Sitting in a Whole Foods in Chelsea, my friend Bec and one of her fellow activists, Claudia, speak in hushed tones as they hash out the specifics of the action planned for this evening.
The GOP gala, to be held at New York City’s Grand Hyatt, will kick off in a few hours and coalitions have formed around the city in protest of, specifically, Donald Trump.
Across the table from me, Bec and Claudia sit bent over their phones and notebooks, reviewing the plan.
The communications between groups, and within them, is rife with codewords and the most vital intel would never be provided over text — or even verbally in some spaces which are likely to have been bugged.
A crowded Whole Foods is as good a place as any to plan a revolution.
When we hop on the subway to ride the handful of stops to Grand Central, Claudia pulls out a blue Sharpie. She and Bec write a series of digits on their forearms. Bec hands me the permanent marker as the train careens along the tracks.
“In case you get arrested,” she says calmly, “This is the number to call.”
When we arrive at 42nd and Vanderbilt to meet up with the rest of the group, they’re all writing the number on their arms too. It’s the number of the National Lawyer’s Guild. I’m likewise informed that they are present at demonstrations as legal observers, by request, and are denoted by their green baseball caps. For those actively protesting it’s common knowledge that if they witness someone being arrested, they should attempt to get their first and last name and date of birth. This is how an individual gets tracked through the system as they go from holding, to central booking, up to when their docket comes up.
The nonchalance with which these facts are provided is not indicative of a lack of passion, more like a mark of experience. As we, now a group of about ten, snake our way through Grand Central to the other side of the terminal, Bec relays additional practical facts to me as we walk through the already densely packed station: what to do if we witness an arrest, or an act of violence, what to do if someone gets pepper-sprayed.
This last one is important because, as the group learned at previous demonstrations, water makes the pain of being sprayed worse. Julieta, another coalition member, has a fanny-pack with supplies, which includes a bottle of Milk of Magnesia. Another member, Mike, has a bottle of milk in his coat pocket.
What’s important to realize is that these protestors aren’t preparing to incite violence: they’re preparing to take care of one another in the event that it happens anyway.
Julieta, an affable woman in her late twenties, would touch on this later when we all were sitting in a bodega a few blocks away from where the protest had begun to die down. She spoke rather animatedly about how she’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that if she wants to participate in these actions she’ll need to toughen up — not in terms of herself becoming an inevitable victim of violence, but others who she has come to care about.
“It’s not going to get better,” she says of such violence, smiling even though her eyes have begun to tear up, “I’m ready to take it on myself — but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing people I love get hurt.”
The NYPD has already set up “pens” for protestors outside of the Grand Hyatt — the location of the GOP dinner, which not only Trump but Kasich and Cruz will also be attending. We’ve arrived a bit early, so the streets aren’t yet packed, and that’s just as well because members of several coalitions are setting up sound equipment and trying to navigate press interviews.
At this point the police presence vastly outnumbered the protestors, and if you happened to be walking around the perimeter of Grand Central you couldn’t take five steps without seeing a NYPD officer. Most of the ones I saw had plastic cuffs hanging from their belts, which are often used to make arrests. They look out at the throng that has quickly descended upon midtown, guns holstered.
I can only assume that they have to anticipate the worst, but I can’t help but feel afraid of them when I know that the activists I am among have backpacks filled with nothing more than bandaids and milk.
ICE Free NYC, HateFreeNY, Black Lives Matter, People’s Power Assembly, Muslim grassroots campaigns, LGBTQ coalitions, Millions March NYC, #Fightfor15, the newly formed SURJ-NYC coalition and countless others began to fill the pens and neighboring sidewalks. There were, as one would expect at 6 PM on a Thursday night, a lot of people my age who had the time and energy to mount such a demonstration — but there were also many people who were significantly older, a few who may not have been physically able to march but still held signs and raised their voices.
It couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes before the event that would make headlines occurred: an act of violence that perfectly fit into the ol’ “if it bleeds, it ledes” adage that all reporters abide by.
A Trump supporter (one of, perhaps, twenty that showed up) came into the pen. What happened next of course depends on what you read. Conservative media groups insisted that the supporter was provoked. Liberal outlets and those of us who were there, saw the event unfold quite a bit differently.
Mike, the man who was punched, had been the one organizing our group earlier as we walked through Grand Central. He was later arrested during a demonstration. The Trump supporter who instigated was escorted out of the pen by NYPD, who helped him readjust the sign he wore with information about firearm usage. Later, they would help him get back into the pen.
News feels more like entertainment than anything else, so I wasn’t surprised by the media’s coverage of the protest — but I was there, in the middle of it, and it wasn’t the unruly mob it was made out to be.
By news standard it was pretty underwhelming — a few successful banner drops, chanting and music pumping through the sound system (which was set up with a permit, in accordance with city law). At one point, some flyers came raining down from the roof of a nearby building, fluttering down onto the street.
The pen did, of course, become crowded fairly quickly. The sidewalks were packed and when a small group of us set off on foot we went around an entire block to circle back to Grand Central. Congested, yes. Angry mob?
But that doesn’t mean to say that people aren’t angry: many people who marched in protest of not just Trump, but the GOP, are living an actual “American Horror Story” as they fear deportation, police brutality, rape, poverty and a multitude of societal ills that overwhelm these minority groups. POC, LGBTQ, those who are differently abled — particularly those who are also women — are protesting multiple socioeconomic and political issues at once when they protest the Republican party.
