The image is hard to expunge: Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, stands wordless with hands in pockets and left knee pressing into the neck of a black man lying prostrate in the street. Meanwhile, George Floyd, the man being pinned, pleads over and over and increasingly sobs, “I can’t breathe, man, please let me stand.” But Chauvin is relentless; and nearly ten minutes later, Floyd is dead. The paramedics arrive, but don’t take his pulse. Instead, he’s flipped onto their gurney and carted away — like a sack of potatoes or sliver of meat.
In the four days since Floyd’s murder, frustration, pain, and anger have poured their incendiaries into the streets of America blasting, “Enough is enough! Black lives matter! Stop killing us! Now! Now! Now!” And it reached New York last night. But rather than giving protesters the space to grieve Floyd without being threatened, the NYPD appeared ill-prepared to handle the crowds, or simply operated on orders to treat people opposite the “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect” [CPR] approach so widely advertised on their vehicles.
Whichever the cause, the effect was most visible in the vicinity of the Barclays Center, the main grounds of the protest. Dozens of cell phone videos and eyewitnesses accounts detail the NYPD using their metal barriers to cordon off the demonstrators and, at some points, pushing their barricades into those assembled. After making an announcement condemning the “unlawful gathering” and ordering people to disperse, the police made sorties into the crowd with pepper spray and handcuffs to make arrests. Even Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie (D-20) and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson (D-43) were taken into custody. As Myrie explained live on 1010 WINS radio this afternoon, he was flabbergasted by the cops’ response: “We came in solidarity and to keep the peace. I’m still trying to process what happened.”
Nevertheless, after splitting the crowd with pepper spay, riot shields, bikes, and batons, officers still followed retreating protesters down the nearby streets of Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Prospects Heights. Among the cops caught on cell phone video were the one who threw up his fists to fight people, one who used the passenger door of his cruiser to knock down a pedestrian, and, finally, the one who called a woman a “Stupid f***ing b***h!” before shoving her into the street where she fell and rapped her head on the pavement. There was such chaos on the part of police, it was if the NYPD had never managed a mass gathering before, let alone with one sparks of hostility.
But they’ve worked some big ones recently — the Climate Strike March (September 20, 2019), the Women’s March (January 21, 2027), the Trump Election Outcry (November 12, 2016) — and handled them differently. During the Women’s March, for example, when over 400,000 participants flooded Midtown, the NYPD kept calm when their fences were overrun, their checkpoints ignored, and marchers commandeered sidewalks and forced businesses to shutter. In fact, its restraint earned accolades from both politicians and marchers alike. But not last night. So what happened then?
Comptroller Scott Stringer, via Facebook:
Last night was a complete and total failure of leadership. New Yorkers were beat and pepper sprayed at the hands of their own government…. Why were we not prepared? We need an immediate investigation into law enforcement actions last night.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, via Twitter:
This is horrifying and unacceptable…. We knew this protest was happening tonight. We should have been prepared to handle it peacefully…. Tonight was a total failure of leadership.
But maybe author Sarah Schulman was on to something more illuminating. This afternoon on Facebook, she mentioned the “us against them” mentality policing cultivates. Cops “create a very tight loyalty system to each other,” she wrote, “not to the society” they’re hired to serve. As a result,
There is a paranoid siege mentality, and a physical violence component that is part of [a cop’s] life and imagining [his or her] task. They feel personally insulted by civilian disagreement and opposition.
Indeed, as last night’s accounts show, many cops took the civilian proceedings far too “personally.”
But where the NYPD failed to align itself with New Yorkers on the street, another institution that’s typically unsung stepped up instead: TWU Local 100, the Transit Workers Union.
Looking to haul more protesters to jail, the NYPD stopped a B41 Bus on Flatbush Avenue and loaded it up. (Why police wagons couldn’t do the job is a mystery. Weren’t there enough poised for the night?) But the operator of the bus refused to drive. Instead, after calling his supervisor, he walked off his rig. The demonstrators cheered.
Supporting his move, Local 100 declared, via Twitter:
TWU Local 100 Bus Operators do not work for the NYPD. We transport the working families of NYC. All TWU Operators should refuse to transport arrested protesters.
Later on, John Samuelsen, International President of the TWU, reminded everyone, via Twitter:
The TWU sued the NYPD in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street over efforts to force our Bus Ops to transport arrested protesters. The TWU refused then and is rightfully refusing now.
So on an ugly night, maybe this was the flower piercing through the collage of rubble, a defining moment to remember down the road. As people intent on abolishing racist police tactics and ending the murder of black civilians look for allies and form coalitions, they shouldn’t forget the Transit Workers Union. They shouldn’t forget the other trade unions either. If these once powerful institutions become partners, perhaps they’d rise in significance again and help tip the scales toward real change.
Screenshot from a video by Brian Gresko. Courtesy of his Twitter account. May 29, 2020.
The moment the bus driver walks off his rig.
Intersection of Flatbush and 5th Avenues, Prospect Heights/Park Slope border, Brooklyn.