After weeks of escalating protests in New York City, there was a gesture of reconciliation Friday when Mayor Bill de Blasio held his first meeting with an activist group to address their demands. Then the anger came back at night.
Pro-police protesters gathered Friday evening, some wearing “I can breathe shirts” that appeared to mock the death of Eric Garner, whose last words, caught on video, were “I can’t breathe” before he died after being choked by a police officer. They faced off against counter-protesters who compared police to terrorists and the KKK.
The day started with de Blasio meeting members of Justice League NYC at the headquarters of one of New York’s most powerful unions, 1199 SEIU.
“They have a list of demands, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t —we had a very honest conversation about that,” de Blasio said after the meeting. “What I appreciate is, they are respectful of the democratic process.”
A New York grand jury’s vote not to bring criminal charges against a white police officer for the death of Garner, a black man, sparked the current protests and led the Justice League to formulate its demands.
De Blasio also talked about a coordinated effort between the Justice League and law enforcement to ensure the protests stay peaceful after two officers were attacked at a demonstration last Saturday.
“They will work with the police to identify anyone who seeks to harm the police or harm anyone and undermine their nonviolent peaceful progressive movement,” de Blasio said. “So I thought there was real unity on that point.”
Last week, before the police officers were attacked and before the Justice League shot to prominence, I asked the group's leaders about maintaining nonviolent protests.
I asked whether they felt responsible for keeping the peace—nonviolence is one of their stated aims—at protests they led, but where not all demonstrators belonged to their organization.
“Obviously we can’t control what everyone does,” said Carmen Perez, who founded Justice League NYC. “We can’t shut people’s feelings down and re-traumatize them,” she said, “it’s about giving them an opportunity to channel their emotions and I think we do that effectively.”
“We’re not there to de-escalate necessarily,” said Cherrell Brown, a Justice League organizer. “We’re not there to tell them that their justified anger and their rightful rage is wrong.”
“We are there to have conversations with people,” Brown said, “and let them know that we’re here for them and we’re in this together.”
Before their sitdown Friday, Justice League NYC had been demanding a meeting with the mayor for more than a week. That they got one may owe something to the organization's political connections. The group was founded by Harry Belafonte, who gave the keynote speech at de Blasio’s inauguration, and is backed by celebrities like Russell Simmons, with ties to elected leaders in city and state government.
Attendance was expected to be low at a pro-police rally scheduled for 5 p.m. outside City Hall after Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said that the police union was not directing officers to attend. “You may be the only person at that rally,” Bratton said of those who planned to show up.
At 10 past 5, a middle-aged white man climbed the stairs out of the City Hall subway. He was wearing a hat with the emblem of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing organization whose self-appointed role to defend the Constitution led its members to patrol rooftops in Ferguson, Missouri, before the police there shut them down. This Oath Keeper was there for the protest, which had yet to materialize, and had a few friends joining him, he told me.
By 5:30 a small group of pro-police protesters had assembled. Counter-protestors marched to confront the pro-police contingent, separated by barricades and uniformed officers.
“You’re a racist piece of shit,” a protester said in one exchange. “Well you’re an anarchist piece of shit,” a man in an NYPD hat replied over the policeman who stood between them. The two sides taunted and insulted each other but with police separating them no violence broke out.
With the pro-police group dispersing, the social-justice contingent began a march with a group that looked to be no more than 150 people. After police blocked them from entering the Brooklyn Bridge, the scene of the city’s largest protest so far—and where two cops were assaulted last Saturday—the marchers continued through Chinatown.
The central issue for many of the demonstrators who were out marching through another night in the cold was “Broken Windows” policing, the theory that by aggressively enforcing smaller violations, more serious crimes are deterred.
Activist groups, including Justice League NYC, have called for the end of Broken Windows, which they say unfairly targets minorities and promotes abusive policing.
But Mayor de Blasio stuck by the approach.
“I’ve said very clearly that I believe in the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of policing,” de Blasio said after his meeting with the Justice League.
“I certainly think I’m going to put more time into explaining what today’s ‘Broken Windows’ approach is,” the mayor added, “because it is different.”
Friday’s meeting showed that some protesters could get an audience with the mayor, but not yet much more than that as their key demand stayed off the table.
The marches went on into Friday night.