Demonstrators gathering in Union Square park
On Wednesday evening, I heard that there was going to be a rally in support of the people of Baltimore, in Union Square park in New York City. I decided to go over and see what was happening. When I first got to the park, it seemed like a normal spring afternoon. People were out enjoying the weather, playing music, hanging out, enjoying the warm air. Then someone with a bullhorn walked by, drawing everyone to the northwest side of the park. I followed along, and found the scene above. For those of you who don’t know what happened, a young African-American Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody, the latest of several of these tragic events to happen in our cities in recent months. As of now, there are several conflicting reports about what exactly happened. (Read an overview HERE.) There have been protests and riots in Baltimore, resulting in a 10 pm city-wide curfew for the past three nights. The demonstration in Union Square was in support of the people in Baltimore, and also calling for an end to what seems to be an unending storyline of these kinds of incidents.
A woman calls out for justice
There were many people holding up signs of all kinds: Freddie Gray Matters! STOP Police Brutality! End the School to Prison Pipeline! Black Lives Matter! and more. The park was getting crowded, and we were penned in by the barricades the police had set up around the park perimeter. They also lined up around the perimeter, watching the proceedings with mostly stoic faces. Different people, such as the woman above, got up on a small platform and spoke passionately about the need to examine the system and not be silent. About the need for a change. The crowd chanted and yelled out, and a man with a bullhorn called for everyone to move together, walking in pairs out of the park, and across 17th Street to 6th Avenue.
This man was busy making signs for the crowd with a stencil and spray paint, the two people behind him were deep in conversation. As the crowd moved toward 17th Street, I followed along.
People marched along 17th Street, heading west toward 6th Avenue. They were yelling, cheering, and chanting slogans as they walked. Police lined the sides of the street, standing almost at attention. There were several police in suits, talking into walkie talkies, and more police were arriving to line the streets.
I was in the midst of wall-to-wall people, walking about half-way to Fifth Avenue, when I felt the push. Rows of police with riot helmets were pushing the crowd in the opposite direction, back towards the park. There was some struggle a few feet ahead of me, I couldn’t see exactly what was happening but there were people pushing back with their hands up as the police pushed forward. I jumped out of the street, down into a basement cubby entrance to a restaurant, and kept drawing. The shoving became more animated and people were yelling on both sides of the divide. A young man ran by and shouted out- “Things are about to get REAL in New York, everybody better calm down!” I was worried about the same thing. There was a loudspeaker giving warning: “This is the New York City Police Department. Please be advised, if you walk on the street or roadway, you may be charged with disorderly conduct and placed under arrest.” People started moving back towards the park, but many people did not, and the police began arresting them.
Police arrest and carry out protesters from the street.
And people lined up against the side of the street, directly facing the police who lined up just inside the curb.
Pretty soon the police had divided the demonstrators into different areas, some back in the park, others on 17th Street sidewalks, still others further down on 18th Street. They came out in full force, and they cleared the streets and sidewalks, forming a triangle at the northwest end of Union Square.
Then a truck full of metal barricades pulled up, and many more cops were put to work setting them up all around the area, to control the crowd. By now most of the demonstrators had left, with mainly groups of college aged kids left running around trying to get past the barriers. And within about 15 minutes, the demonstration was over and Union Square became again, a place for walking dogs and eating artisanal iced cream. There would, thankfully, be no riot in New York tonight, but hopefully, the voice of dissatisfaction with the status quo had been heard.
Personally, I feel so sad and angry that this is happening in our country. Something has to change, but at times like this it’s hard to see how. I don’t think you can lay the blame solely at the feet of the police; despite these terrible stories, there are decent cops on the streets too. My grandfather was a cop, and he was one of the kindest, most loving men I ever knew. Neither can you put all of the blame on young men caught up in a system that too often leaves them hopeless and without recourse, by labeling them thugs. These protests are not happening without cause. When you read some of the statistics of a city like Baltimore you quickly recognize that there are glaring inequalities in our country, economically and otherwise, that can’t be ignored. It was interesting for me to realize, as an urban white woman, that even at the point when the police in riot gear were moving forward aggressively, I did not fear them at all. Certainly during the evening, when the shoving and yelling was at its height, I felt my adrenaline rise. But it was fear at what might happen if emotions got out of control on both sides – not fear of what a police officer might do to me. All of my life, I have seen the police as my protector in dangerous situations. I can’t imagine seeing those who are supposed to protect me as a threat, or imagine what that must feel like.
I certainly don’t have the answers, I’m just trying to draw things like this as they happen. I do feel though, that Americans need to examine a society which seems to produce this same situation over and over again, and take a better look at the inequalities in our system. This starts long before a young African-American man and a white police officer exchange eye contact. And this will keep happening, as long as we all continue to look away.