The outrage stemming from George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, 2020 resounded in a series of protests and occupations across US cities this summer. While the damage to property and the violent police repression of protestors dominated the news cycle nationwide — from the New York Police Department’s use of excessive force to the deployment of paramilitary federal agents in Portland — the protests that unfolded in New York City, from Brooklyn to the Bronx, were also laden with inspirational scenes of kinship and joy. Thousands of people marched and gathered in Washington Square Park, hundreds occupied City Hall Park, and many others sang and danced together in the neighborhood of Mott Haven in the Bronx. After months of isolation in their apartments, people were able to go outside again — this time to make their clamors for racial justice heard.
Protesting is a spatial practice that takes place in, and makes use of, our urban environments. To make change possible, protesters need to be seen and heard en masse. Protests, in this sense, are performative. But in the way they are planned and regimented to safely and effectively convey bodies through streets, they also have a distinctly militaristic quality. What happened on the ground during the June 2020 protests in New York City? Below, John Xavier Acosta, an anti-racist movement and protest leader, and architect and protest photographer Gabriel Hernández Solano document the month’s events verbally and visually. Gabriel created diagrams that not only help explain how these protests and occupations unfolded in place, but also serve as a visual record of police brutality, and as a catalogue of the diverse and evolving roles of protesters to claim public space. We have also included some of the photographs taken at the events he attended.
There is much to learn from these fleeting, yet radical spatial practices. They showed people taking care of one another, and repurposing places and infrastructure that laid mostly idle during the COVID-19 health crisis. The three of us got together in late July to create a more permanent record of these temporary forms of kinship and resistance. These can hopefully inform more lasting changes to our public spaces and the relationships developed within them. – OOD
Could you both briefly describe things you’ve seen during the ongoing protests in New York City?
During the first week, the protests were fueled purely by emotion. Everything was running organically on this rage. People have been locked in their apartments; they haven’t been able to go outside. They’re like little bombs waiting to go off. All of a sudden, you’re surrounded by people. There seems to be a purpose; there’s this righteous anger, this energy that’s been building up over the past four months.
The knee on George Floyd’s neck was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. 20 million people unemployed, more than five million people losing their health insurance. People not knowing where their groceries are going to come from the next week, and relying on mutual aid networks, which are all volunteer-based. All that context of insecurity, of unpredictability, of uneasiness: all this built up frustration was accumulating, and then there were the social distancing arrests. The police made 40 arrests in Brooklyn from mid-March to early May: 35 of them were Black, four Latino and one white dude.
For some people it was a big step — and a big overcoming of fear — just to be present in the street. Just to leave their home and say, “I feel a certain way enough that I’m going to take my body and put it out in the street and march with these people.” And it’s been amazing to really see it happening. I’ve seen a lot of Black defiant joy. My favorite part of this whole thing is when there’s a hostile force, which is the police, and our response as protestors is to dance and sing. There are people here fighting for liberty, justice, freedom, to be able to feel comfortable walking down the street — and they’re doing it in a joyful way. And then on the other side, you just have people defending what?
The thing that surprises me is just how brave my brothers and sisters have been during this whole protest. There’s been racism, and there’s been brutality, to the max. We’re not here to start any sort of violence, we’re being peaceful. And you see how tight the police grasp onto their batons. You just stand there and you’re looking at the cop, and you’re like: Wow, this guy is really ready to pound me out. Why? The only weapon that I have is my voice, but I see you preparing yourself to brutalize me. And it’s surprising to me how many people are actually brave enough to step up and be like, “I don’t care, man. I’m here and you’re not going to shut me up.” The bravery coming from the protestors is crazy. And the joy is insane. To see people sing, to see them dance right in front of the cops, it’s like: What are you going to do? You’re going to hit this person because they’re dancing in front of you? “It’s against the law for you to dance in my presence.” Really? Come on. But they do find a reason to hit people. “You’re too close; you got too close.” I’m six feet away from you! I’m social distancing, and dancing from here, so leave me alone.
