went on to lambast David Dinkins, the first African American mayor of New York whom Giuliani unseated in 1993, for being "out of control" with policing, as well as the current mayor, Bill de Blasio. "He's going down the wrong path," he told me. "He's not a leader, he's divisive."
The vitriol towards the mayor, epitomized in the chant "de Blasio sucks!" was a calling card of the pro-cop crowd. This sentiment rides off of remarks made earlier this week by Policemen Benevolents Association chief Patrick Lynch, who requested officers sign petitions to not let the mayor attend NYPD funerals. "He is not running the city of New York," Lynch said at a private dinner in Queens. "He thinks he's running a fucking revolution."
Surprisingly enough, that may be the one thing uniting these two angry groups: they both think de Blasio is fucking up. Of course, to the "Black Lives Matter" protesters, it was for the opposite reason: that he's too cozy with the cops and the system, too content with the way the legal process has played out. Makings things worse is that de Blasio told NYPD officers at a promotion ceremony earlier Friday that "respect for the NYPD has grown." It was hard to find anyone, on either side, who agreed with him.
There were numerous dissections of the Eric Garner video, and what actually took place in front of our collective eyes. The consensus among the pro-cop crowd was that 31 previous arrests made Garner—who sold individual, "loosie" cigarettes on Staten Island—a criminal, and the chokehold that killed him was a necessary takedown, albeit an illegal tactic in the NYPD handbook. And Garner, protesters argued, was breathing as he lay dying on the floor, contrary to the medical examiner's report that deemed the incident a homicide. In fact, several shirts were spotted reading, "I can breathe," a twisted play on Garner's final words.
"If people were arrested, they wouldn't be knocked down. They'd be arrested and go through the legal system, like the rest of us," Philip McManus, another pro-NYPD protester from Queens, told me. "If people didn't resist arrest, there wouldn't be police brutality. No one wants anyone to die."
McManus argued that "Our group isn't gonna stop traffic, or close businesses, or ruin the American Dream for anyone else." To him, "the way to stay united is safety," which made for another popular slogan of the crowd: "I have a family—safety matters."
The protest was actually a bit like anti-war protests over Vietnam and Iraq, the idea being that if you're not a soldier (or a cop), you can't say a damned thing. "If these protesters had to wear those police uniforms for a day, they wouldn't be out here protesting!" one pro-cop supporter seethed. "Put that in the fucking press!"
"I don't think they know what they stand for," Kim Gembecki, the mother of an NYPD officer, said of the counter-demonstrators. "It's inappropriate behavior for adults and children to be raised like this. And [de Blasio] has come out against the NYPD, who risk their lives to keep New Yorkers safe. It's a disgrace."
That zeitgeist was key on Friday night: In between two arguing masses, we were transported back to 1989. This was Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing New York, when racial tensions were bubbling to a point of spontaneous combustion. You could feel it in the cold, blistering air: a sense that the city, once again, was tearing itself apart. The lines drawn in cement said it all, and yes, the demographic and age makeup was clear. This was, for the most part, whites versus a multi-racial melting pot, old versus young.
On one side, you had law-and-order, "Silent Majority" types, defending New York's record-low crime rates, America, and everything else in between. Some were unable to keep their shit together, calling for better parenting and fewer abortions in the African American community. These are the people who hated Occupy Wall Street, hate Al Sharpton, and will go nuts if an accusation of racism gets thrown at them.
Across the barricade, you had the activist crowd, who see racial profiling in those very same statistics. They sometimes were unable to hold themselves back from calling the opposition racist murderers. In select situations on Friday night, this led to actual violence, which of course was totally contrary to the messages of both groups.
The last person I spoke to was a 76-year-old man named Kevin Thomas, an Irish immigrant's son who moved from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Santiago, Chile. Thomas flew up from South America to visit family and attend this rally, simply to see what the hell was going on in his native city after reading the news. Although he found himself on the pro-cop end of the spectrum, Thomas said he hated hearing the angry rhetoric on both sides.
"We need to have the protest come to a peaceful solution," he told me. "As a white individual, I'd like to try to see what both sides are saying. I was trying to tell them, 'We have to look up and thank God we were born white.' Because if I was black and had my hands up, discriminated against, I wouldn't be so happy."
When asked if he was disappointed with what he saw on Friday night, Thomas responded, "No, just sad."
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