New York Is Committed to Covering This Essential Moment
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Bill de Blasio didn’t have a good morning, and that’s fair, because neither did I or anyone else in his city. When he showed up as usual for Brian Lehrer’s weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment, the venerable WNYC host asked him some thrilling questions. “I think there is one dominant topic for you this week,” Lehrer said. “It seems, from a lot of reporting, that the city has a problem of the protests against too much police violence being met with too much police violence, or heavy-handed police tactics. Do you accept the premise?”
“No,” the mayor said. People are deeply hurt, he added. There’s anger. There’s pain. There are problems in policing we all have to fix. But minus a few unfortunate incidents, he continued, “the police have shown a lot of restraint.” Citing reality, Lehrer pushed back. Here’s all the reporting, he told the mayor. But the mayor dug in. No, no, no. Not happening, not here.
De Blasio’s New York, where the cops are good apples and looters and protesters are one and the same, is more than a fantasy. It’s a lie. The real topography of this city is shaped by police violence. You can walk its streets and point out the primary features of note. Here’s where the police killed Eric Garner. Here’s where they killed Sean Bell, Anthony Baez, Ramarley Graham, Patrick Dorismond. Here is where Amadou Diallo’s old building is; the police murdered him in front of it. Here’s where they raped Anna Chambers in custody. In the week since protests over George Floyd’s killing began, the police have added indelible new landmarks to our map. The mayor pretends not to see them.
Maybe he needs an itinerary. Load him into one of those double-decker tourist buses, let him sit up top, and haul him around. The cops broke a protester’s arm here. On this street they shoved a young woman to the ground so hard she had a seizure. Or take him to the Strand. Great bookstore. A cop pulled a gun on unarmed protesters in front of it. Drive him to the corner of St. Marks and Flatbush. There, he can see the spot where the NYPD drove an SUV into a crowd. Escort him over the Manhattan Bridge. The other night, the police trapped thousands of people on it for hours.
He can come to my neighborhood if he wants. I’ll show him around. A week ago I walked out of my apartment and up Tompkins Avenue and found myself in a protest. You can do that now, in New York. Walk to Walgreens, there’s a protest. Walk up Eastern Parkway, protest. The mayor gets driven places so perhaps he doesn’t see them. The protests are peaceful, and so was the local crowd last Friday. People had gathered in front of the 79th Precinct to be heard. They succeeded, for a while. Then, for no reason I could ascertain, the police flooded toward us from across the street. In front of them they held their batons, cross-body, ready to push. They pushed and shoved and hit even when we all tried to comply. After the pushing started a protester threw a water bottle at a cop’s head, which seemed like a natural response to being threatened, and the cops got even angrier with those batons. Some of them were restrained but some of them enjoyed it and you could see it on their faces.
The next night, a Saturday, I went out again. The mayor was not present and did not see anything. But here’s what I saw. For the second night in a row, the police turned a calm demonstration into dangerous mayhem. They charged a crowd in the streets near the Barclays Center. I don’t know why. Once again there was no provocation that I witnessed. They rushed protesters down the street, spraying mace, wielding batons. I saw people on the ground. I heard my fiancé, who had come to march, scream my name from the sidewalk and that frightened me, because he’s a former Marine and doesn’t easily startle. He reached out and tried to pull me toward him. I’d turned my back to the cops, thinking I’d outrun them and the mace and the sticks. I had come to stand on a curb out of their way. But a cop approached from behind, baton raised, ready to push me down or shove me even further down the street. Not far from where we stood, the police had just arrested HuffPost reporter Chris Mathias.
I have since acquired a press badge. The item feels like a good-luck charm, its protective qualities a comforting fiction. The police don’t care about the First Amendment, which protects protesters and reporters alike. Neither does de Blasio, who with his curfews intends to remove a peaceful protest movement from his streets. The impulse to restrict speech, to restrict movement and assembly, is antidemocratic to the core. So too are de Blasio’s lies. In an ideological sense he may have no choice but to pretend. The alternative is to concede that he, a good liberal who thought he could be president, fosters violent authoritarianism at home.
But here’s the truth, which will be the truth whether or not de Blasio admits it to Brian Lehrer. The police have arrested legal observers and journalists and peaceful protesters. They’ve beaten people savagely, almost killed a few with a car, and terrorized entire neighborhoods. They have incited violence where none flourished, and a few opportunistic looters don’t substantively bolster the police commissioner’s version of events. The police are brutalizing people, the way they always have, except now it’s even harder for the comfortable among us to ignore. It’s all on video, night after night. We see it. We won’t forget it. We don’t live in de Blasio’s New York.