The chanting is my favorite part. Because you see the raw passion come out of all the protestors together, all at once. Once you have that unity, that’s a completely different ballgame, and they cannot be denied. You have so many people outside. If you have a crowd of 400 people, you can make a roar. You can still make a roar with 100. If you have 5,000 or 10,000 people chanting the same thing, in New York City, down these streets, on Broadway, shutting down the FDR Drive with their voices and their marching? It’s only going to bring more people into the march. Anybody sitting on the sidelines is going to be like, “This is well organized. Man, what am I doing? I’m having a beer?” They chuck their beer, and they jump right in. It’s like a game of double Dutch. They’re like, “Okay am I going to go in? I’m in, I’m in.” Every single time that you’re out there doing that is like a sign of encouragement. “Listen, we’re saying this together, do you want to say this too?” “You know what, I do want to say it, and I was scared. Now I’m not, so I’m going to step right along too. Let’s go. We out. Let’s scream: I can’t breathe! Whose streets? Our streets!” I’m sorry, but it just gets me excited.
Along the lines of this performative way of taking over the streets and claiming public space, how has the city’s infrastructure — its bridges, its different urban elements — been used and taken advantage of as a backdrop for the protests and the Black Lives movement?
It’s been interesting to see the places that have been chosen, and how all the tools of capitalism, like the Citi bikes and Revel scooters, have been appropriated by the protestors to meet our ends. The bridges have a certain purpose: for people to cross over from one part of the city to another. Barclays Center was an epicenter of action at the beginning; it was totally appropriated for the protests. The plazas are always some of the most democratic places, where you can find people congregating for whatever reason. They became a nucleus throughout the protests.
The protests coincided with the start of a downward turn from the peak of COVID-19 cases in the city. Because of the fear of backtracking on the progress that had been made, along with the supposed threat of looting, a city-wide, weeklong curfew was put in place. Can you speak about how this affected, and even inadvertently invigorated, the protests themselves?
The first night the protestors were out, we were like, “We’re going to defy your curfew, right outside of Trump Tower.” And everyone was kind of nervous. No one knew what was going to happen. People thought that maybe right at 8 pm the cops were just going to rush everyone and arrest them. There was a lot of tension; a lot of people were leaving as it got closer and closer to 8:00. At 7:55, the people that were there were obviously going to stay — they were like, “Fuck it, we’re staying.” People started blasting Pop Smoke, dancing and singing; and then it turned to 8 pm and everyone was like, “We’re still outside!” And when nothing happened right at 8 pm, people were like, “We got this.”
It was beautiful! We were walking and you could see people from their apartments looking out and peeking, like: Is something going to happen? There’s this curfew. You see people on the sidewalk starting to clap, and then you see them join and also breaking the curfew. There were people who were maybe going to get a juice at the deli that were like, “We’re not doing anything; we’re going to join this.” Despite the curfew. So that was by Central Park, the southern end of Central Park West by Columbus Circle. Not to make a blanket statement, but a lot of those people maybe haven’t been protesting as much as others. Let’s just put it that way. And for them to join was like, “Okay!”
I remember that day. You had leaders that wanted to go home because they didn’t want anything to happen, they were scared. But I’m standing there, and I’m like, “We’re not going home.” Because they gave us an 11 pm curfew that first day; then the next day, you want to say 8 pm? You’re not going to tell me when to go home.
Not even my mom can do that, so . . .
Seriously. I’m going to be like, “Mom, you’re going to be mad but I’m not coming home today, I’m out.” You’re not going to tell me, “Hey, if you don’t go home, I’m going to lock you up.” Fine. You’re going to lock up 5,000 people? You can’t lock up 5,000 people for saying no. When 8 pm hit, the excitement around Trump Tower was insane.
The countdown was like New Year’s Eve. Everybody was like, “10, 9, 8 . . .” And it happened and everyone was like, “Bahhh,” and the songs came on and everyone started mosh pitting. And it’s like, “We’re still outside, qué pasa?” The cops were just standing there. Because a lot of people were expecting them to potentially attack, and that there would be this chaos. But nothing happened and we were like, “Okay!”
I got picked up — a gentleman put me on his shoulders and he was like, “We did it brother, yes!” And I was like, “Yes!”
People were so happy to stay out past 8 pm.
That was crazy. That was crazy.
