I was in New York City for a writers’ conference Wednesday, and in a foul mood after a miscommunication led to dinner plans going awry. With a 20-minute walk back to my hotel ahead, I was about to cross through Times Square when I spotted lines of people with their cellphones in the air — which can only mean a spectacle of some sort. I assumed it was a bunch of break dancers or one of the many costumed characters posing for photos. As I got closer, though, I saw it was a protest.
“All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray.”
Thousands of marchers made their way through the street, holding signs and stopping traffic. “Black Lives Matter.” “We Support Baltimore.” “A Call for Justice.” “Stop Police Brutality and Murder.” Some homemade signs, some professionally printed. My foul mood dissipated in a flash of inspiration. You go, marchers. Stand on the side of justice.
For a minute, I became one of the spectators, hoisting my cellphone and capturing a video clip. Then it occurred to me: This is an issue I care about, too. Why am I not marching?
Get off the sidewalk, I told myself. Prove you care by moving your feet.
And so I did. Awkwardly at first, because I didn’t know how to navigate the transition between spectator and activist. Who was I to join this movement? I’m a suburbanite from a predominantly white community. Police brutality is not in my realm of experience. But I know what I’m seeing in the news — a shocking series of videos and stories that have opened my eyes to a problem I would have assumed was very rare.
As a parent, I’ve taught my 8-year-old that we always look out for people who are being bullied and stand up for them. It was meant to be a lesson for the playground, but it has much wider implications. She now knows that mothers of black boys are often scared that the police will harm their children. It was hard to take away a piece of her innocent trust, to let her know that the helpers don’t always help.
I thought of her as I marched side by side with people of all races, a group that skewed in favor of young adults, but had little else visually in common. Television cameras rolled in my face, making me feel awkwardly exposed. The chants changed every minute or so, and I waited to find my voice.
“New York is Baltimore and Baltimore is New York.”
I felt it. We are one.
“This is what democracy looks like.”
Tears welled up. Yes, I thought. It is.
But then there came the next: “How do you spell racist? NYPD! How do you spell murderer? NYPD!”
The words caught in my throat. I couldn’t say this chant. It wasn’t helpful – just taunting. Suddenly, my loyalty was divided. There’s no doubt that we have problems with racism and police overusing deadly force. When we have multiple officers choking a man to death because they suspect he’s selling loose cigarettes, that’s a problem. When police claim that a man has nearly severed his own spinal cord and crushed his own voicebox in custody, that’s a problem. When police shoot a 12-year-old within two seconds of arrival because he’s playing with a toy gun and then arrest his sister for rushing to his aid, we definitely have a problem. But do I believe that the state’s police force is full of racist murderers? No.
I can’t even guess what percentage of cops are “good” and what percentage are “bad.” But I know we’d be a lot worse off in this country without them. I have relied on police numerous times in my life, in situations ranging from pickpocketing to rape, and in my very rare instances on the other side of the law – a couple of traffic violations – they were cordial and reasonable. It hurts to think how this issue must break the morale of the ones who uphold their oath to protect and serve. I’m a fan of the police; they risk their lives for the rest of us every day.
At the same time, I understand how different this would look from another cultural vantage point. If I’d spent most of my life being subject to baseless traffic stops, “walking while black” interrogations, or feeling like the men in blue were out to get me rather than out to help me, I might make these negative generalizations, too. But that hasn’t been my experience.
Maybe I don’t belong in this movement after all, I thought.
“No justice, no peace.”
I took a breath and continued on. It was a complex issue and not all 2,000 of us in the streets could possibly agree on all of it. But it was also a very important issue, and I didn’t want to walk away from it because of one negative piece. People of all races and backgrounds do belong in this movement; everyone who cares about justice belongs here. It’s important for the world to see that this is not a “black issue,” but a people issue — that none of us should stand idly by while any group is treated unfairly, nor look the other way when a verdict comes at the hand of an overzealous officer with a gun rather than through due process in a courtroom.
What I believe is that we need to weed out the “bad” officers and wildly appreciate the good ones. Scream loudly when they do wrong, but never forget how much they do right. The last thing we need is for the true heroes to walk away from the profession because we’ve unfairly profiled them. Negative stereotypes don’t work for any of us.
For my remaining time in the protest, I would join in the chants I believed in and march silently during the ones I didn’t. An imperfect solution, but I ended up having to stay quiet only twice. The group marched through many streets, where even taxi drivers were surprisingly patient as they sat through multiple cycles of traffic lights. We passed a group of public safety officers — some black, some white. They were standing back, just watching the protestors.
“Everyone behaving so far?” I asked. I wanted to hear them say that we were doing this right, following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of nonviolent protest. And I wanted them to know that we didn’t all hate them. As King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I wanted our movement to be part of the light.
One of the officers smiled at me. “Everyone’s behaving.”
When I got too cold and too far from my hotel to feel secure about finding my way back, I dropped out and went on my way, adrenaline rushing. Along the way, I bought a sweatshirt from a black street vendor named Walter and we talked about the reasons for the march.
“Do you think the problem is getting worse, or has it always been this bad?” I asked.
“I think it’s always been this bad,” he said. “But thank God for cellphones, because now everyone can see.”
It was an angry movement, yet left me feeling so positive about New Yorkers uniting to right a wrong without violence. Only when I saw coverage later that night did I find out that 140 of us were arrested during the demonstration. I wished I hadn’t found out. It muddied the issue: Had protesters crossed the line? Or had there been police overreach?
Change rarely comes as swiftly or completely as it should, and I don’t know if there will be a neat resolution to this problem. But on this chilly night, as my hands went numb and my voice strained, I could think of no better way to accidentally spend my evening than to join with the thousands of others demanding that we try.
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