Breathing While Brown. Alive While Black.
There was a protest on Wednesday night, December 3rd, 2014 on 116th and Amsterdam. My partner and I were in a cab and we were stuck – cop cars everywhere, helicopters humming above us. Our cab driver was quickly asked to stop. My partner looked over at me and said, “It’s a protest.”
It was the evening we found out that there will be no indictment against Eric Garner’s murderer, Officer Daniel Pantaleo. It was a week after we heard that Mike Brown’s murderer will get away also. Same response: no indictment against Officer Darren Wilson.
It was the evening we were recovering from a small argument. “Baby,” he said. “I just want a hug”. A six foot one Brooklyn Man, former champion wrestler turned educator with a Master’s degree, a son of a nurse who believes in the power of love, but who couldn’t protect her son against police brutality, an evil he faced many times over in his lifetime.
“Be careful with each other, so you can be dangerous together.”
We were in the cab after having settled our small argument when we realized we had run right into a protest. He turned to me and said “What do you think?” We just got done enjoying a slice of pizza after having confronted a white man who delivered several racial microaggressions to me and the Asian American man next to us.
There is no rest for the racially weary….
At that moment, I knew what he was thinking. I knew we had to join. “Let’s go”, I said. We left the cab and attempted to join the protest. We didn’t get very far – police men and women were everywhere, none looked happy, none looked sympathetic to the protesters who weren’t even angry, just worried. Worried about our future, worried about their children’s futures….
We weren’t allowed to join the protestors. Why, we wondered aloud. Policemen and women surrounded the region the protesters gathered, a small region, but they covered the corners of 114th and Amsterdam Avenue. Anyone who wanted to join were told to turn around. Finally, my partner asked the cop nearest us “We want to join. How do we get in? How do we join them?” Several cops said, “You can’t”. Finally, one said, “You have to go around if you want to get in”. We marched to Morningside Avenue and back to Amsterdam. There were more cops. That’s when we realized that police surrounded the protesters and enclosed them and the area.
“We want to join them” my partner said again to another cop. With a big old smirk, the cop said “You can’t go in, turn around.”
“Why can’t I go in? We are peacefully protesting, so are they. Why can’t we go through?”
The cop said, “Turn around. Do us a favor, if you’re not going to turn around, move up the block”.
My partner responded, “Will I get arrested if I join?”
“Yes”, said the cop but this time he was laughing.
This stopped me cold. This man knows how to instill fear in people. This man knows how to trigger people. This man doesn’t know that we know our rights.
“Then arrest us”, Marco said. At this point, we already made quick plans as to what we would do if he got arrested, if I got arrested, or if we both got arrested. But we both knew we were in this together. No matter what.
The cop laughed again. He said, “From one gentleman to another please step away from the protesters. You can stand by that building but you can’t join.”
At this point, I began to video the conversation. I wanted a reason for a possible arrest. “What’s the logic behind that? Why can’t we join? I don’t understand.”
That’s when another cop said, “Let them through.” After seeing countless potential protesters being turned away, we were allowed to go through their barricade, which really was a human chain of officers. We thought an arrest was certain even though we weren’t quite clear as to a reason for one… how powerful a cop is when he threatens arrest… even against two highly educated Latinos, we still felt the power of that threat.
The cop who threatened us reluctantly said, “Fine.”
We walked through. We joined the protesters. But we saw how the group was diminished having faced first hand a tactic used by the police – threatening arrest if we were going to join a peaceful protest. Although the group was small, the police were there full force. A wall of angry faces lined 114th and Amsterdam Avenue, Black and Brown faces that mirrored my own except they were protecting Police Brutality. We were not.
On Thursday, December 4, 2014, thousands of people, including my students, marched against police brutality. According to the New York Times article, more than 200 people were arrested that evening. It was clear from various posts on social media that police continued to use tactics such as the one I described in my brief experience on Wednesday. It is clear from the reactions and the protests occurring across the nation that a change is going to come. A racial reconstitution of policing must happen… But that Wednesday night I was afraid. I wasn’t fearful of protestors. I became afraid of the police for yet another reason – it was clear to me that police departments have been charged to ensure that change won’t come peacefully. Bearing witness to a stunted protest on Wednesday night opened my eyes to what the next steps will look like. My thoughts go to lessons learned from Ferguson, for our people there gave us a glimpse into the fire we may expect from our police, those who are supposed to protect and serve us. My heart goes out to the people in Ferguson for what I believe will be occuring in NYC very soon.
“We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
– Frantz Fanon