A Bridge Too Far: An Interview with a NYC Protestor on the NYPD, De Blasio & More
Can you explain what happened while you were peacefully protesting on the Manhattan Bridge on the evening of June 2?
We began marching on 5th Ave in Park Slope, Brooklyn at 6 pm. Before the march started, movement leaders instructed people to put away signs with language that incited violence and hate via megaphone. Our intention was always to protest peacefully to provoke change, get those four Minneapolis PD officers arrested and charged, and bring justice to the names we chanted. There was a general consensus that although the 8 pm curfew was ominous and foreboding, we would continue to march anyways. I think everyone in that crowd knew that this curfew is a bullshit way to impose authority and dominance over our 1st Amendment right to protest.
There were dogs barking along with our chants and kids standing on cars waving American flags…Really beautiful stuff. After marching for 2 hours in downtown Brooklyn, we were met with a police blockade at the BK side of the Manhattan Bridge. We kept yelling, “take a knee!” and, “quit your job!” They didn’t. After accepting that we couldn’t get through, we pulled a sneaky move on them and jumped over the barricade on the entry ramp. We dashed across the lawn, which I always think about doing when I’m exiting the bridge in a car. Crossing the bridge against traffic on foot as the sun set over the NYC skyline…I’ll never forget that moment. People in the cars that were halted honked and cheered us on. Looking out at our city, knowing we were the real New Yorkers. The summer breeze drying out my sweaty armpits. It was the last spark of joy before the trying night ahead.
When we reached the other side of the bridge, we were met with another NYPD blockade. The first one had 100 or so cops. This blockade contained at least 400 uniformed officers in riot gear. Corrections buses lay behind them. Every possible way to get out was blocked off. I saw 4 helicopters circling above, shining their lights down on us. We all flipped them off. We stood there, at an impasse for 2 hours, chanting with our hoarse voices, “Let us through!” while trying to mentally keep it together. You have to understand the mentality here. We knew from what’s being shared on the Internet and from past experience that at any point, things could get violent. And we were in a vulnerable position; if they broke our front line, it would get bloody. But we held that space. We sent all the cars behind us as well as people with bicycles to the front line to form a barricade. White allies formed a protective line on the outsides to protect black bodies. It was some real Ender’s Game level strategizing. But we still had to hold the space for 2 hours. Cabin fever set in and then it went away. Then it came back again. At one point we started singing “Move Bitch Get Out Da Way” by Ludacris. A guy dressed as Spider-Man climbed the archway holding a BLM sign.
We reminded each other to hydrate and shared snacks. All while holding that space. People started saying, “My friend listening to a police scanner is saying they’re gonna let us go in 10 minutes,” every 10 minutes. All while there were more corrections buses pulling up. We were getting tired. Some of us had work in the morning or dogs to walk. Families to get back to. There was a brief divide in the group. Some of us wanted to go back across the bridge, while others wanted to stay and wait it out. Our philosophy for the evening was to stay together, since they can do worse things to smaller groups. So we sent some bike scouts to zip over the bridge to see if there were cops waiting to arrest us there. They reported back in the affirmative. There were many cops waiting for us. I found myself thinking, “Are we gonna have to run? What if I lose my girlfriend? I haven’t had dinner!” Ultimately, I landed at, “Well if we’re gonna get arrested, it might as well be in Brooklyn.” We marched back. A corrections bus was waiting for us in the middle of the bridge. It was dark now, so it was hard to see what we were walking into with the red and blue flashing lights…Certain arrest. I checked my arm to see that the number for a pro bono lawyer was still written there in sharpie. We walked up to the bus. But the pace wasn’t slowing. If people were being zip-tied and loaded onto the bus, we would’ve surely slowed down by now. But the crowd kept moving. In a moment of exhalation, we realized they were letting us walk through. I peered into a squad car window and three black officers were giving the thumbs up. If this were a movie, those three officers would’ve been disobeying orders, shutting off their radios, and going through Joseph Campbell’s “Heroes Journey.” They probably weren’t though. We made our way back and got stopped again by the original NYPD blockade. We negotiated with them saying we were never planning on looting. Most of us just want to go home. The white-shirted officer urged us to, “stick to the sidewalks.” So I screamed back at the crowd coming across the bridge, “Stay on the left!” After a few minutes, they finally let us pass. My girlfriend and I waddled our way home.
There are a few things to take away from this. Firstly that the force, although not violent, imposed on us was immoral. The bottleneck tactic that they used on us is referred to as “kettling” and it’s frowned upon in other countries. Look it up. The curfew is a direct suppression of our 1st Amendment right to protest…I mean it’s literally the first thing we learn in history class. Secondly, the cohesion we formed as a group is something that I never knew was possible. Everyone was helping each other out. And listening when someone spoke up. When two people clashed, they peacefully settled it in real-time. Because we were all in the same boat. Like the third act of Titanic. You don’t see a lot of that nowadays, so it was very inspiring.
I find it interesting that right-wing pundits love to cry about the 1st Amendment when they get protested for speaking at college campuses, catch flak for tweeting something hateful or incorrectly bemoan that they can no longer say ‘Merry Christmas,’ while simultaneously demanding that the government crackdown on people peacefully protesting for their civil rights. As a comedian, how do you feel about the selective weaponization of free speech?
