I could hear the protesters at Union Square Park before I could see them.
Walking along 14th street in New York City, the wind rushed past me, carrying the sound of a crowd chanting just a few blocks ahead. I could faintly make out what I’ve heard on the news for the past eight nights of protests across the country, but now, I heard it in person: “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country—and around the world—have taken to the streets, day and night, to protest the death of George Floyd, now classified as a homicide by Minneapolis authorities.
According to the medical examiner’s report, Floyd died from asphyxiation after a Minneapolis police officer restricted his breathing by pressing a knee to his neck while he lay on the street. Floyd had been stopped by the police for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Video of the incident and his last minutes, filmed by a bystander, went viral.
New York City is no stranger to protests against police misconduct, but the demonstrations this week, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, have contributed to heightened tension—and also a sense among some that this time, the loud voices might produce long-sought-for changes.
As I continued walking toward Union Square, the sound of distant peaceful demonstrators began to mix with the buzzing of power tools as businesses were boarding up their facades with plywood. Nearly every major store on my way to the park had their windows and doors covered to protect from vandalism and looting.
As I arrived at Union Square, a crowd of about 500 people quickly came into view. I adjusted my cloth mask to make sure it fit my face tightly, remembering that despite being in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of additional people would soon descend upon the park as the sun would set.
It was only 6 pm, so I had a few hours before the citywide 8 pm curfew went into effect, and I did not want to get stuck in a large crowd after that time.
I walked through the groups of people, noticing that the crowd was a multicultural mix of people of all ages. Everyone also had face masks on, with some people wearing black masks printed with the statement, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” as if to remind others of one of the last phrases George Floyd said before falling unconscious and losing his life.
The original chanting I heard minutes ago had stopped, as everyone was gathered around the southernmost part of Union Square, where activists perched upon boulders in the park to address the crowd.
One African-American activist, who appeared to be in his early 20s dressed in all black, shouted out to the crowd, asking them if racism is inherent or taught.
“Taught!” responded the crowd.
Then he challenged everyone to think about why unarmed black men and women are killed by police, and how we can use our voices for change.
‘We Don’t Need to Break into Buildings’
“We don’t need to break into buildings, we don’t need to rob — we don’t need nothing else, we need each other right here!” he said, to cheers and raised fists.
“Let’s get a plan, let’s support each other, and let’s make it worldwide!” the activist exclaimed.
“Left or right, we support each other, and that’s what it’s about!”
His roughly two-minute speech seemed to ignite something in the protesters. Some of them peacefully approached the line of NYPD officers that suddenly appeared on the left side of the group.
The police had not been there when the young man began speaking.
A few protesters were nearly toe-to-toe with the officers, who were not all in their riot gear.
Pain on Both Sides
It was there that I saw pain and personal inner turmoil show on both sides.
A tall African-American man with shoulder-length braids began to speak to the officers. Close to tears, he said he had been hurt by law enforcement before. He spoke about how, at the age of 33, he’s lost friends because of cops, and that he felt broken by the injustice.
“Why? Why?” he kept shouting to the officers.
One of the officers trained his eyes on the demonstrator, clearly keeping up with the moment. He was white and bald, and his face was mostly hidden behind a KN95 mask so I couldn’t make out his expressions. However, I could still see his large eyes full of presence, and he was listening.
Then, a larger African-American man with a megaphone came up on the right of the man with braids and challenged his peaceful demeanor. Through the amplifier, this outsider said that he, too, lost friends and family at the police’s hands, but he said that law enforcement was too far gone to connect with.
The man with the megaphone asked the protester, why would he interact with the officers if they didn’t have any souls?
“They chose this profession!” he shouted through his amplifier for everyone to clearly hear.
‘They Do Have Souls’
“But they do have souls!” the protester responded, raising his voice to try and be heard just as equally, and challenging the other man’s negative view of the police.
“I’m trying to talk with them!”
As the man with the braids said this, another protester with long dreadlocks and an army-print jacket approached the officers in agreement with the positive beliefs. He began making conversation with the white officer who was keeping a close eye on the situation, and another white female officer leaned in to listen.
Their conversation looked deep and intimate. None of us could hear the details. The protester and the two officers each looked one another in the eye when speaking. I saw a lot of slow nodding done by all parties.
At one point, the male officer kept placing his right hand over his heart. They seemed to genuinely agree with one another.
While I bore witness to this scene, hundreds of demonstrators began to crowd around the situation to see what was going on.