The speakers often remind us over the loudspeaker that we’re not here in favor of any Democratic candidate. In fact, despite the reports of liberals flocking the streets in protest of the GOP, most of the people I talked to or overheard weren’t in support of the Democratic candidates either. Many of the young people seemed to be struggling to come to terms with the fact that they’d been brought up to believe it was their civic duty to vote, and that their vote mattered — but now, as they enter into adulthood, they’ve witnessed so much institutional racism, sexism and bigotry that they feel disenchanted by the entire democratic process.
I only witness this second-hand, through those who I know or through what the media portrays. Twitter has opened my eyes to social injustice in a way that didn’t exist in the pre-internet days.
Of course, that being said, technology has also been a Godsend for organizers, who need to be able to communicate discreetly and constantly with one another. To organize the action, yes, but also for safety. While I was privy to this, I’m not going to discuss it at risk of jeopardizing the ongoing safety and efficacy of these coalitions.
Bec and I converge with a breakaway group of the protest about 150 people strong as it makes its way through the main terminal of Grand Central station. Bystanders are whipping out their phones. Earlier, when we were still out on the street, a group of gala attendees sitting in a bar overhead watched the protest blithely as they sipped Chateau Margaux.
Those who watch do so not with their eyes, but through the lenses of their iPhones. I find myself wondering if that’s the only way people can see us.
I’m guilty of this. I watch the news, I read the news, I search Getty and AP for images. When Bec has participated in protests before and I haven’t been in New York City myself, I’ve followed the coverage and blindly allowed the media to tell me what to believe happened.
As we march through Grand Central, surrounded by more police officers than I have ever seen in my life, I stop chanting and I just listen. I put my phone down and I watch with my eyes, not a filtered lens. I stop thinking and I just feel.
I don’t feel scared — I don’t feel endangered. I actually feel quite calm and secure. I feel as though if, at this moment, if someone were to attack me, the strangers that I am marching alongside would come to my aid. I don’t hesitate at all to think I’d do the same — I have first aid training for a reason. The only time my stomach flutters with nerves is when we round a corner and are up against police officers, who have guns and mace.
But one feeling that I wasn’t expecting, but that washes over me as the sun starts to go down and the voices of thousands fill these streets, is guilt that I am white. Because while I am vehemently against the political rhetoric that continues to debase people of color, those who are LGBTQ and other marginalized groups, it begins to occur to me that white voices are heard over any others, and I wonder if my speaking up and out is actually just making it harder for those around me to be heard.
When I arrived in NYC and told Bec I wanted to accompany her, I was thinking about myself. I was thinking that, years from now when there are young people in my life asking about this period in history, I didn’t want to have to admit to passivity. I didn’t want to have to say, “I didn’t agree with their ideology, their politics and their hatred — but I didn’t do anything about it.”
I was trying to prevent a future sense of guilt while being totally obvious to the guilt I would feel in the present.
The reports of last night’s protest continue to roll in, and as I was not too long ago a reporter myself, I can only imagine the b-roll being sifted through in newsrooms right now, the high-res JPEGs and carefully plucked soundbites. At one point as I was standing amidst the fray, a few young reporters behind me muttered to each other that they “had what they needed” and might as well just leave. I empathized with the fact that they had deadlines by which to file the story if they wanted it to make the 11 o’clock report, but the tone of their voices was not unlike the protestors they so cavalierly felt they differed from.
While the headlines and the tickers would make the protest out to be a raucous mob, all I felt was exhaustion. The protests and actions don’t end here, just as they didn’t start here. The movement continues because change doesn’t come. The reporters drag their feet and smoke their e-cigarettes on the sidewalks praying for a fight to break out because ratings are down. The activists walk for miles on blistered feet in cities around the world, hoisting up signs while bottles of milk drip in their jacket pockets. The reporters are paid to be there, of course, but so are the cops — and one guess as to who makes a living wage. But some of those police officers have been on their feet for hours (not the ones with the segues paid for with taxpayer money, I have a harder time sympathizing with them) and are missing their kids’ bedtime for the third night in a row.
I bet a lot of them just wish it would all get shutdown so they could see their kids, right? And at least they can go home and see their family; so many people in the streets haven’t seen their families for years. They’ve lost siblings and children to violence.
One of the hashtags the groups used last night, #ShutDownTrumpForAkai, was cleared with the family of Akai Gurley who was shot in Brooklyn last year by a police officer in a dark stairwell. While the shooting was declared accidental, it was of interest in part because neither of the officers had attempted to render aid to Akai after he had been shot.
The jury also had doubts about the accidental nature of the shooting, believing that an accidental discharge of a police-issued firearm was unlikely. Akai Gurley’s death also dredged up the injustice of Ferguson, which prompted the #BlackLivesMatter movement just months prior.
As of this morning, around thirty arrests were made, among them many people I spoke to and more than a handful who had offered up that practical safety information beforehand. They had been among the dozen or so who had infiltrated the hotel successfully in an attempt to disrupt, and shutdown, the GOP fundraiser. Several members of SURJ-NYC were arrested for blocking the access road for the limos carrying guests and, of course, Trump himself.
A group of us departed and headed back to Brooklyn — Bec and I, to return home, and a few others head off to meet those being held. Bec explained that there are always some members of the coalition who don’t participate in a protest so that they can be the first responders, of sorts, when arrests are made. They, along with any members who have emerged from the demonstration unscathed, head to 1 Police Plaza to provide jail support.
I ask Bec what that is, exactly.
“For when they’re released — y’know, be there with snacks, water, cigarettes — emotional support,” she turns to me, “So no one has to walk out of there and be alone.”