I feel like Right and Left America are siblings of a starkly different age group. I’ll let you figure out which is which. One side starts something and the other copies them, but they’re just a hair short of getting the point. The left protests for BLM or Occupy Wall Street or Women’s Rights and the right sees it and goes, “Oh, we can complain about stuff we don’t like too! That coffee cup is Satan!” It’s a cheap imitation that completely misconstrues the point of the 1st Amendment. To ostracize our free speech that is intended for positive social change is frankly shameful and shows complicity in the racist society we were all born into. But in a sense, it’s a sibling rivalry. When’s the last time you successfully convinced your sibling to change their mind on anything?
I’ve always found it weird the way the NYPD is fetishized worldwide, even pre-9/11. Tourists buy gear emblazoned with NYPD logos and take selfies with cops. There are countless shows and movies about the NYPD. As someone in the media ecosphere, do you have any thoughts on this?
Yeah, we all have seen Law and Order: SVU a million times. Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Hollywood loves a cop story. It’s wholly American! It goes all the way back to film noir movies of the ‘40s. The police are glorified as unwavering heroes who always do the right thing. The true nature of the police’s abuse of power has been largely under-represented in TV and movies. There have been some depictions, but we need more.
After a whole generation of Republicans controlling City Hall, Bill de Blasio ran on and won the NYC Mayor’s race by running as a progressive. Almost immediately, he reneged on his campaign promises and his tenure has been a continuation of the gentrification, over-policing, and spiking homelessness of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. What should the next mayor focus on to create a more equitable city?
Defund the NYPD. Defund the NYPD. Oh, and defund the NYPD.
NYC has always been a ‘melting pot,’ but a tenuous one at that. Do The Right Thing did a good job of capturing this weird co-existence in the city. Most notably, there was the Crown Heights Riot of 1991, which pitted the Jewish and black communities against each other, but there have also been ethnically based hate crimes and gang warfare. And NYC has the most segregated school system in the country. What are your thoughts on race relations in NYC, the country-sized city with constant influxes of immigrants from around the world?
I’m an immigrant as well. I was born in Suriname and moved to Westchester when I was 3-years old. My experience with race relations in New York is the same as everyone else’s. We all have the same lens. The poorer neighborhoods with community housing and underfunded schools are populated by minorities, and the more privileged live in the New York you see in the movies. The privileged act like the former isn’t a part of NYC, but it is. They act like they can’t see it when they gentrify old neighborhoods, pushing communities out of their homes. I haven’t seen much gang violence or antagonism between minorities/immigrants. The real battle is in classism.
Nearly every decade since the 1960s, America has been rocked by nationwide urban uprisings against systemic racism: the Long, Hot Summer of ’67, the post-MLK-assassination reactions of ’68, seven different instances of unrest from California to New Jersey in ’71, the outbursts in Brooklyn, Miami and L.A. between 1991-1992, the BLM protests of 2014-2015 and now the current tumult. These have spanned across Democratic and Republican presidencies and major changes in racial norms in ‘polite society’ and pop culture. What does it say about this country that this collective rage keeps exploding like clockwork, in spite of all that has changed over the past half-century?
I think what it says about the country is that the “change” you’re referring to is bullshit. What change? People are still being killed. Entire communities are still being suppressed. Opportunity and support is disproportionally being doled out to people who’ve enjoyed it for centuries, at the expense of those who really need it. That “collective rage” is the frustration that we keep saying we’ve progressed when we really haven’t.
Black leaders like Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton were all murdered. More recently, six of the original Ferguson, MO protestors have died under very suspicious circumstances over the past few years. All of these people had vastly different ideologies and approaches to black empowerment. How should black leadership take the reins in these troubling times? Should leadership be decentralized, instead of concentrated among individuals?
They keep killing our leaders. So we should stop having leaders? We as black people were born with a target on our backs. It’s not going to stop us from stepping up. Maybe the question you should ask is why are these murders not being investigated? Why does it take so much longer to investigate a black murder than a white one?
What would be your rough outline for ending racism in the criminal justice system, both in terms of the prison industrial complex and police brutality?
Re-allocate the federal and state budgets. Take all the money that goes into the prison industrial complex and police and shift it to more lacking services like school systems and community housing. We need to throw away the history books we grew up on and teach an accurate history of our nation to our children. Defund this system that oppresses us. Introduce legislation that prevents corporations from benefiting from the labor of prisoners. Our entire idea of what America needs to be deconstructed and rehabilitated. And it can’t just be on black folks to get it done. Everyone needs to participate.
A lot of people on Twitter, particularly Democrats, have as the first thing coming out of their mouths in response to the current unrest, ‘Go out and vote.’ What should any politician pledge to do to earn the trust and votes of African Americans, who have been largely ignored for decades by Democrats and Republicans alike?
Like I said in my previous answer, we need someone who’s gonna introduce new legislation that disrupts the flow of money that systemic oppression is fueled by. Politicians need to align themselves with and support organizations like Black Lives Matter and Black Visions Collective. This would demonstrate that they’re willing to work with organizations that know exactly what work needs to be done and where.
These current uprisings seem to be mostly led by young people and fueled by social media. Going forward, what do you see as the responsibilities and possibilities for Millenials and Zoomers to organize and enact lasting change?
Remain peaceful. Spread accurate information and resources. Document what the news isn’t showing. Challenge people in the previous generation who disagree with the movement. Change those perspectives and also your own. Keep doing the work every day. Otherwise, the cycle will just continue.