Hi, Yes, I’m Looking for the Eric Garner Protest

Scenes from the streets of New York

Bijan Stephen
Dec 6, 2014 · 11 min read

By Bijan Stephen

(Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I’m here to interview protesters but Times Square is nearly empty, so I ask Grover. The costumed character is standing a few feet away, presumably eyeing the tourists milling about — I can’t tell where the head is looking, but it’s pointed toward me now. What do you think about all this? I ask. Grover tells me he thinks this is all okay, so long as no one’s hurting anyone. Hello Kitty watches from a few feet away, fidgeting nervously.

“We want peace, we want peace,” a man from the mayor’s office tells me. He’s wearing a newsboy cap, and when I ask if I can quote him, he waves me off. I don’t blame him. Earlier, DeBlasio had tweeted something vague and equivocal about peaceful protest — these weren’t his enforcers, but they were there to keep an eye on things. New York is a pressure cooker at the best of times; in the twilight of the Square’s giant electric lights, the massing crowd’s mood feels like it might easily shift. The scrolling billboards juxtapose ads for the television show How To Get Away With Murder and news of the verdict.

Earlier on Wednesday, around 2 p.m., a faceless grand jury decided against indicting the man who was ruled Eric Garner’s cause of death; by 5:15 p.m. tonight, you can feel people’s voices joining together. The Christmas tree in Rockefeller center has been barricaded and sealed off from protestors. Someone on Twitter made a joke that isn’t quite a joke about burning the big tree down. I’m here to observe, to see how Garner will be remembered, to see why others are here.

I spot a pack of teens loitering — what do teens do, anyway, but wait for things to happen? — near the Army recruiting station. They’re blond, all boys except for one girl who eventually drifts away. They tell me they’re high school students from Tennessee; juniors and seniors in town for a marketing club conference. New York isn’t as bad as they’d thought it would be, they say. “It is pretty gross,” one allows. What have they heard?

“I actually just heard about it today in the elevator,” Teen #1 says, in a thick Tennessee accent. “I just happened to see it.”

“I heard about it,” Teen #2 says. “[B]ut you know at this point I’m getting kind of used to it. It happens all the time.” I press them a little on what police brutality made them feel. Are they afraid? Or perhaps: Why should they be afraid? They are blond and blue-eyed and beautiful, the epitome of corn-fed, buxom Americana.

Teen #1: “I mean you definitely don’t want to be in that position, you know,” he says. “Any time you’re around the police I kind of feel like I get nervous. Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you still get nervous.”

Teen #3: “The thing is the people putting their selves [sic] into positions, it’s not the cop just does out of brute meanness.”

Teen #2: “Yeah, but I feel, I feel more nervous around cops than I do feel protected.” It makes me nervous for them that they’ve never had The Talk—the one that all brown children get, that first talk where you listen to your parents because you feel their fear. Police aren’t necessarily there to protect you, honey, your mom might say. And you wonder why until you meet her eyes and see she’s trying to protect you.

While we’ve been talking, the rest of the marketing club has slipped away under the care of a teen-wrangler; another wrangler shows up to ferry our teens back to the rest of the group. He’s in his 40s, and he eyes me and my notepad suspiciously. “Thanks!” I say. “OK you radicals, come on now,” he tells the teens, smiling. Like it’s a joke.

(Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

I make my way down to Union Square, as per Twitter’s advice; there was to be a protest here around 7. Nearly as soon as I emerge into the unseasonably warm night, I’m greeted by a protester (organizer?) telling me to head back the way I’d come — the protest had moved. “Go to Rockefeller Center!” I return underground.

On the platform, I talk to a man holding a sign that reads Black Lives Matter. The strong, unhesitating strokes are faded now; some of the letters have been reduced to their barest outlines. When I ask his name he tells me to call him Luke, just Luke if that’s okay, no last name.

Luke tells me he’d been at the last day of Occupy Boston, which was almost exactly three years ago this week. He felt that the movement hadn’t been a productive use of the public’s energy; their message was too unclear, he says, that there wasn’t a specific thing the protesters wanted. “And the action [tonight] is just simple and clear: This needs to stop.”

“I realized that, yeah, I am sick of just saying things and this is sort of the first step in trying to become more active” he tells me. “I have never personally had problems with an NYPD officer face-to-face, but I also am a six-foot-five, heterosexual, white person and I need to remember that that’s my perspective and that’s not the truth.” The train pulls up and whisks us the way we’d come.

Across the subway car I see a group of white men in suits who look like older clones of the teens I’d spoken to earlier: same in number, arrayed in very nearly the same formation as the kids. “Do you know about Eric Garner?” I ask. I hope they will know.

I’m struck by this fantasy: Through some inexplicable quirk of spacetime, the kids I saw earlier will grow up, make it to Georgia or Arkansas State, find sweethearts there, move to the big city, bathe in its bright lights. In their first or second year of work, Eric Garner is strangled. The protests start while they’re riding the Q train to happy hour. Now I see myself through their eyes — some strange, disheveled black dude wearing a sweater and a beanie and clear glasses, asking them if they know what’s going on tonight. It’s a trip.

“No,” #1 answers. They laugh, embarrassed for each other, embarrassed for me. “Now I feel uninformed.”

I leave it at that and retreat back to my corner. They resume their conversation. One of them hums the bridge to The Killers’ anthem, “All These Things That I’ve Done”.

i got soul but i’m not a soldier
i got soul but i’m not a soldier

(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Rock Center is swamped; I’ve found the crest of the wave. I push against the current. I see a young-looking couple standing in the street beside a large puddle, remnants of yesterday’s rain.

