After feds were deployed to (unsuccessfully) quell the protests in Portland, OR., the NYC protest scene started wondering if the same fate would come here and that rumble of uncertainty continues.
When Trump teased the possibility of sending them here a few weeks ago, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio had their near-ritualistic pissing contest of each scrambling to say “no thank you” more powerfully than the other. Trump threatened to send in the feds again on Monday if the mayor can’t “stop the bloodshed” (???). All told, it seems Trump wants to deploy feds here just for the hell of it. Whether Cuomo and DeBlasio stop their petty boy fighting remains to be seen. Maybe DeBlasio will let the feds come here as retribution for Cuomo getting a book deal. Maybe Cuomo will ask them to come to prove how inept a leader DeBlasio is. That’s how petty these two are.
In any case, the NYPD has endeavored to prove they can handle the protests on their own. Over the last few months, Manhattan has become so overwhelmed with cops they might as well rename it Staten Island 2. According to a counterterrorism agent I spoke with, the NYPD reallocated funds away from foot patrol POs to push a huge variety of cops to concentrate on the protests. Counterterrorism, disorder control, emergency services, and community affairs officers are all common sights in Manhattan these days. There’s also plenty of undercover cops strolling the crowds and unmarked cars lining every major street of the city, with a seemingly endless line of police vans lying in wait around every corner. To say NYC is a police state would be an incredible understatement.
The only problem? Protestors are evolving.
An anarchist action this past weekend was a learning experience for many attendees. They discovered, following a “successful action” where no arrests or altercations ensued, that it’s easier to evade police in Brooklyn — where streets wind and end and narrow seemingly arbitrarily — than it is in Manhattan, which famously is a city on a grid. The NYPD couldn’t keep up. Instead, they drove up and down the streets of Williamsburg scrambling to find the demonstrators. They had a helicopter hover over McCarren Park where a mellow film screening was underway. The only thing the police could find were the broken windows and graffitied walls left in the demonstrators’ wake.
It was a marked difference from J25 and what was supposed to be a massive solidarity protest that the cops fully extinguished before 11pm. For what felt like the first time since people started protesting against the death of George Floyd, the NYPD couldn’t flex on the offensive. The NYPD loves to flex. This is a police department that will hover a helicopter as close as they can to a peaceful rally or a film screening just to drown out the sound and annoy people. This is a department that flew a drone in an activist’s window and harassed him for 6 hours straight over a months-old allegation that he spoke into a megaphone and injured an officer’s hearing. The NYPD police vans flank protests by the dozens. Cop cars try trailing a protest with their lights on or have officers on foot walk within the perimeter of the march to make it seem like a mini parade. The NYPD does everything they can to quietly remind demonstrators “We’re here. We’re watching you. We’ll get you.”
This is also a department that has been clearly straining to take the wind out of the protest sails by scaling back use of force responses. Obviously they often forget this and, when they think there’s no one watching, wail on people anyway. But the collective response to protests has noticeably shifted. Rather than bull rushing and pepper spraying (a favorite of theirs), the NYPD uses their batons and bikes to form barricades, move demonstrators back, and force a dispersal (or kettle them into a mass arrest). They’re trying to be as inoffensive as possible while still, you know, grabbing and tracking and harassing people.
Two things are fascinating about this: The tension among protestors knowing it won’t last — and the (unintentional?) acknowledgement by the NYPD that police behavior is what provokes protests. You can’t claim protestors are misguided when part of your effort in quelling them is to change your behavior. It’s kind of a big tell. Plus, that’s the kind of response police should have had back when the only demands were “please stop killing people.” The stakes have since been raised. Now the driving force for protests is to completely abolish the job of ‘police officer’ and bring the whole system crumbling down. Good behavior won’t change that. The helicopters, the legion of police vans, the 5:1 ratio of officer-to-normie on the streets of Manhattan, the sporadic yet extreme responses of cops on the hunt for individual protestors — all of that fuel is the driving force for the demonstrations of today.
[Frank Sinatra voice] Send in the feds…
People want the NYPD gone. Alongside that and somewhat complimentary to it, people want the feds to come here. It’s an easy thing to rub in the face of The Greatest Police Department On Earth: You couldn’t control your people and had to have the Big Daddy Brigade Do It For You.
It’s also a pristine outlet for all of the pent-up aggression and frustration at the failures of the city. Whether that’s pretending to defund the police, Corey Johnson punishing councilmembers’ districts who opposed his bad budget, calls for Commissioner Shea’s resignation amid constant sidelining justice and general dickhattery, or the NYPD raiding Abolition Park in the middle of the night. There’s a lot people are upset about. An extreme escalation would let it out. It’s almost casually accepted at this point. Big shrugs and light nods accompany statements like “If you want feds, just fuck up a federal building.”
Of course, there’s the people who don’t want the feds here. They’re the ones who brunch outdoors, pretend all is normal, and think Bayside is “a nice place” when it’s actually a vomitous cult of ugly houses and bad 90s haircuts. When the choice lies between momentary discomfort or longterm pain, they prefer the longterm because it’s not a pain they suffer from hardest. Those people exist, certainly. But there is a hunger for an uprising growing in the city. Perhaps awoken by impending mass evictions or a broader desire to take back the city before the gentrifiers return from wherever they’ve gone after fleeing New York or something else.
Underneath the outdoor dining booths, below the subways, deep deep down in the earth, there’s the faintest echo of an old melancholic tune. Distorted just slightly, it grows louder by the day.
This was originally published 8/19/2020 on my Patreon, which you should support!