At the April 29th demonstration in solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising the NYPD have returned to Bloomberg/Kelly-era tactics of criminalizing protest, and the next day Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose election many progressives hoped was the end of that era, unflinchingly defended them.
“I’ve been to a number of protests in my day, and one thing’s clear, when the police give you instruction, you follow the instructions,” he said in the nearly one-hour long press conference almost entirely on the subject. “When the police believe there’s a scenario that could be unruly and lead to violence, of course they need to exercise measures to avoid that.”
De Blasio is correct that the instructions, blasted through LRADs, could not have been more clear. Anyone entering the park’s East Side heard it over and over again, without interruption, and struggled to have conversations over the blaring cautions. Many moved the west end of the park, where the instructions were not audible and they could speak freely.
Organized by the Justice League, whose squadron of dozens of protest marshals were on hand to prevent the crowd from getting out of line, Russell Simmons the march would be “The biggest, most peaceful protest in the history of New York.” After a speak-out from Eric Garner, we began to march west on 17th street. Fearing violence and chaos would result from disruption to rush hour traffic, de Blasio said, the police stopped the march.
Predictably, chaos and violence immediately followed. Anyone in the street was a target for punches, shoves, baton charges, or arrest from the hundreds of the NYPD, who no longer hide their personal contempt for the messages of the anti-police protests.
A crowd of dozens of photographers journalists added to the police line, making it nearly impossible for the march to go onto the sidewalks and make their way to 6th Avenue. Those who managed to do so found the sidewalk fenced-off with an orange net and more cops waiting to arrest anyone who tried to cross the street. The Daily News reports that a police captain asked his cops to “get in there and pick somebody out”, and their video shows the ensuing arrests and assaults. After a few shocked and disheartening moments, many reversed course and headed to 14th street, where many smaller splinter groups marched in different directions running from small groups of cops who continued to try to pick off those at the edges for arrest.
Closing the press conference, the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Howard Saul pointed out that de Blasio himself was arrested in a 2013 action to save Long Island College Hospital, and asked if he wanted to disown his actions.
“I’m astounded by that question,” said the mayor. “Let me school you for a moment. The civil rights movement, maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s called civil disobedience, Gandhi, King, etc. You plan with the police what’s going to happen. I don’t know if you were there that day in 2013, it was the most choreographed thing on earth in terms of how the police wanted to it to happen. This has gone on for generations.”
De Blasio’s framing of history is absurdly inaccurate. The notion that the civil rights movement was non-violent, even though it was a combination of non-violent protests, more aggressive protests, and urban riots, is summed up well by Willie Osterweil’s article “In Defense of Looting“:
“It took months of largely non-violent campaigning in Birmingham, Alabama to force JFK to give his speech calling for a civil rights act. But in the month before he did so, the campaign in Birmingham had become decidedly not-non-violent: protesters had started fighting back against the police and Eugene ‘Bull’ Conner, throwing rocks, and breaking windows. Robert Kennedy, afraid that the increasingly riotous atmosphere in Birmingham would spread across Alabama and the South, convinced John to deliver the famous speech and begin moving towards civil rights legislation.”
The riots in Ferguson, Oakland, and now Baltimore are likewise now an integral part of the growing movement, but de Blasio’s claims go a step farther, arguing that anyone acting without government permission is moving away from non-violence, thus equating peaceful protesters with those “non-violent” protesters he consistently claims are in the minority. As one NYPD captain told protesters that night, “If we could arrest you all, we would.” As the night continued groups of friends and comrades were split apart by police charges, and ended up sprinting into new groups of strangers. Two larger groups went up the West Side Highway, one to the Holland Tunnel, but disruption of traffic was only one goal. We wanted to feel a sense of power in the city where police constantly wield violence, usually against people of color suspected of non-violent infractions. For about a week in December, there was a sense that de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton would allow us these moments of public autonomy so we could go home feeling like we’d participated in a movement for justice without risking our bodies or freedom, but on 17th Street that illusion ended.
Unlike the mayor’s predecessor, who made no secret that he disagreed with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2004’s Republic National Convention Protesters, de Blasio still feigns sympathy with protests, although the extent of these sympathies is becoming clear. The arrest mentioned by Saul, presumably a model of civil disobedience, has been called a political stunt by former supporters who watched the hospital sold to a developer to be turned into luxury condos. Today the hospital is closed, but the choreographed arrest succeeding in gaining the trust of those who thought he might actually be on the side of the people.
Writing in the New Republic, Stacia L. Brown notes that black police and politicians have not helped Baltimore, and apparently neither has the faux-progressive posturing of Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake or President Obama, who joined the Right in calling Baltimore’s youth “thugs” and blamed the rioting in Ferguson on bad parenting. They are tone-deaf to the anger building with daily police killings which show no sign of stopping, the needless misery of mass incarceration and poverty, the sense that black lives do not matter. These atrocities are so institutional, so basic to the political establishment, that it is increasingly obvious that nothing will change through the narrow means of expression provided by the police themselves, and certainly not from the sidewalk.