The Signs Are Changing

New Yorkers protest police violence in Brooklyn

The signs have started changing. The chants, too.

It is impossible to go to one of New York City’s Black Lives Matter protests and not compare it to the marches that came before it. Last weekend, I stomped through Washington Square Park alongside comrades chanting, “Fuck your picnic,” because in the midst of the public mourning for — and collective anger over — the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade and so many others, some New Yorkers chose to picnic in the park. That blissful ignorance was over, at least for today.

This afternoon, Washington Square was packed with protesters. Some stood for Instagram photos on the south side of the park, holding handmade signs and posing. The popular place to be had changed from one Saturday to the next. Now people were at protests.

“Out of your house, and into the streets,” we called. Did they listen?

Looking back on the protests I attended, I can see they have started to change. They have become more politically focused as they have grown larger and sometimes more outwardly disorganized.

Last Friday, I was at Barclays, which erupted in violence as police officers declared the assembly of protesters unlawful.

Saturday I marched through Union Square, and the cop cars burned. Sunday I rested. Monday we shut down FDR Drive.

Tuesday started at Stonewall, where queer Black folks paraded through the protestors as we cheered. I found myself uptown after curfew, and the police beat the back of the crowd. Wednesday I rested.

Thursday was a marathon of a protest — snaking through Central Brooklyn as neighbors brought their children outside and banged pots and pans in solidarity.

Friday I stayed closer to home and walked through Williamsburg, where a white woman yelled into a megaphone, and the cops threatened a man in a wheelchair. The group walked in circles around the same blocks over and over again, which apparently aggravated the cops, but also aggravated me. I left feeling confused and dissatisfied.

Yet each day, there were tiny shifts in the conversations about what we want. I’ve noticed that chants have transitioned to include demands: We demand NYPD be defunded, and so we say, “No justice, no peace, defund the police.” We stopped demanding cops take a knee (Thank god.) Instead, we demand they quit their jobs.

These demands seemed to crystallize to me this morning at the teachers’ march to get cops out of schools. Organized by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the rank-and-file caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, the event focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline by defunding NYPD and funding our public schools. But the speakers went further, and so did the teachers’ signs. They said, “Hire Black teachers.” “Teach Black curricula.” “Counselors not cops.” Students need to be able to access education in a safe space, and also have the structure and stability in their home lives to succeed in school. Our kids need health care. They need housing.

When the group of educators, parents, students and allies marched to Washington Square Park, we joined forces with another rally. There were thousands of people. I’ve never seen the park so tightly packed. Our Bread & Roses contingent spread out and talked with attendees about DSA’s demands, sparking conversations by handing out NYC-DSA palm cards that say we need to defund NYPD and invest in our communities.

Importantly, socialists are not just asking for a few basic human rights for Black workers, if the ruling class can spare them. We are not only encouraging one another to “work on ourselves” and “be better” (the liberal response to racism at the moment — just see the readings lists). Instead, we are demanding justice. We are demanding justice for those who have lost their lives because of racism and policing. And we are demanding justice for our futures because we know that everyone should be able to live in a world that supports and protects them.

It’s one thing for NYC-DSA to demand that the NYPD be defunded. It’s another thing for the general public, the tens of thousands of people taking to the streets this weekend, to make the same demands. More people than we realize are coming to a radical, if uneven analysis of the police, informed both by the feelings of solidarity and from first- and secondhand experiences at the protests. It’s no longer acceptable to have a picnic during a protest. And instead, people are saying, “Not only will I show up, but could my tax dollars be used for…anything else besides racist cops?”

This evening, I joined Bread & Roses comrades at Barclays, where mayhem seems to explode every evening. “Who do you serve?” the crowd chanted at the police officers, “Who do you protect?”

The cops had no answer.

Later, my friend Whitney jokingly asked me the same question. Who do I serve? Who do I protect? I broadly said, my community. I look out for my neighbors, and they look out for me. And just as importantly, the state is not doing that for us, and I think it should.

I have been considering who we are supposed to trust in this moment. I have given and taken water bottles from strangers, and listened to people when they tell me to run. I have less trust for New York’s politicians.The more involved in electoral politics I become through the work I do in DSA, the more I believe that you can’t trust those who aren’t vocally and unapologetically socialists. This is a hard litmus test.

Tonight, as our group of protesters merged with another group in a beautiful show of solidarity, the organizers announced that they’d cut a deal with NYPD, brokered by city councilman Brad Lander. We wouldn’t get arrested until 11 p.m, instead of 8 p.m. The NYPD was allowing us one little protest. The ruling class was making a small concession.

Of course, we want to be safe; we don’t want the police to hit us into the ground with batons, as they’ve done to other protesters. But I firmly believe that we do not protest in coalition with our oppressors. Who is this protest for? I wondered. The cops seem to think we are marching so we will hear our own voices. What I hope to hear instead is your voice in harmony with mine. I want to hear our voices together, united. I think we are stronger that way.

After the organizers’ announcement, I left the protest with other disenchanted people. The protest’s leaders seemed to have come to an agreement that succeeded in demobilizing the crowd. And for what it’s worth, it seems a small contingent stayed. Still, I will be back.

A few days ago, a friend who lives in South Carolina called to chat. She asked me when I thought the protesting and riots would end.

I said that it would end when our demands were met, and I feel satisfied with this answer. The NYPD and structures of racism and white supremacy were not built in a day, and they won’t be undone in a day. Eventually, the incredible number of people at these protests will subside, just as strikers eventually have to go back to work. But we are building a movement and can outlast a moment in the struggle for justice. Until then, I will keep marching. I hope you will, too.