black lives matter

The Return of the Mass Protest

A march in 2020. Photo: Joshua Rashaad McFadden

Andrew Smith had his arms in the air when NYPD officer Michael Sher forcibly snatched down his face mask and fired pepper spray into his eyes. Smith and hundreds of others had gathered at the corner of Bedford and Tilden Avenues in Flatbush to peacefully protest police violence and racial injustice, as millions across the country were doing in the days after George Floyd’s murder. “I made sure my hands [were] exaggeratedly almost in a ‘YMCA’ stance,” Smith told the Daily News, “to make clear that I’m not here to make an issue.” His compliance didn’t matter. White people protesting alongside Smith also had their hands up, but Sher singled out the 31-year-old Black Brooklyn resident. “I ripped the shit off, and I used it,” Sher boasted of the incident minutes later, an admission captured by the officer’s own body-camera footage.

Smith was one of the NYPD’s numerous victims during the Black Lives Matter protests. Officers plowed a police SUV into a crowd of demonstrators in Prospect Heights — part of the wave of at least 104 “car rammings,” according to terrorism researcher Ari Weil, a number of them committed by white supremacists and law enforcement that summer. Police punched peaceful protesters in the face, body-slammed them to the ground, struck them with clubs, broke their fingers, beat them from car tops, and pointed guns in their direction. Journalists, legal observers, and medical volunteers were not spared the flagrant brutality and abuse. Protesters chanted, “We are peaceful! What the fuck are you?” in response to the violence.

In many ways, the historic demonstrations of 2020 resembled the nonviolent civil-rights marches of the first half of the 1960s, yet authorities responded to the protests violently. The police today are just as brutal as they were in the 1960s but are jacked up after decades of militarization.

New York City in summer 2020 looked much as it had in July 1964, when Harlem and Bed-Stuy erupted for six nights after a 15-year-old high-school student named James Powell was fatally shot by an NYPD lieutenant. Police beat demonstrators with their fists and their clubs, shot their firearms in the air, and detonated tear-gas grenades. Residents, in turn, taunted police, threw Molotov cocktails at them, hurled bricks and bottles from rooftops, looted stores, and set buildings ablaze.

A protest in Harlem in July 1964. Photo: AP PHOTO/AP

National authorities responded to the rebellion in Harlem in 1964, and to the thousands that followed across the U.S. through the early 1970s, by declaring a “War on Crime” and supporting an unprecedented investment in local law enforcement. By the end of the decade, police departments from New York to Los Angeles had veritable arsenals at their disposal: firearms such as AR-15s and M4 carbines, steel helmets, three-foot batons, gas masks, tanks, helicopters, and a host of chemical weapons. Much of this equipment had been used by the U.S. military in Vietnam and Latin America, like, in our own time, the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles driven first in Iraq and then in New York.

Although repressive measures against protesters have escalated in recent years amid ongoing police militarization, protesters themselves have grown more peaceful. According to the Washington Post, at the height of the civil-rights movement, between 1960 and 1968, roughly 11 percent of protests — whether nonviolent direct action or full-scale rebellion — involved property damage. By contrast, only 4 percent of the thousands of nationwide demonstrations in the summer of 2020 involved property damage. Police too suffered less harm than their counterparts in the earlier period: 2 percent of cops reported injuries during the 2020 protests as opposed to 6 percent through the civil-rights era.

Contrary to the fearmongering rhetoric of conservative politicians and media outlets, Black Lives Matter has advanced the direct-action tactics of the civil-rights movement. “We were out for a peaceful march,” 22-year-old Devin Khan told The City. Khan was injured by the NYPD SUV and was later struck with a police baton on his shoulder and abdomen while demonstrating on the Manhattan Bridge. “I saw old people, mothers with children, people in wheelchairs, Asian, white, Black — all kinds of people who are just tired and angry with what’s happening.” Smith, Khan, and tens of millions of other protesters across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., were exercising their First Amendment rights to challenge the decision to invest in police forces, surveillance technologies, and prison systems over schools, jobs, and decent shelter for poor people. “We’re not domestic terrorists,” said Khan.

When the police arrived at otherwise nonviolent demonstrations ready to do battle, sporting helmets and protective armor that made them look like RoboCop, they set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. The instances in New York and other cities when people threw water bottles and other objects at officers, set police cruisers on fire, and caused property damage often occurred after police had aggressively patrolled peaceful marches and vigils. The lesson here is that antagonistic policing tends to incite violence, especially when people are protesting the very thing they are then subjected to.

The cycle of police violence, protests against that violence, and an ever more aggressive police response will continue until the underlying socioeconomic drivers of inequality that extend far beyond a single law-enforcement agency are addressed. “Yes, there’s the danger of COVID, but even if that goes away, we’ve got these other viruses — racism, white supremacy, police brutality,” said 24-year-old Hazkel Brown, who suffered nerve damage to his right arm after an NYPD officer hit him with a baton during a peaceful demonstration, to The City. “Those viruses aren’t going anywhere unless people are willing to do something.”

The Return of the Mass Protest