Simultaneously, a few dozen NYPD officers outfitted in riot gear seemed to materialize and were surrounding us on the south side of Union Square Park. I watched as the officers marched past me to get into their lined formation, each officer paired with a set of zip-tie handcuffs clipped to their waist.
The other new officers must have gotten spooked because, with the large crowd that had formed, the officers talking calmly with demonstrators seemed to get swallowed up by the sheer number of people there. It put many of us on edge, wondering what was going to happen next.
The group’s activist organizers must have felt the sudden tension in the air too, because they quickly swooped in, telling the large crowd to “back up” and to “give the officers some space” while they shamed the aggravator with the megaphone for “stirring the pot.”
“Don’t be the animal they want you to be,” one female organizer said to the man with the megaphone. “You cannot be the ‘Angry-Black-Man’ here.”
She was advocating for peace.
As everyone backed up, I looked to see if the dozens of new officers in formation were going to mobilize, but they were standing down.
Marching Down Broadway
As the tension dissipated, one of the organizers inspired the crowd to leave the park and take to the streets. Within moments, all of us were marching down Broadway. Whispered rumors indicated we were heading down to Washington Square Park to merge with another group of demonstrators.
As we walked like a caravan down the streets of Greenwich Village, the energy began to feel more alive with passion than before. People started chant after chant, inspiring others living in the apartment buildings above to lean out their windows and clap along.
Some people appeared with pots and pans, flooding the streets high above us with noise and acclimation.
No Justice — No Peace! No Justice — No Peace!
While we continued to our new destination, the group accumulated more people with every cross street we passed. People young and old began melting into the crowd, amplifying our voices. We were nearly 1,000 people strong.
At one point, as we neared to turn off of Broadway and onto Washington Place, an older man shouted, “I don’t even know the sound of 400 years of a knee on my neck!”
A young woman marching ahead of me with fiery red hair shouts back in response, “This is what it sounds like!” and a new chant began: Say his name — George Floyd! Say his name — George Floyd! Say his name — George Floyd!
We were a loud and boisterous group while marching into Washington Square Park. It seemed as though the unplanned location change took many park-goes by surprise. A group of three friends, picnicking and unmasked, sat transfixed in the grass as we marched past.
Other dog walkers picked up their pets, and some parents with children turned to leave.
Every demonstrator was chanting, Hands Up — Don’t Shoot! Hands Up — Don’t Shoot!
We stayed at Washington Square Park for only a few minutes after realizing the group we were going to merge with had already started marching ahead of us. We walked the 7 blocks up 5th Avenue to intersect back with 14th Street, and when we arrived to meet the rest of the protesters, it was an incredibly warm welcome.
Hundreds of new demonstrators were marching across 14th Street and flooding into Union Square. The crowd I was walking with began to cheer the way you would after seeing old family friends for the first time in years. Everyone was waving and pumping their fists in the air.
Now, we were one group of roughly 2,000 people trying to squeeze into Union Square Park. To keep semblance and order, the NYPD formed a line of officers stopping protesters from going any further east than Broadway.
Instead of the protesters meeting the officers with aggression, we met them with peace, as nearly all 2,000 people got down on one knee—a protest symbol used to demonstrate against the mistreatment of African Americans.
In that moment I was in a wave of people, and it felt like I was no longer a singular person — but part of a larger body, fighting for the same thing — justice for George Floyd, and for all of the African Americans wronged and killed by police brutality.
Everyone dropped to their knees like dominoes, demonstrating solidarity. The crowd started chanting, N-Y-P-D take a knee! N-Y-P-D take a knee!
The officers wouldn’t budge.
After about a minute of staying low and continuing to chant, the officers filed out and walked away from the overwhelming crowd we developed. Many applauded as they were happy to keep the peace.
The crowd was getting too big to stay in one place, so organizers led the group down Broadway again, seemingly to make the same marching loop we had just come from. I checked my watch, realizing we were about 30 minutes away from the 8 pm curfew.
I didn’t want to stick around to see what was going to happen then.
It was time for me to head back home.
As if on cue, I caught a glimpse of the stark white “NYC Correction” bus pulling up on a side street to Union Square—like a warning for what was to come as the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters faded out, and the nearly indistinguishable looters and instigators folded in with the crowd.
As I broke away from the group’s body, I found myself walking almost aimlessly uptown to hunt any open and operating subway. I kept getting further away from the crowd I was a part of, but I could still hear their chanting echoing behind me.
No Justice — No Peace! Say his name — George Floyd!
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.