“People in motion!” The refrain rang out from the impromptu rally stage on the outdoor steps next to the Applebees on Fulton St. in Brooklyn. And for the next 7 hours, the people were in motion, engaging in a massive march, at one point swelling to nearly 10,000 people (according to the police scanner), traveling for about 15 miles through Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and downtown Brooklyn. I was in a contingent of DSA comrades, and we ran into many other DSA members that we knew over the course of the evening.
A few things stood out about last night in Brooklyn: large, well-organized (at least at the beginning), tons of community support, no visible property destruction, and a pretty hands-off police presence. I left at around 11:20 p.m., after the 11:00 p.m. curfew had come and gone without any police violence.
The afternoon’s proceedings were well-orchestrated by the December 12th Movement, a Black power group based in NYC, who led the speeches, rallies, and daytime marches. There were dozens of people from December 12th up on stage, wearing “X” shirts and waving Pan-African three-stripe flags. There were also several Haitian flags near the stage. The speeches, while hard to hear for all of the 1000+ people who gathered in Bed-Stuy at 5 pm, spoke of solidarity, of action, of the many ways in which we could not trust our elected officials. They led chants of “Say His/Her Name — George Floyd/Breonna Taylor,” “No More Black Blood In These Streets,” and “Defund the Police.” There were police there, but the vast majority of officers present were Black, not wearing riot gear, and many were in bright blue “NYPD Community Affairs” polo shirts.
The next part of the march was really amazing — we marched in a loop several miles through Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, mostly on residential streets. At almost every single building, people were on their stoops or leaning out their windows, banging pots and pans, cheering and clapping, raising fists, and taking phone videos. These supporters represented a multiracial and multi-generational cross-section, though the majority of visible supporters were Black. As we moved deeper into Crown Heights, we picked up some supporters who decided to join the march from their houses. I suspect that this was an intentional move by the march organizers to show to the neighborhood that these were vigorous protests but not something they needed to fear, and to raise support and activity for the protests within the eastern section of these predominantly Black and working-class (though rapidly gentrifying) neighborhoods.
There was a brief standoff at the 77th NYPD precinct on Utica Ave., which we would return to for a much more tense standoff several hours later. The march looped all the way back around to our starting point, then proceeded to move downtown. It seemed as if we were heading for the Barclays Center, and there was a palpable shift in the air, as if people assumed that Barclays would be a staging area for police aggression. However, when we arrived at Barclays center, the plaza was already half-jammed with protestors (perhaps from a different contingent) and half blocked-off by cops in riot gear, so we just turned on Flatbush Ave. and headed towards Grand Army Plaza. At this point the march had swelled in size, and as we approached Grand Army a half-hour later, a comrade listening to the police scanner said the cops estimated 10,000 approaching the plaza.
The next hour was a long march down Eastern Parkway, through the middle of Crown Heights, filled with huge chants, sad and angry hearts, and tired legs. As we passed the world headquarters of the Chabad Lubovitch movement of Hasidic Judaism, I thought about the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, which was sparked by an incident where Lubovitchers were driving a car that struck and killed a young Black child. However, this time, the Hasidim stood mostly aloof, with some younger Hasids making their way over to the march to talk with us and show their support. When I approached a young Hasidic man driving a car near the march to ask him to slow down, he nodded, said “we need to get justice,” and raised his fist in solidarity as he stopped the car.
As we moved back up Utica Ave., beginning our second complete loop, we stopped outside the 77th precinct again. This was the most intense portion of the evening, as we completely surrounded the building, and there were dozens of cops in riot gear at each entrance. My only contribution to the march was to start a “quit your job,” chant directed at the precinct, which took off like wildfire in the crowd, who were shouting it while standing about 10 feet away from a line of riot cops. It was satisfying to watch several cops shift in their boots as they heard our chant. At this point, the crowd had thinned somewhat, but also we had gained new supporters, mostly younger Black people who had joined as the march moved through their neighborhood off Utica Ave.
After about 20 minutes of confrontation at the 77th precinct, members from the December 12 Movement, though no longer “officially” leading the march, led us away from the station and back again in the general direction of our original starting point on Fulton. We met up with another contingent, and despite that fact that the 11 p.m. curfew was looming, there were still several thousand marchers who had taken over Atlantic Ave. Chants of “How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D”, “Say his/her name,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Fuck the curfew” provided the marchers with the sustenance to keep moving.
As 11 p.m. approached, people began to get a little more nervous, with “Fuck the curfew” chants becoming a bit louder and more strained. Many of us had seen updates from other cities, or had been in previous nights’ clashes, and were waiting to see what the police would do.
But 11 p.m. was oddly anticlimactic. As the hour passed with no confrontation, we continued to march, though we could hear some police sirens. But then, a Christian “prayer bus” from a Black Caribbean church pulled up alongside us and rolled by at slow speed. We had seen them earlier in the evening, but this time, the flatbed trailer was keeping our pace, playing slow worship music and projecting the voice of the man in the truck, calling for us to “pray for peace and love tonight.” The prayer bus’ speaker was very loud, and after about five minutes of its presence most of the chanting had stopped. Several marchers around me commented that the loudly amplified but soft-in-tone music had dampened some of the militancy of the crowd.
We marched past our original meeting point for the third time that day, and I (as well as a significant chunk of the marchers) began to dissipate around 11:20 when we had reached the march’s starting location yet again. A large column split off and continued to march off into the night, prayer truck now gone, chanting “Black Lives Matter.”