The roles within a typical march evolved to meet various needs that arose over the course of the uprisings. Though the initial demonstrations didn’t have organized crews of bikers, these soon became crucial for navigation, scouting, and protection from traffic and police. As the police became more violent and arrests increased, brigades of volunteer medics and legal observers were formed to provide assistance and support. Likewise, teams of people distributed snacks and PPE to ensure protestors stayed hydrated, energized and healthy. Photographers and videographers documented the marches, creating a necessary counternarrative to coverage in mainstream news outlets. Taking cues from international protests, march leaders began equipping themselves with shields and umbrellas in addition to signs and bullhorns. Despite the circumstances, musicians helped keep the rhythm of the chants, while protestors sang and danced in the streets. As they say, Black joy is a form of resistance.
The images below depict the participants in a typical march as it travels north on Fifth Avenue following a rally in Washington Square Park.
Click on images to enlarge.
Speaking more precisely to things happening on the ground, what were some of the tactics employed by the protestors? Could we say that they were somewhat militaristic in their organization?
The marches are constantly moving, there’s no endpoint. You know when pigeons fly all together, in a group of 200, and they just swarm? It’s like this. You’re swarming, filtering through the streets like water. That’s the march.
Often it seemed like we were just moving wherever there was an opening. There was a general approach, like, we want to end up somewhere by a certain time, but there’s barricades on one street, so you’d move another way. Kind of like water, just flowing through. But that means that as you’re taking the streets, you want to have protection of the marchers.
In general, people started to realize that we can’t let the end of the march, which is the slowest people, have police cars and police behind them. You started to see more bikes; this shit was like a well-oiled machine. “Bikers to the front!” Vroom. Like a unit. “Bikers to the flanks!” Vroom. Like a unit. “Block off this intersection!” Vroom. You guys have been fucking studying or something these past three days.
After that first week, these roles started to evolve purely out of necessity. Every single role that has come up in these protests are the protestors doing the job that the police are supposed to do. Directing traffic, keeping the peace, deescalating. Protecting each other, serving each other.
Can you describe in more detail the different roles of protesters and the purpose they served?
Usually a group of bikers go one block ahead to cut off the street and start directing traffic before the rest of the march arrives, so everything’s clear. Then you have the bikers who stay behind to hold the intersections, making sure that cars don’t come in, and the bikers that are holding the line at the back, so you don’t get any stragglers. You don’t have cops infiltrate from the back any more like they did in some of the first protests. You have that flank of bikers always holding the back line, and if anything happens, they’ll let the other bikers know. One biker will go tell the front line that, “This is happening,” or “We need to take a left or right here,” etc.
Within the march there’s always the leaders: the people with the megaphones, the people that are leading the chants. Usually that’s the group of organizers. Then you have musicians: people who bring instruments, and try to maintain a rhythm or a beat to the chants.
Because of the pandemic, PPE teams started popping up along the marches. They have everything from masks to hand sanitizer to ear plugs. (There were a lot of rumors that the NYPD was going to use a sonic disperser, which basically plays a sound so loud that it causes people to disperse) Some of them even had gel that is supposed to help people who get pepper sprayed or maced. Sometimes people in cars will park along the route and hand stuff out, or come with a little grocery cart and march along with everyone. Other people just bring backpacks. It manifested in a lot of different ways, but that’s the best example of taking the need of that moment and turning it into a role.
Volunteer medical teams and volunteer legal teams came. Those also grew out of necessity. The legal teams were there just to observe and take people’s names if they get arrested, to make sure everything’s okay and just be a witness. And the medical teams are there, obviously, if anybody gets hurt. They’re all wearing hard hats, clearly marked with red tape or something saying they’re a medic.
Then you just have the typical protestor: people with signs, people participating. The photographers and the documenters play a very important role as well. There’s a saying that’s come up: “racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Will Smith said it, and then it became viral. Having a camera on is a weapon, in a way. It is a first line of defense, a tool of mitigating police, like, “You’re being watched. This can go viral at any moment. This is being streamed live.” It’s online warfare, in a way. There’s an immediate response online — it helps shift the narrative. The way you see people radicalize and educate themselves on social media can’t be underestimated. Because a lot of people that wouldn’t have gone marching are reaching out to me, and to many others I’m sure, just because of seeing these videos and then being like, “This is wrong and I need to also be on the street.” I think that role is super important, even now, when a lot of these videos are going to be used in several lawsuits that are underway.
