BROOKLYN — The downtown area of this New York City borough looked like it was under martial law as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning.
Dozens of police vehicles screamed to a halt in front of a McDonald’s near the DeKalb subway stop, as what appeared to be at least a hundred officers with plastic shields pushed back on crowds shouting “George Floyd,” and “Eric Garner,” two African Americans killed by police. “Go home!” officers shouted back, waving batons.
A pile of trash burned on the asphalt. Cars honked their horns. Sirens blazed. Fire trucks rushed to the scene. Multiple times, police pushback caused a stampede — sometimes prompted by glass bottles thrown at officers from the crowd, sometimes seemingly prompted by nothing at all.
One woman who said she was a medic rushed forward to help a man bleeding from his forehead. Seconds later, she ran the opposite direction, clutching her eyes, saying she’d been pepper sprayed and asking for someone, anyone to grab saline solution from her bag.
“At nighttime they get real dirty. They want you to go home and they become very, very aggressive,” said protester Derek Rutledge, 53, an unemployed accountant born and raised in downtown Brooklyn.
He’d arrived by bicycle for a way to escape if things got hairy and said this was his second night protesting. “There are good cops and there’s a whole bunch of dirty cops. If I was a cop and I saw somebody killing somebody for $20, I’d say, ‘Dude, get off of him!’ There’s no need.”
On Sunday morning, the police said that they’d made more than 300 arrests during the overnight protests in New York. At least 30 officers were injured and nearly 50 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed.
“I’m extremely proud of the way you’ve comported yourselves in the face of such persistent danger, disrespect, and denigration,” Police Commissioner Dermot Shea wrote to the NYPD force on Twitter. Shea noted that the spams of violence in the city were driven by “a mob bent solely on taking advantage of a moment in American history, to co-opt the cause of equality that we all must uphold, to intentionally inflict chaos, mayhem, and injury just for the sake of doing so.”
All along Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue thoroughfare were shattered windows and piles of glass, at a TD bank, a Men’s Wearhouse, and the downtown Brooklyn Apple Store, where a single panel of the store’s tempered glass facade had cracked but was not broken.
Photographer Flo Ngala, 25, came from Harlem and was wearing a Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirt. She carried a sign reading, “Can’t breathe with a mask on. Can’t breathe without one.” Most of the day, she said, had been inspiring, with crowds cheering protesters on from cars and balconies. Two little black boys had marched with them, one with a sign that read “Stop killing us.” Ngala stopped talking mid-sentence, as batons and plastic shields came into view, and ran.
Among the bystanders caught up in the melee were a few people exiting the subway and a homeless woman pushing a shopping cart filled with her belongings. She leaned over and let out a hacking cough. A protester with his mask around his chin stood in the sidewalk, directing the traffic of fleeing protesters around her. “Yo brother, run that way,” he said. “Coronavirus is real.”
Around a corner, a 26-year-old black woman slumped on the sidewalk surrounded by five other protesters, all of them people of color who said they came from the city. They’d been strangers to her until moments earlier, when, they said, she’d gotten pepper sprayed. The woman’s face was caked with salt and milk from a solution the other protesters poured into her eyes to stop the burning.
Even when the stinging stopped, she cried. “They’re just good people who saw me in pain,” she said of her new protest friends. “I’m moved to tears by the kindness.”
A special education teacher from Brooklyn, the woman said she’d previously been arrested when an ex-boyfriend beat her and she physically defended herself. “I want to believe in them so badly. I want to believe that they’re good,” she said of police, but that was hard when she’d spent five hours in the same station as her ex-boyfriend.
She burst into tears explaining that she’d come out to protest, despite her fears of the police and the pandemic, because she felt like she’d be letting her students down if she didn’t.
The woman works in a poor school district with mostly children of color. “And they tell me, ‘I want to be an astronaut. I want to become a pilot,’” she said.
This protest was for them, she said, and getting pepper sprayed wasn’t going to stop her from staying out all night if she had to. “I want them to live long enough to achieve their dreams.”