Theme X, Sensory: “We Can’t Breathe” – Sights and Sounds of NYC Protest

By Jonathan Kesh

Word had spread that a protest was brewing in Union Square, and it was clear that something would happen. After last week’s Ferguson protests, the fate of Eric Garner in Staten Island and a second police indictment suffering from an “existence failure” was too close to home for something not to occur again.

When I got to the south end of Union Square shortly after sundown, the only signs that there might be an anti-racism, anti-police brutality protest were the abundance of police officers calmly waiting around. In a protest that was now directly in response to the NYPD, their presence would be understandably unwanted, but they seemed undeterred. The officers were largely silent. I walked around them and moved north until I could hear a megaphone nearby.

47th Street and 6th Avenue. Photo by Jonathan Kesh

Outside Radio City Music Hall. Photos by Jonathan Kesh

It was dark out, and the air was still wet from the rain earlier in the day, but there was a crowd. Centered around a man with the megaphone, in the northwestern corner of the square, was a small but quickly growing group of people, many of whom already had big white signs at the ready reading “Ferguson is everywhere — Police brutality and murder must stop, with other people holding their own makeshift picket signs. The speaker, a young man dressed in a black hat and coat to keep off the evening cold, spoke about Michael Brown of Ferguson and Eric Garner of Staten Island, occasionally handing his megaphone to guest speakers. I was close to the center, and as the crowd grew around me, people began to applaud and cheer after each sentence condemning the police for the murders. Eventually, the crowd grew to such a size where the people surrounding the speaker would shout out his or her sentences in repetition, riling up the crowd and ensuring everyone was on the same page; this was generally signaled by the speaker shouting, “Mic check!”

After a declaration from the speaker that the march would begin in ten minutes, the chants began to reflect a disdain for the forced holiday cheer that seemed so eerily and starkly out of place. “All I want for Christmas is to indict the killer cops!” To make a point, the plan was to march to Rockefeller Center and crash the tree lighting ceremony. The march soon took off, with about a hundred voices chanting, in extreme clarity, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell! Indict, indict! Send those killer cops to jail!”

The march begins. Photo by Jonathan Kesh

The march begins

Whether by merging with other groups or by expanding as new people individually joined, the march grew in size. New signs showed up, from bright yellow signs saying “Jail killer cops!” to simple cardboard signs saying “What does it take? I can’t breathe!” to two men holding a huge “Black lives matter” banner with red letters. More cops inevitably showed up as well, keeping a constant watch on what was entirely a nonviolent protest. Between the completely clear chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” were moments of static as protesters talked among themselves, and observers (tourists and locals both) watched and took smartphone photos from their apartments, restaurant windows, and the other side of the street. A few people were leading the march around, but otherwise, everyone knew where they were going. One man ran the perimeter of the tightly packed marchers, shouting “Get off the sidewalk!” as he moved into the street. This was eventually followed by a police woman getting in front of him to shout “Stay ON the sidewalk!” By 30th Street, the protest was completely on the streets, stopping cars as they either honked in solidarity (some were honking their horns in rhythm with the chants), or sat in their cars impatiently waiting. These people would also honk, not in solidarity.

As the march moved onward, the bright lights of Radio City were visible as the police really started cracking down. Metal barricades lined the sidewalks at 46th Street and 6th Avenue, although they weren’t put up in full force until half the marchers had moved across. The protest stopped abruptly when they realized they had been cut in half, and the police stood by and watched their plan run completely smoothly. The tree lighting was soon, or perhaps already happening. As protestors and other New Yorkers alike reached the corner, everyone was packed in as the police seemed to debate what to do with all the kenneled New Yorkers. People tried to move around, but others unintentionally put up resistance as people tried in vain to force them aside. The local train station was blocked off. Everyone was pushed together, and chants of “I can’t breathe!” became dangerously more accurate. This lasted several minutes. The barricades were only waist high, but seeing as this was a protest in response to police brutality, people seemed afraid of potentially starting a riot by knocking them down, fearing the outcome.

"I can't breathe"

Most of these are protesters, but some are just stuck

This reached a near breaking point one block further north at 47th and 6th, after the police had opened up the barricade and let the protesters reunite. The chants resumed, morale was restored. The protest was extremely large at this point, with several hundred people on the streets. The march was now a block away from Rockefeller Center, although any sounds from the tree lighting ceremony were completely drowned out by the chaos as police confronted the protesters head on for the first time. Despite the impassioned call-and-response of “Whose streets? Our streets!” from the protesters, more barricades were up on this street with several police officers and vehicles now in the street.

I couldn’t get a head count, but the intersection and all four corner sidewalks were completely full. There were no spots where you weren’t at least a foot away from several protesters, onlookers or police, and the feelings of claustrophobia were growing more palpable. This time, the police spoke through a megaphone, commanding the protesters to clear the streets immediately or face arrest, as they were now holding up traffic. Seeing as no one could move unless everybody moved, nobody moved. Protesters shouted back in defiance, “You serve us! You serve us!” “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” and some scattered instances of “Fuck you!”

The police barricades

The barricades

Despite being cut off from the tree lighting, the news vans had found their way here, and giant cameras from network and local stations scanned the thousand heads in the intersection. A police officer now announced that “Anyone blocking the roadway is now under arrest! You are now under arrest!” As far as I know, only three of the hundreds of people blocking the roadway were arrested here, but this caused a minor panic and forced everyone to disperse, as the crowd was pushed west into Times Square. This group of protesters would never reach Rockefeller Center.

From that point on, the direction of the march was improvised. Someone would mic check, shout “Broadway! Let’s shut it down!” and the crowd would applaud in agreement, a decision successfully made. One final attempt was made to head back east, where several protesters laid down in the streets, but they were eventually forced back up and back into Times Square. From here, they moved north into Columbus Circle. Another die-in was held, and the megaphone was passed around, including to one woman who came here from Ferguson, encouraging people not to lose their spirits. A last mic check ensured that everyone knew the number to call if they were arrested, which was the number of the National Lawyers Guild NYC.

The news cameras still followed, and from Columbus Circle onward, a low-flying helicopter began buzzing over everyone’s heads, shining a flashlight above the entire time. People jeered at it, as it was likely a police chopper, but it became an unshakable follower of the march. As they marched, new people showed up. Some had cowbells. Some carried white flags with peace symbols on them. One guy brought a snare drum to give a cadence. Several people were still handing out signs. When it became clear that everyone had one, they tucked them under the windshields of parked police cars.

There were several minutes where it looked like this protest group was going to dissolve up here, as half the group wanted to head to West Side Highway to shut it down, while the other half wanted to head south to Times Square, where they had heard several hundred more people were protesting. After some competing mic checks, they eventually chose the highway, where they blocked the street until someone warned of police trying to kennel the group again. By this point, the march was near Times Square, and they returned that way in a last triumphant march through the brightly lit streets. Onlookers cheered them on here, one man throwing up his arms in solidarity until a policeman standing next to him calmly pulled his arms back down.

From here, the protest continued east toward the United Nations building, although the group was much smaller now. It had been a little under four hours since it began. But those that were still here chanted into the night, “How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D!” and “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

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