Batman and Mickey Mouse stood half a block away from where a phalanx of riot cops blocked the street in front of Radio City Music Hall. That was more or less the culmination of one of the protests in New York City on the evening of Dec. 3, a few hours after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner last summer.
Several hundred police, wearing a mix of riot helmets and soft hats, lined Sixth Avenue, preventing protesters and tourists alike from reaching the annual Christmas-tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, one block east. The march began on the 17th Street side of Union Square with about 250 people, predominantly white, many carrying signs from the Revolutionary Communist Party. By 6 p.m., when it moved out onto Park Avenue South, it had swelled to more than 500.
A diagonal line of riot cops channeled them onto the sidewalk, and a line of motorcycle officers kept them hemmed in. The RCP contingent chanted “The Whole Damn System Is Guilty as Hell! Indict! Convict! Send Killer Cops to Jail”—arguably the least euphonious slogan in the history of American protest. A black waitress watching from the door of an upscale restaurant raised her fist and called out “No Justice!”
The protesters played mouse-and-cat with the police on the way up to Midtown, periodically trying to move onto the streets—accompanied by the usual chant—and being hemmed back in again. When they turned up Broadway from 28th Street, they raced into the middle of the road, but were channeled back onto the sidewalk at Herald Square, a few blocks later, by a combination of cops and bike-lane fences. They surged up the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, almost running as they threaded through the rush-hour traffic and knots of tourists.
At 44th Street the cops set a trap, blocking the corners with steel barricades. Some protesters raced into the avenue, while others were shunted onto the side streets, along with scores of pedestrians. The confrontation came at 47th Street, around 6:45, when police blocked Sixth Avenue. Some protesters sat down in the middle of the intersection, and at least one, a young white woman, was arrested. The police gradually pushed them west onto 47th Street and chained the block-mouth shut with barricades—but then a fresh contingent of more than 100 demonstrators arrived on the avenue. The barricades were opened, and the crowd pushed east while the cops pushed west.
An officer with a bullhorn ordered everyone to leave and walk west to Broadway, but he was largely drowned out by chants of “Hands Up—Don’t Shoot.” A phalanx of about 30 cops rammed into the crowd, a quick shove that forced them back onto 47th Street, and then the barricades were reset and doubled. After an abortive march down the block toward Broadway, about 300 people slipped through a mid-block passageway and inched up Sixth Avenue to 50th Street. There, they blended with the crowd of tourists, families with small children, and people dressed as cartoon characters who cadge dollars to have tourists take selfies with them, all penned in by police barricades. With young activists angry enough to want to do something more disruptive than just march and go home, the Bill de Blasio administration’s policy of policing them appears to be one of tolerate, harry, and block.
It’s so far avoided the orange-netting mass arrests of the Bloomberg years and the paramilitary shows of force seen in Ferguson and large national protests over the last decade, but it will use force. On 50th Street across the avenue from Radio City, about 15 people, a racially mixed group of mostly young women, chanted “I Can’t Breathe”—Eric Garner’s last words. By 7:50, their numbers had swelled to about 50, but the demonstration had largely dissipated. “This is real. This is not fake. This is not something you hide behind a computer to fight,” Chiemeka Ekweghariri of Newark, a Nigerian immigrant about to celebrate her 24th birthday, said in Union Square before the march started. “This is my life, my future son’s life, my future husband’s life.”