When the curfew was put in place, we saw the most violent clashes instigated by the police towards protestors. You also talked about how the protestors have been evolving in their strategies, and feeling braver. Can you talk about the strategies put in place, which evolved through time, that the protestors started putting into action: to resist, to remain within space and to claim it? Can we talk about those tactics to fight back?
Let me tell you an actual fact: You are never going to be ready for a cop. Alright? You can have a seal-proof plan. Understand that if these cops feel like saying, “You know what, I’m going to end this,” they’ll do their best to end it.
If they really wanted to be peaceful or nice, or be protectors and serve, they would be like, “Yo, guys, chill out.” Communication — that’s something they do not have. Officers have a plan going in, but while they’re in action they have nothing. Why? Because they have no communication.
On the evening of June 4, 2020, protestors in Mott Haven, Bronx were entrapped, or “kettled,” by the police on both ends along 136th Street, just before an 8 pm curfew imposed by Mayor de Blasio. Once the curfew officially began, over 250 protestors (including medics and legal observers) were beaten, maced and arrested.
As of September 1, 2020, Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark announced a move to dismiss over 300 summonses for protestors charged with violating curfew during this protest.
The images below depict the spatial arrangement of protestors, police, and residents near the intersection of 136th Street and Brook Avenue, just outside Millbrook Houses.
Click on images to enlarge.
You’d think that, of anyone, the cops would already have a plan laid out. That they would already know exactly what to do, and they’re just waiting to execute it. But you guys are saying that they’re kind of improvising. However, on June 4, in the Mott Haven area near 136th and Brook Avenue, you could argue that the cops clearly had a plan. They wanted to barricade the protesters between the streets, to make sure that people had to remain there past curfew so they could beat and arrest them. They wanted to incite the crowd. Can you speak about what tactics they used that day, how everything started revealing itself, and how the protestors reacted? Clearly, they had a plan.
That was the first day that I think a lot of people saw these new Batman suits that the biker cops have: all body armor with these new fucking bikes; goggles; little light things that miners wear; new, slick helmets that look like some aerodynamic shit that you see in the Olympics. We have nurses dressed in garbage bags and using the same mask for two weeks, and these guys are dressed like this?
It was like 7:56 pm when we went down 136th towards Brook. They had blocked off a whole intersection. And protestors just stood there chanting, “Let us through, let us through, we’re not doing anything,” and holding the line. We were just held there and then the cops at the back corralled us in. I think they wanted to make the point of, “Hey, you guys aren’t listening to the curfew; that’s not allowed.” The organizers of that march are considered by the police to be more like agitators, I think. It’s just that they’re from the Bronx, and they’re more vocal; they hold their ground and don’t take shit. They say the truth, and that is considered aggressive to police.
So the cops corralled everyone and they were just waiting for 8 pm. People could not leave. Everyone got arrested. Cops started getting on cars, beating people with batons, pepper spraying. There was pure pandemonium, I have it all on video. Cops tripping over each other. They arrested the legal aid, they arrested the medics, they arrested absolutely everyone that night. But people were chanting “You can arrest us, and we’ll be here the next day and the next day, and the next day and the next day.” And you could see the cops be like, “These guys don’t give a fuck if they’re getting arrested.”
Knowing that, regardless of if we’re marching peacefully, like it was in the Bronx — we’re just holding space, nobody’s looting, we’re just chanting and in the streets past 8 pm, it’s still daylight out — you still know that what the cops are capable of, so people are more prepared. You start seeing people linking arms, some people have shields, handing out goggles, wearing hard hats.
The occupation of City Hall Park began with approximately 100 protestors on June 23, 2020 in order to draw attention to the upcoming city budget vote due to take place on June 30. In the span of a few days, this Black-led direct action, originally spearheaded by VOCAL-NY, quickly grew to more than 1,000 people. The purpose of this action was to pressure the city into accepting demands to reduce the NYPD’s budget by one billion dollars. On July 22, the occupation was disbanded by police.
The images below depict the City Hall Autonomous Zone in full force, with space and resources for political activity, cultural production, community care, and everyday life.
Click on images to enlarge.
There’s a lot of talk about rethinking public space and the commons now. What can we actually learn from these fleeting, yet radical spatial practices that we’ve been mentioning? To a certain degree, could this be an opportunity to question our existing socio-spatial order?
