“The brutality we’re seeing is scarier to me than Covid.”
— Sade Roberts, 27, handing out pizza at a protest near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn
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For days now, New York, like so many cities across the country, has erupted in protest. Thousands circled the Barclays Center in Brooklyn chanting, “I can’t breathe.” Hundreds knelt outside police precincts, urging officers to “take a knee” in solidarity. They shut down traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Others smashed shop windows in SoHo and Midtown Manhattan, the commercial heart of the city.
The protests against police brutality, fueled by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, have roiled a city and a nation already aching from the double trauma of pandemic and economic crisis.
Some of the scenes from New York’s days of protest were chaotic — cars ablaze, trash flying through the air. Others were peaceful: Protesters handed one another bandages and masks, and wept as they shouted the names of black women and men killed by the police.
The crowds across New York were strikingly young, many in their teens and 20s. Some young black women carried signs memorializing lives taken by police violence: “He’s my dad, brother, uncle, cousin,” one sign read. “His life matters.”
A city that lay quiet for two months is now pulsing. Who are the people filling the streets?
Tehilah LeBlanc, Barclays Center, Brooklyn
On Friday night Tehilah LeBlanc, 17, walked with her boyfriend down Atlantic Avenue in a sea of protesters. The two chanted: “No justice, no peace!” As they passed a line of police, LeBlanc felt a wave of fear: “One cop put his hand on his side with his gun,” she said. “My heart starts pounding.”
She carried that grief with her as she shouted George Floyd’s name with people marching past the Barclays Center. “I get more angry every time I shout their names,” LeBlanc said. “He could have been my brother, or father. He was somebody’s father and son and brother.”
LeBlanc was walking past the 79th police precinct, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, when she saw a police car driving forward toward a group of protesters. “A bunch of women stood up and formed a line in front of the car,” she said. “I saw Italians, black women, white women. It made me feel like I could do anything and what I say matters, because I have people behind me. I felt empowered.”
Asked what inspired him to come out to protest, her boyfriend, Xavier Bell, pointed at LeBlanc: “She inspired me.”
Ronni H., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
On Sunday afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ronni H., 21, urged the dozens of people sunbathing and picnicking in McCarren Park to join the protest. “The ability to choose to stand by and applaud is performative and doesn’t do anything for the movement,” she said.
Seeing people sitting and watching the protesters without joining in was especially frustrating in a “gentrified neighborhood,” she added. “Many white people transplanted to Williamsburg and disrupted the lives of black people living here.”
She ran past the park calling: “Join us! March with us!”
One woman enjoying the sunshine in the park decided to get up and march. “There’s no way I could see this and not join in,” said Jackie Rodriguez, 56.
*Ronni prefers not to use her full name because of safety concerns.
Sade Roberts, Barclays Center, Brooklyn
Sade Roberts, 27, was supposed to go biking with a friend Sunday, but he had a different suggestion: Hand out pizza to protesters in Downtown Brooklyn.
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Roberts and her seven friends ordered 15 pies and set up a table by the Barclays Center. Soon other protesters began donating cases of water bottles, Band-Aids, masks and granola bars. The group called itself “Peaceful Pizza.” As they distributed snacks to the protesters, they joined in the chanting, “No justice, no peace,” and blasted “Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer through a speaker.
“I’m a black woman, so I can relate to the injustices and discrimination people are facing,” Roberts said.
Roberts has spent the last two months social distancing, but she said the protests felt more important to her than staying home to prevent any possible exposure to the virus. “I know the pandemic is still happening, but it’s not my focus. The brutality we’re seeing is scarier to me than Covid. Especially the brutality you’re seeing in these protests, where people can be pepper sprayed or attacked just for being in the vicinity.”
The positive response Roberts saw to her pizza distribution gave her some hope. “People wanted to give money and water and help out,” she said. “That’s the moment I was like, ‘OK there’s still good in the world.’ Positivity is contagious.”
Shoshana, St. Mary’s Park, Bronx
Shoshana, 35, is a middle school teacher in the Bronx. She has spent the last few months fearing for the well-being of her students and community. “Many of the students I work with have been arrested,” she said. “We can’t even protect ourselves from the coronavirus because we’re being targeted. I’m marching for our freedom and liberation to live in a world where we’re not being targeted and murdered.”
She spent five hours on Saturday marching through the Bronx to St. Mary’s Park. On 142nd Street, a police officer stepped in front of Shoshana and tried to grab her arm. Other protesters intervened, stepping in between them and urging the officer to leave her alone.
As she walked, Shoshana chanted a song written by The Peace Poets, a protest group that composed these lyrics after Eric Garner’s death in 2014: “I still hear my brother crying ‘I can’t breathe,’” she sang. “Now I’m in the struggle singing ‘I can’t leave’.”
*Shoshana prefers not to use her full name because of safety concerns.
Chloe Wallace, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Chloe Wallace, 26, lives near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg. On Sunday afternoon she heard helicopters overhead in the neighborhood and realized there must be protesters coming. She ran downstairs and joined the march on Bedford Avenue.
Wallace was worried, for a moment, about exposure to the coronavirus. Although she wore a mask, she also knew that she and her boyfriend would soon be visiting their aging parents. But she felt that as a white person it was important for her to show up in protest. She was reminded of this especially last week, when she watched the viral video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, calling the police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park.
“I want to recognize my role in the unequal society and systems we’ve created,” Wallace said. “Listening to what black people are saying and showing up is the only way forward.”
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