“Because my dad told me not to come,” the boy says, when I ask him why he’s here tonight. He’s finishing his first semester at Columbia, he tells me, and he’d wanted to see what it was going to be like. What had happened was unequivocal—it was on video. Whereas, in his opinion, Michael Brown’s case had not been so clear-cut. He tells me that Brown had robbed a convenience store, and was thus in some way culpable for his murder. It was regrettable that there had been an excessive use of force, he admits, that afternoon in August, but it was hard to say who was right. He also likened the racial tensions in 2014, at this point in our history, to Tom Wolfe’s debut novel, Bonfire Of The Vanities (1987). I don’t really see the connection—racism in New York, I guess?—but I take his word for it.

I hop a puddle, determined to push my way upstream until I can’t move any further. Almost immediately I find myself trapped beside a black father and his two-year-old daughter. He’s a youth correctional officer at Rikers Island. “I don’t really have many words,” he says. I ask him if he thinks this — the Michael Brown killing and subsequent non-indictment, the Eric Garner killing and subsequent non-indictment — is a historical moment. It takes him a minute before he answers.

“The revolution is happening and it’s real,” he says. He describes his presence at the protest like he and his colleagues described it at work: as a biological reaction to injustice. He looks me in the eye and I stare back; we are both black, we are both here, and we both know what tonight means.

He goes on, saying something like this: You can feel it in your cells, and that’s why everyone is out. Soon we’ll evolve, and hopefully there won’t be violence, but if there is it will be necessary. Just, even.

I ask him about his daughter. What is he going to tell her about all this brutality, these murders? She looks at me suspiciously, fat-cheeked, her small lips chapped from Manhattan’s wind-tunnel. She’s wearing a tiny hoodie and its hood is up. “I want to raise her to be a part of the revolution,” her father says. Soon, she’ll turn three.

I free myself from that eddy and circle back around the block. I don’t know why my pace has picked up, but suddenly I’m running in the street down the avenue; and then I’m in the middle of the protesters, swarming along, swept up in the surge and the shouting. I stay quiet, the better to lose myself in the noise. We half-run down Broadway, directly into traffic, snarling it with our amorphous mass.

I try to imagine what the three circling helicopters above see.

“My name is Ephraim Cruz, former federal agent with the Department of Justice and Federal Security, specifically with the US Border Patrol, but I was also a federal whistle-blower. Prior to that, I served with the NYPD out of the 5–2, the 4–6 and 2–0, and the Kelly-1 and Bratton-1.”

I’d started talking to Cruz on the recommendation of another protester who declined to be interviewed. “Talk to him,” she told me, pointing. “He’s the guy.”

We’re rounding Columbus Circle. “Injustice brings me out tonight,” Cruz tells me. “It’s the policy brutality we’re dealing with and the police brutality we’re dealing with.” I ask him what he thinks the mood inside the NYPD might be like. “Right now they feel vindicated,” he says. “Vindicated in their operational terrorism that they’re carrying out for the corporatocracy. It’s unfortunate.”

Is the force nervous tonight? “They’re not nervous. I think last week you saw after the Michael Brown verdict, you saw the NYPD allows certain disturbances in the city, to get a read on our tactics and our approaches. As of last night, I already saw the barricades in place at bridges which we were taking last week. On my way down here I saw cops at every station, just about, that I came down on, on the 6 line. And that’s in anticipations of us shutting down the mass transit system. So, they saw what we were doing, how we were operating and they were ready for this.”

(Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

I’m marching and I’m lost. I’ve never felt safer on the streets of New York. All around me there are people caught up in whatever fervor there is in this moment. The mood is almost joyful as we turn onto the westside highway; my hands are freezing because I’ve got my notepad out, walking and writing and thinking.

I speak to a young white woman. “Amplify other voices,” she says, shooing me away. I speak to a young black man wearing a hoodie with his hood up. Do you have hope for the future? “No.”

Now we’re heading south and west. The taxis and bus drivers are honking in rhythm to our chanting — hands up, they honk, don’t shoot. By the time we’ve reached 10th avenue, almost to the westward edge of Manhattan, I’m at the head of the protest. I talk to a small man in an orange camouflage jacket. When I ask him if he helped organize the protest he tells me that’s a stupid question. He’s here for “police and prison abolition” that this march is only the beginning of a conversation. He’s with another guy. This man has an anarchy tattoo on his left temple, and is wearing a leather jacket with spikes—of course it’s got patches, and of course there’s one that screams “POLICE SOCIETY,” and another from the SoCal punk band, The Adolescents. You are white and naive, I think, but I’m very glad you’re here.

Soon we’ve reached the West Side Highway. We stop at the corner, outside Larry Flint’s Hustler Club. I spot a youngish white man with tight curly hair wearing a keffiyeh as a scarf. I try to talk to an older black woman with bristly silver hair cropped nearly to her scalp — she sees my notepad first. “I’m a radical, baby,” she says, before she runs off. “I don’t do interviews.”

I speak to someone else. “It just shows that people of color are not cared about,” she tells me. She has purple hair, a gap between her front teeth, and a nose ring. Her boyfriend watches me. “Everybody’s here.”

I think about Cruz the whistleblower again. I’d asked him if he thought tonight was going to be the start of something. “Not yet,” he’d said. “We have too many people still sitting on their asses at home. Being entertained. I see a lot of Black and Latinos making their way to a fucking Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza. Not realizing that this is about them and the kids they’re dragging along with them to go see a fucking Christmas tree. On the very day that a father, a husband, a grandfather, was murdered by the NYPD. Our people still don’t understand what’s happening here.”

There’s a police barricade, and we push up against it with our drumbeats and voices and hearts. I stand apart for a second and taste the air. There are at least 1,000 of us here but it feels like more.

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Bijan Stephen

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writer, brooklyn



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