There was royalty in Brooklyn on Monday night. A thick wall of police and security held protesters back outside the Barclays Center while inside England’s Prince William and Kate Middleton and Brooklyn’s own Beyoncé and Jay Z watched the Nets lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Whatever private entrance the royals took was likely out of earshot of the “Can’t breathe, don’t shoot” chants outside, but they couldn’t have missed the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts players wore onto the court during their warmups.
Nets guard Jarrett Jack claimed credit for the shirts LeBron James and several other players were seen in before the game. For James, wearing the shirt was “more of a shout-out to the family more than anything,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. “They’re the ones that should be getting all the energy and effort,” he said.
Another shout-out might have been due to the organization that was leading the protests outside. Before the game started and the New York Justice League began leading die-ins and marches through the streets around the stadium, its representatives handed out “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to some of the Nets’ players, a group spokeswoman told The Daily Beast.
“We were able to deliver shirts to the Brooklyn Nets, and they wore our shirts in solidarity with the work that we’re doing out here,” said Carmen Perez of the Justice League.
What Perez and others are doing is working to sustain the energy of protests that are entering their third week in New York and spreading across the country.
The demonstrations started after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, voted not to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, for killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who witnesses said attacked the officer before he shot him.
In New York, smaller Ferguson-inspired protests turned into mass civil unrest last week after a local grand jury decided not to bring criminal charges in another case involving a white police officer and the death of an unarmed black man. The moments before Eric Garner’s death were captured on a video showing him being choked by Officer Daniel Pantaleo on the ground and pleading “I can’t breathe!” The video was among evidence viewed by the grand jury, but the full testimony from the proceeding has not been released to the public.
Protesters began gathering outside the arena Monday night, an hour before the basketball game started. By halftime a crowd of what appeared to be a few hundred people had amassed in the bitter cold. The scene was tense but peaceful. Police manned barricades separating protesters from ticket holders and lined up around the demonstration, boxing it in.
Throughout the early part of the night, protesters variously engaged, pleaded with, and taunted the police who stood feet away from them, stone-faced.
In a call and response, one young protester prompted the crowd, “How do you spell racist?” The group called back “N-Y-P-D!” Then, “How do you spell terrorist?” “N-Y-P-D!” More softly, to his friend next to him, “How do you spell fuckboy?” No one answered. Then a protester standing feet away said, “It’s not all of them, there are some good.” Another protester responded, not to the woman who’d made the comment but to the police: “Don’t talk to me about good cops. Good cops have to out the bad ones.”
In the crowd, concerned citizens joined members of activist groups like Copwatch and the New York Justice League, while veterans of Occupy Wall Street marched alongside a handful of Black Panthers.
Erin Luhks, a mathematician from Brooklyn who was arrested at the protests last Friday, said she has been trying to draw people to the demonstrations from the dating site Tinder.
“You know that they’re in New York, you know that they’ve agreed to give time to a stranger,” Luhks said. “They could use that four hours to demonstrate.” Most of her responses, she said, have been men responding to her photos, but she has also gotten some inquiries too and messages of support.
Timothy Ford, 46, a member of the Black Panther party and Africans Helping Africans, said he was one of five to 10 Panthers in the crowd Monday night. His priority, he said, is getting rid of New York’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton. “We believe that if Bratton is fired, you can put a commissioner in there who will respect the black and Latino community,” Ford said. “The only way we’re going to stop is if Bratton is fired and we get community policing.”
For the protests to succeed, Ford said, activists need to continue disrupting commerce and shutting down traffic until demands are met. “We need to shut the money down like we did on Black Friday,” he said. “As long as we continue stopping the money, we win.”
No one declared leadership over Monday night’s protest, but it was the Justice League, with several of its members carrying megaphones and small amplifiers, that offered the most direction.
Orders to march or lie down in the street came mostly from Justice League people, who read out a list of demands and seemed to have the clearest sense of what they wanted the protests to accomplish.
It’s not clear whether any one person or group decided to move the protests from the street into the mall across from the stadium, but that decision ended an uneasy standoff with police.
It was unclear, as the protests wound down, whether there were any injuries and how many arrests had been made. Blocking streets and briefly shutting down the mall proved easier than shutting down the royals, but if the event had been canceled, Will and Kate might not have seen NBA players wearing protest slogans onto the court.