Yesterday evening thousands of New Yorkers gathered in Union Square to show solidarity with the protests in Baltimore over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody earlier this month. It was the latest show of force from the #blacklivesmatter movement and its largest protest in this city since the Millions March in December. But besides a big crowd and similar goals, the two marches were very different.
The December march shut down bridges and roadways all over Manhattan and Brooklyn but the police had a fairly restrained approach and there was little confrontation. Last night, as soon as people stepped off the curb police started tackling and arresting demonstrators. The group I was with took the street and headed up Broadway but police blocked the rest of the crowd after 500 of us had split off. A few blocks later they made what seemed like arbitrary arrests toward the middle of the crowd. Those in the lead, unaware of the arrests, kept going while those in the back crowded around the arrests and were diverted down a side road by police. Half an hour later my group stumbled upon another group of a few hundred wandering around midtown and we merged. Shortly after the police made arrests toward the middle of the group and split us again. All night this repeated itself, groups splitting and finding each other. I stayed in Midtown all night, always between 14th and 44th. but others groups headed downtown and I imagine the scene was similar there.
I’m not sure what the police intention was but from where I stood, they made the protest seem a lot more like a rebellion. Despite a massive police presence the more mobile groups of protesters changed direction often and took the street for bursts at a time all night. One of the loudest chants of the night was when the police chased us down 7th avenue, against traffic, while we chanted “Balitimore! Baltimore!” Even when the groups were fairly small and on the sidewalk the police often would shut down the entire road—just to make sure we stayed squashed onto sidewalks.
At times the scene became dystopian. Police helicopters hovered overhead and NYPD sound trucks drove alongside us blaring a looped message about circumstances under which we could be arrested, sometimes even when there were hardly any demonstrators around. The sound trucks were much louder than any noises we could have made and they were the only audible thing whenever they were around, drowning out any voice of dissent.