Even the roar of the hovering helicopter was overpowered Wednesday night by the crowd’s loud chants against aggressive policing. “No justice, no peace; no racism, police,” the protesters gathered Union Square shouted.
The demonstrators, carrying signs and placards that read, “Black lives matter” and “I mourn broken backs not broken windows,” gathered to demand justice in the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man whose spine was severed while in police custody and later died.
The New York protest was part of organized demonstrations spreading across the country in various cities yesterday, from Seattle to Minneapolis. Millions March NYC, the same group that coordinated a march in mid-December that drew roughly 60,000 people to the streets of Manhattan in mid-December to protest the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions, organized Wednesday’s march to call for justice for Freddie Gray.
Wednesday’s demonstration began peacefully in New York City around 6 p.m. Demonstrators started in Union Square and marched west at 7 p.m. along the East 17th Street. Protesters dispersed to several small groups across Manhattan: some reached Times Square chanting “We got your back,” others streamed onto the West Side Highway and blocked the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, shutting down several streets. Police started ordering protesters to stay on the sidewalk about halfway down the block and arrested at least 100 activists.
“Freddie Gray is the only most recent example of corruption of the white police force here in America,” said Sean Hill, a 28-year-old black attorney focusing on criminal defense and family law. “I believe that it is a system that is inherently corrupt, that has made billions, if not trillions of dollars out of the lives of black people in this country.”
Hill was joined by hundreds of campaign organizers, college students, lawyers, and mothers with their children, tired of depressing yet similarly tragic deaths faced by the African-American men.
“I walk on the street a lot, and I feel I am going to be the next,” said one man, whose first name is Justin. He stood against a wall leaning against a cane and said he didn’t feel comfortable giving his full name for fear of police retaliation. “I have visions of people out on the street fighting for me.”
He said it was the first time that he came to a protest like this.
“I worried about not being able to walk or stand long enough, or get injured by a police officer,” he said, explaining that he has osteoarthritis and has to rely on a cane to move around. “I wanted to come for moral support.”
He explained that he has been harassed a few times by police, who even asked to inspect his cane.
“They wanted to see if it was a weapon,” Justin said. “That has made me very nervous.”
Many in the crowd said they stood in solidarity with the protesters in Baltimore to denounce the repeated senseless death of black men and they addressed the issue of racism and inequity that they believe lie at the core of the tensions.
“The media talked about young people looting, but this system has looted black people for 400 years,” said Travis Morales, a gray-haired man, holding a speaker in front of a massive sign that read, “Stop murder by police” and featured pictures of various black men killed by police nationwide. Morales is on the steering committee of the Stop the Mass Incarceration Network in New York and a leader of Revolutionary Communist Party.
A group of young men, dressed in black and wearing black masks covering all but the eyes, held up a black banner with white slogan, “Make them pay for Freddie Gray.”
“We are tired of the absolute degradation of human lives,” said a protester who also did not want to give his name. “I think it is better to stay anonymous and not give any leeway for police to come and get you because some of us are involved in some other organizing projects.”
“It is a very empowering feeling to have a sense of anonymity. It allows you to be more outrageous and take extra chances,” he added.
College students were a prominent presence at the protest at the square—and many of them anchored their opposition in a disdain of capitalism.
“Capitalism puts people in the poverty and keeps them there,” said Owen Hirschi, freshman majoring in biology at Fordham University. “There’s no upward opportunity. This will continue happen if there is poverty, especially within the minorities.”
“The real reason behind the riot is because people are so upset with the state,” Hirschi added. “That’s a natural progress of revolution of people trying to fight back against the system.”
Overall, however, most of the protesters were sympathetic toward the Baltimore protesters and justified the civil unrest in the city.
Heaven Bolden, a black mother from Brooklyn, protested with her 9-year-old twin girls, “This fight is their fight as well,” Bolden said with a cracking voice. “They are going to be teenagers, and they are going to be young adult. And they are also targeted by the police.”
Bolden said her cousin, Tiffany McMillan, who lives in Queens, was a victim of police brutality. She called police for a dispute with her mother eight years ago. The dispute was resolved by the time police arrived, but she said, they forced their way into her apartment looking for evidences of the dispute. Her cousin winded up getting assaulted by five cops and suffered black eyes, broken jaw, and concussion. She stayed two nights at a hospital, in return she was charged with felony assault and spent $50,000 in court.
“Every action has a reaction,” Bolden said. “You can’t treat people like animals and expect them to behave as humans. People have pent-up aggression, anger that needs to be released. When you are allowing people to be mistreated, it results in an action of what was displayed on them.”