New York City has seen several rallies in recent days, in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury decision and related cases of African-American men and boys who died in police custody. I read a few days ago that a group was calling for a rally in solidarity with the New York Police Department, to be held at City Hall in Manhattan. I decided to check out this gathering, starting at 5PM on Friday, December 19.
As I rode the subway train to City Hall, I wondered about the following: who would attend? what messages would they promote? how big a crowd would they attract? what kind of media attention would there be? As I walked upstairs from the City Hall Station, I looked around and did not see or hear a crowd, which made me wonder. I walked east between the City Hall building and Tweed, the municipal building just north of it (and where some NYC agencies and offices are located) and didn’t notice anything unusual. I turned right and still didn’t see anything near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. However, I did see a few media-outlet vans parked along the perimeter of City Hall Park, from NBC, ABC, New York 1, and then I heard crowd noise. But the rally was not on the steps of City Hall, which is currently draped in scaffolding.
Imagine my surprise: this was supposed to be a rally in support of the NYPD, the New York Police Department, but the noise actually emanated from a counter-rally protesting police brutality. Then I saw that on Broadway?between Murray Street and Park Place, there were about 30-40 people at the pro-police rally….but about 3 times that number constituting a counter protest.
In fact, the police solidarity group was quiet, subdued. A few reporters milled about with microphones, and photographers snapped photos. In this group perhaps a third wore clothing with NYPD symbols. A few printed signs announced “I am the mother of an NYPD cop” and “Blue Lives Matter,” a spin-off of the “Black Lives Matter” motto and hashtag. One quiet man, lurking in the back of this crowd, clasped a hand-made yellow sign that read “For cutting crime” and other messages that were very small. One man held high an American flag; he and a friend also had very small signs with penciled messages that I couldn’t read in the near dark. I saw two men who wore shirts with the message “I Can Breathe,” which is a twist on Eric Garner’s final sentence “I can’t breathe.”
The anti-police brutality group was louder, much more spirited, and held slicker signs. One woman held a hand-written sign that read “Protect your Children Killer Cops On the Loose!!” A man held a sign that read “Stand Up for Justice and Community Policing Let’s Make Staten Island Better For All Don’t Let it Get Worse,” which referred specifically to the Eric Garner case in Staten Island. Several signs memorialized Ramarley Graham, killed two years ago when shot by a member of the NYPD. Other signs included “Jail Killer Cops” and “NYPD is Guilty.” One woman protestor wore a big red wig but most protestors on this side, as well as the pro-police side, wore typical cold-weather clothing. Both sides seemed very self-conscious of media.
Overall I was surprised by the low turnout on the pro-police side. It had also been promoted on a Facebook page called “Blue Lives Matter.” However, I did show up at 5:20PM and the rally was called for 5PM. But would they have wrapped up their protest so swiftly? I stayed for 20 minutes and did not see an uptick in the number of people joining the Blue side. In fact the anti-brutality side publicized this event as well, for its counter rally purposes.
Later on at home, I listened to WCBS Newsradio 880 and I heard coverage of the event; they played a soundbite of solidarity protestors singing “God Bless America,” and one man who urged people to respect the police. “Stand up for law and order” he said to reporter Jim Smith.
I have lived in New York City all my life (specifically the borough of Brooklyn) and have worked in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. I’ve seen quite a bit in my 50 years, and am saddened by the divides (economic, social, political, environmental) of recent years. We need to work to repair this fine city. The eyes of the nation and the world are upon us.
Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013). (And hopefully a book about NJ one day, if her publisher gives the green light.)