Last week I had dinner with friends over near the Bowery. While we ate we saw a crowd run by, then a few minutes later the same crowd ran the other way. They were carrying signs, and given the Ferguson verdict had just come out we figured they were heading to Union Square, where most protests begin.
An hour later we finished dinner and I headed west on Prince Street for home. As I neared Broadway I heard chanting. Something felt off and as I got closer I noticed there were no cars, no traffic whizzing by. I reached Broadway and saw a large, angry crowd twenty yards away, heading my way.
To call it a crowd underestimates its size: a mass of people covered all four lanes of Broadway and went north as far as I could see. People were pressed close to each other, stabbing the air with signs, fists screaming skyward, a mix of every ethnicity pounding forward. What struck me most was, without the headlights of cars, Broadway down here at night is dim, and the crowd blended in the grayness into a squat, ferocious war cry.
I quickly crossed Broadway and passed bystanders. Some were quietly passive, some were nervous, and some urged the crowd on with support. I was curious, yet on alert. People were streaming in from either side of Prince Street to join the protest, and as I headed west I could hear the howls and collective chanting for blocks. For some reason the grayness stayed with me, as if the crowd was an apparition appearing from the mist, then disappearing just as mysteriously. It was intense, different than the typical protests I see here. This one was angry.
Over the next few days I kept thinking about it. The Occupy movement washed through our neighborhood as other small protests have. Those groups tended to work their way to Wall Street or the Mayor's office or Foley Square and often came with a side show, i.e. people in costumes, fire eaters, hula hoopers. The Ferguson protest had a fury, but it also had a kind of anonymity that created a solidarity of purpose with the rest of the country, with all the other protests going on. The 20 to early 30-something generation who are often seen as aimless and spoiled - I heard someone refer to them as Generation W as in Wuss - they have found their aim. When it comes to getting their voice out as one, Generation W is not fucking around.
Yesterday, the Eric Garner verdict came down and helicopters started humming overhead at about 5:30. I went out shortly after, heading to a block south of Canal Street, the major thoroughfare in downtown Manhattan. I was with a group in a small room with a window that faced an alley, and despite the buffered walls we could still hear the helicopters, then occasional yells. When we came out around 7:30 Canal Street had what looked like thousands of protestors marching somberly across. Most were women and all were chanting "I can't breathe."
A few of us slowly navigated our way through the march. I wasn't on alert at all; we were amazed and awed by how loud, yet peaceful, how focused, yet calm the crowd was. Traffic leading to Canal was shut down and frozen, resigned to idleness with no where to go. Joe and I had been texting and when I got home he was at the windows taking pictures. The Holland Tunnel was closed, cabs had been abandoned by fares, and, from the kitchen, he could see the protest on Canal. An hour later we heard the tail end of the march turn north, but the helicopters were still whirring when we went to sleep.
This protest didn't seem to have the rage that the Ferguson march had. What it did have that Ferguson didn't is a sense that this is just the beginning. This is a new kind of protest. I don't know when it will end.