Mr. Ryan Goes to Harlem

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s visit to a charter school in East Harlem Tuesday briefly brought bedlam to the neighborhood.

Half a block on West 118th Street east of Lenox Avenue was barricaded, and dozens of police officers roamed the sidewalk. Nearly 100 protesters set up camp opposite the charter school, waiting for hours for a glimpse of Ryan and the chance to express their displeasure with him and the American Health Care Act he helped shepherd through the House of Representatives last week. New York and national news outlets clamored for good spots setting up tripods on stoops, or clambering up onto railings, all for a glimpse of Paul Ryan.

For a few seconds as he passed between the door of the school and his motorcade, Ryan smiled and waved. Demonstrators yelled, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” Then he stepped into his car.

Protesters, many of whom came from outside of Harlem

Protesters, many of whom came from outside of Harlem

As Ryan’s motorcade of three gleaming black SUVs glided east on 118th Street, the police un-barricaded the street, releasing about 10 people who had been stuck there. Two men said they had been waiting for over an hour, waiting to get to their apartment further down the block.

The protesters dissipated even more quickly than the police, after the speaker’s cars were gone. Many left behind their signs, propped up on cars or against buildings. Some just left them lying on the sidewalk.

Several residents, venturing out to their stoops as the scrum cleared, noted they hadn’t recognized any of the protesters who came to their street that day. Strange, they said, because 118th Street is the kind of street where everyone knows everyone else.

Discarded protest signs

Discarded protest signs

“All these damn Caucasians come here and dirty up our place,” said Ashaki Abraham, referring to the outsiders as she picked picking up a protest sign left on the ground and put it in a nearby trash can. “And he’s not even listening to them.”

Abraham was waiting for her father to come home. Her niece Naya Abraham waited with her, while Naya’s son and Ashaki’s daughter played on the red-painted steps of their home. They chatted with other people walking the street and standing on adjacent stoops, wondering aloud about the small hurricane of activity that had blown through their corner of the city Tuesday afternoon. They seem to know everybody who passes. The Abraham family has lived on West 118th Street for decades, in a building right across from the charter school.

Ashaki Abraham’s father, Lloyd Abraham, came up the street about half an hour after Speaker Ryan left. His booming voice could be heard from way down the block, as he greeted the neighbors filtering back onto their stoop and sidewalk perches. The two small children heard him coming and tore down down the block, the older one yelling “Granddad! Granddad!” as the younger one just screamed in excitement.

Lloyd Abraham was surprised by the dozens of police officers on his block, and regarded them with disbelief. “They didn’t come here to protect and serve the people who live here and who have to pass through these streets every day. A stranger gets more protection here than the people who live here every single day,” he said.

The family couldn’t remember any other time there had been so many police on their street, not even in response to a recent shooting.

“A boy got shot last month out front by my car,” said Ashaki Abraham. “They sent five police officers,” she said, holding up five fingers.

The Abrahams said they didn’t have a problem with charter schools, the issue Ryan was there to promote. But they were angry about the Republican’s role in passing the American Health Care Act in the House of Representatives last week.


Ashaki Abraham found the heavy police presence ironic, given this development. “Ryan can hurt me more than I can hurt him,” she said. “He can basically kill me by cutting out all my health care from my preexisting conditions.”

But she wishes the attention on the neighborhood would last longer than one man’s visit. “Our everyday issues are going to continue to be our everyday issues,” she said.

West 118th at Lenox, near the Success Academy in Harlem

West 118th at Lenox, near the Success Academy in Harlem