How does it feel to protest police brutality with New York City?
Incredible. Heartbreaking. Enraging. Overwhelming. Disheartening. Igniting.
Last night, on Tuesday Nov 25th, 2014 thousands gathered around the country and in New York City to protest the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
The police presence started in my neighborhood as early as 2:00 pm. At around 7:00 pm, people gathered in NYC’s Union Square. When I arrive, I first notice a music circle with trumpets, trombones, drums and more. There is minor chanting, but the energy to come was only beginning to ruminate.
I have my camera, ready to photograph and document the protesters and police alike. I am prepared to be on the sidelines, observing, as is in my nature. When the line forms, ready to start the march, the crowd doubles in size in a matter of seconds. It feels like people come out of thin air. I turn around to find another hundred or so people approaching.
And they begin to march.
I snap pictures as fast as I can. I feel the energy leaping off the crowd; it’s tangible. They move forward like a perfect ocean flowing through the park, overtaking the streets. They walk in peace, everyone in tandem. I see a melting pot of ages, races, shapes and sizes marching as one. It’s incredible, and for a true NY story, I actually see my therapist marching with a protest sign. Everyone was represented.
I snap photograph after photograph, engulfed in my lens. I look down at my phone for just a moment, checking the time and look up to see an amazing sight. Dozens of hands are raised in the air, in the surrender position. The unified crowd with hands up take small steps forward toward me.
One lone voice shouts “Hands Up.”
The entire crowd responded, “Don’t shoot”
His voice gets louder, but still alone, “Hands up!”
And louder the crowd chants, “Don’t shoot.”
They repeat it and walk.
I’m overcome with emotion. In a flash, I see my past experiences with racism, the faces of ignorance I’ve encountered as a biracial woman and finally I see my biracial siblings.
I see the face of my 7-year old black brother and the face of my 3-year-old half white, half Hispanic brother. My 3-year-old brother, while mixed will “pass” for white as he grows older. I see the two of them in my mind and know that they will grow identically at home and be loved equally in my heart, but in society, they will experience two different worlds and have to live up to two different standards. And that is heartbreaking.
The crowd’s unison isn’t a rage. It’s a plea. It’s gentle. They ask for their rights, as New Yorkers, US citizens, as humans. In that moment, I feel like they talk directly to me. They ask me to put down my camera.
“Don’t shoot.” Join us. And I did.
This happens a lot as the crowd continues. People stumble upon the protest and join in. As we turn down 6th avenue, the people are unstoppable. Cars are parked in their lanes. Some are turned off; no one is going anywhere. The sea of humans floods the entire avenue for blocks.
As we pass some cars, you can see their looks of annoyance. We disrupted their commute. Other cars honk for the protesters. One man sticks his hand out his window and high fives people as they pass by. Another older white man sticks a thumbs up out the window and chants with the sea. At one point, I see three people get out of a full car and join the march, leaving a distraught driver stuck with the car. The movement grows.
As we continue down Houston Street, we overtake more lanes. The crowd naturally walks at different paces and begins to separate. Soon we hear shouting, “Move Faster! Close the gap! The police want to split us into groups.” Without warning, the crowd takes off, literally running to the next intersection. There’s nothing to do but run.
As I run with the crowd, I feel excited, scared, ignited and more than anything, I feel ready. I feel up for this run, ready to keep going, to close the damn gap. And we do just that.
When I leave the protest, I walk only a few blocks before I realize the rest of the city is largely unaffected. It’s as if on this block they could never have guessed a few blocks away cars were in standstill traffic being overtaken by the sea of people. I think about Michael Brown and wonder if this matters. What does it mean that I just walked a couple of miles in protest? How does that help?
I don’t know yet, but I do know that it feels like more than a protest. It feels like a beginning. It feels like the flame was lit, and not only on this block of New York City. Change has to start somewhere; it has to start with people paying attention.
I realize I can still hear the chants in the distance. I look up to see the helicopters overhead and I know that this was one small step. For just a moment, the cars were standing still. Police watched on the sidelines, unable to do anything. For just a moment, a few thousand people shut down some of the biggest avenues and highways in the City That Never Sleeps.
For a few moments, we stood up together and forced people to pay attention. I hope that tomorrow and in the coming months, this is still on our minds. I hope for my little’s brother’s sake, Michael Brown’s sake, Trayvon Martin’s sake, Akai Gurley’s sake and your sake and my sake that this isn’t a fleeting cause; this is history in the making.
I can say it certainly felt that way.