On Monday January 12th, nearly a hundred protestors swarmed the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal. A Copwatch group organized the demonstration after an announcement by the MTA that “die-ins” were banned from Grand Central. The police showed up in force, with State troopers, MTA police, and different units of the NYPD present with higher ups calling the shots from a make-shift command center on the Northern balcony. At first the stand-off seemed tense but officers eventually backed off, watching from a distance as the demonstration executed die-ins.
Despite the consistent threats of arrest from the NYPD, the divisive bellicose language used by PBA union head Patrick Lynch, and the constant harassment of activist gatherings, the police have not cracked down as harshly as they did at the beginning of this movement. The so-called ‘hands-off’ approach has less to do with directives from Comissioner Bratton or Mayor de Blasio, and more to do with the cultural attitude adopted by the NYPD in the wake of controversy. Years of repression, racism and violence has led to angry attitudes toward the police reaching mainstream attention. The NYPD does not want to lose legitimacy out of fear of the social and economic ramifications. So, the work-stoppage and the ‘revised tactics’ are ways of appropriating community concerns while still ultimately maintaining the unequal distribution of power.
Escalation through Confrontation
What is the role of direct action in the Black Lives Matter movement? From its onset, the movement deployed the tactic to actively confront the very forces they were protesting. Every protest action draws a police escort, but this was the first time a protest movement was actively protesting the very presence of those police. As such, Black Lives Matter has always responded with defiance to laws and directives designed to quell the movement. After Bill de Blasio called for the demonstrations to cease in the wake of two police deaths, protestors defied his plea to march on Christmas Eve. Similarly, when warned by municipal officials to cease certain practices within the movement, protestors respond by putting those practices to the forefront. The Grand Central rally was done as an explicit rejection of the MTA’s authority. For Black Lives Matter, direct action means a reclamation of rights and liberties that are supposedly afforded to all Americans. Secondly, by increasing the tension between everyday citizens and the police forces that occupy their communities, the movement draws on an old Civil Rights tradition described as militant nonviolent direct action. As MLK explained while imprisoned in Birmingham, the purpose is to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
This explains why the NYPD tread carefully when handling this movement because they know they represent the target; they are the community which constantly refuses to recognize the current crisis. These past months have been a manipulation of the media spectacle by both sides to gain traction within the larger national community. For protestors, the point of these confrontational actions is to escalate the tension to the point that a Second Civil Right Movement will inevitably erupt thus representing a serious challenge to the status quo. They shut down bridges, tunnels, malls, and public spaces to paralyze the system of consumption, to disrupt the ebb and flow of capitalism, thus forcing everyone to confront the reality that our entire economic system is fueled through the repression of black and brown bodies.
Confrontation Out of Necessity
Direct action has taken many different forms throughout the movement. From classic sit-ins and lockdowns to blockades and street fighting, Black Lives Matter protestors have deployed a diversity of tactics in order to disrupt the system. Mainstream media outlets and political leaders have often criticized the movement’s militancy, despite that the entire movement, including the East Bay rioting, has remained nonviolent. Liberals always seek to redefine nonviolence as means of protecting their privilege and legitimizing the very real violence inherent in the economic structure. They decry the burning of police stations yet are strangely silent when unarmed black youth are killed. This valuing of property over life is at the crux of why the movement needs to claim “Black Lives Matter” since it is very apparent that under the current system, in the eyes of the rich, they do not.
Protestors seek confrontation not because they find pleasure in violence but rather it remains the only option left to create meaningful change. In a country that jails more its population than some of the most despotic regimes in the world, a country that criminalizes black flesh through the segregation and exploitation constructed by the drug war, a country that has militarized its domestic police forces in the name of combating terrorism, the only way for people of color to reclaim their agency is through organized self-defense. The response in Ferguson awakened the conscious of many skeptics to the reality that the role of the state is not security of all people but rather the protection of some against a maligned “other.” Black and brown people serve as this other. Through social death does the criminalization of fellow human beings become possible. Social death allows for the creation of a generational group of exploited, a class of eternal slaves that can either choose to work or die. The Third Amendment to the Constitution enshrines slavery in the prison system and the neoliberal project of the past 35 years has only cemented its role as the corrections industry became an entrenched economic necessity. These activists operate with this context in mind. As the movement expands, it remains important for pundits and onlookers alike to understand that they are not just fighting for a cause, they are fighting for their lives.
Nothing could better illustrate the role of the NYPD police state better than my experience during the third night of Eric Garner protests on December 5th, 2014. The march began that Friday evening in Columbus Circle during a cold torrential downpour. We targeted multiple public areas of commerce for die-ins and disruptions including the Apple Store, Macy’s and Bryant Park, the latter of which involved the occupation of a recently erected Christmas Tree. The march eventually made its way east down Delancy Street in an attempt to shut down FDR Drive. A police blockade had been set up at the entrance ramp complete with riot police and a mobile command center equipped with an LRAD. As the police led us toward our supposed fate, the march took a surprising turn in an attempt at evasion. We cut through the nearby housing projects eventually breaking out into a full out sprint as we bypassed the police escort and climbed over the cement barriers on to the highway. After shutting down the FDR, our celebratory moment was cut short upon the realization that the front of the march had been cut off from the thousands that were left in the Baruch Houses. Only about 50 people had successfully made it onto the highway.
With riot police approaching in formation from the front and more officers cutting us off from behind, we quickly took to the seven-foot-tall fence separating the FDR from East River Park. Like a mass exodus escaping over a territorial border, several protestors climbed over the fence to escape the police. However, for many the police came too soon. Those of us who had made it over tried desperately to help others climb the rain-soaked metal barrier. Riot officers whipped protestors with batons and violently shoved others to the ground. We held onto one women through the fence who struggled to climb, tears streaming down her face in fear. Despite having six arms wrapped around her waist and legs, a single officer tore her from our grasp and slammed her head-first into the pavement. The level of brutality displayed against the arrested provoked an angry reaction from the crowd. Many threw signs, bottles, and bulbs over the fence in retaliation. However, this reaction prompted the police to scale the fence and chase down activists. Chaos ensued as protestors dispersed, fleeing in many directions. I escaped with around seven others by cutting through the park and melding back into the pedestrian bustle on Grand Street. With my phone waterlogged and pants glued to my legs as I waded through puddles to the nearest metro station, I came to understand the type of violence the state uses to quell dissent.
The World Can’t Breathe
The austerity protests of the anti-globalization movement did not end with the Arab Spring or the riots of Eastern Europe. The financial and political situations that led to those reactions have not been rectified. Now halfway through this decade, the world is still reeling from the effects of a global economic crash. Internationally, people have realized their personal struggles are structural. The political force that intertwines the oil barons of the Gulf States to the high frequency traders of Europe will lead to an exhaustion of resources and global environmental disaster. People realize that states will crack down in the midst of crisis to hold on to their slipping privileges. Yet, globalization has not just united the world’s elite but also the everyday citizens who struggle for liberation. Solidarity can only truly be realized in an international context.
During a march in mid-December a young black activist chanted expressions of solidarity as he filmed the police escort. “Ferguson Can’t Breathe, New York Can’t Breathe, Cleveland Can’t Breathe.” He continued with fire in his voice, “Oakland Can’t Breathe, Palestine Can’t Breathe, Kobanê Can’t Breathe, Hong Kong Can’t Breathe.” Protest movements around the world have been a struggle of occupied peoples against the state. No matter if its a struggle for a decent wage, permanent housing, or a refutation of an entire political system, one common apparatus remains constant. In the 21st century, every mass social movement is a struggle against the police.