The City Hall occupation has been a perfect example of that. Before that, the plaza was maybe two or three (maximum five) things: it’s all fenced up, it’s by One Police Plaza; it’s a receptacle for people coming onto and off of the Brooklyn Bridge, coming out of City Hall Station; people eat lunch there, though it’s mostly a place of passing through; and then there’s the small contingent of people that call the plaza their home, that actually sleep there most nights.
But now it’s like an entire functioning mini-city there. A lot of the things that we are fighting for beyond the perimeter of the plaza are present in that plaza. Because what they’re trying to create is a microcosm or an example of what it could be. You walk in, you have welcome tables with PPE, masks and hand sanitizer. Then if you’re walking from north to south, more or less, there’s a laundry area: you can drop off your laundry and it gets washed. There are donated clothes. One day I was super cold and I just went, “Hey, I need a sweater.” And they gave it to me. Then you have a snack area; you have hot food, usually pizza, but you get all types of stuff. I had a shrimp pineapple sandwich with hummus and Hawaiian bread one time. You have the power charging station. You have the medical station that literally has a sign that says “Free healthcare,” which is funny, because everyone knows how shitty the healthcare system is here. There’s the Legal Aid station, there’s the info desk; then you have an art central part which kind of shifts and morphs its location but it’s mostly by one section where people go paint or create art. There’s the library, there’s a mental health station where you can talk to someone — it’s called “mental rest.” There’s a little garden that they started doing on one end. They were giving away free seedlings and starting to plant things.
There’s all this talk about the 15-minute neighborhood and having access to all these things during the COVID crisis. And to a certain degree, given that Black and Brown communities typically lack access to all these things you just mentioned, here is a pop-up, 15-minute neighborhood, where they can get everything and beyond.
Out of the pandemic, out of necessity, mutual aid groups sprung up all over the city. A lot of those mutual aid networks started bleeding into the City Hall occupation. The homeless people in the plaza are a perfect example. They don’t have access to healthcare, to healthy food, to a roof over their heads, to mental health experts, to clean clothes or a change of clothes or deodorant or toothpaste or whatever else. All of that stuff exists in the occupation. There’s this one trans woman, Zion, who’s a total character. Everyone has gotten to know her. She has said herself that she is bipolar, so she has her episodes; people just give her space when she needs her space, and other than that, you have conversations, dance, whatever it is you’re doing. And it’s funny because she’s been dressing differently every single day. She’s got a totally new thing on, from all the donated clothes. And after the budget vote, when people were like: Okay, why are we here? Why do we continue to hold this space? The point was made that we are actually providing an environment for a lot of the homeless people. They have a support network now, and access to all the basic needs that every human should have, because of the occupation.
These essential social services that were being provided at the encampment are things that have been eroded or privatized or underfunded for decades. And to suddenly see them spring up reminds people that these things are modes of kinship and a clear form of caring for each other that is essential. It’s truly inspiring to see how it popped up in the encampment.
I do have a lot of hope for the new generation that’s coming up right now. The ones who use TikTok to totally ruin Trump’s rally. They seem much more militant than our generation, and our parents’ in many ways. They just seem to have this loss of fear … They’re 15, 16, 18, willing to do direct actions where many of them are getting arrested. I didn’t know something like this in the US would last for so long, having seen more of this stuff in South America. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s lasted this long on a daily basis.
A lot of people are saying, “If they hadn’t burned the precincts in Minnesota, there’s no way they would have arrested the police involved in George Floyd’s murder.” All the conversations that happened regarding police reform in Minnesota came after that, and they happened pretty quickly. There was a meme or tweet that said, “10 days of nationwide protests have accomplished more than 20 years of Democratic rule.” Which is totally true, because the politicians are basically just trying to maintain the status quo. They’ll change the street names and do a little dabbling here and there, but they’re not interested in any sort of systemic change. People are starting to realize that kneeling’s not working, clapping’s not working, just marching is not working. What are the steps we’re going to take? Occupying a plaza didn’t work. It’s a protest, but it’s also a show, an example of something else. It’s like a pilot for many other things.
All photographs and diagrams by Gabriel Hernández Solano.