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Inside a Huge George Floyd Protest in Brooklyn

2020-06-02 00:23:59
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Rewind, before the trash fires and lootings and arrests, to the scene outside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Sunday evening.

A gate agent at Kennedy Airport, Victoria Sloan, stood in the crowd with the setting sun at her back, thinking about the time the police hassled her little brother. Several feet away, Daniel English, a young media consultant, handed out free pizza and water with friends at a table one of them had brought along. Cory Thomas, a 40-year-old lead abatement specialist, held his phone aloft, sharing the scene with an old friend — the two were once beaten by the police, he said, when they were teenagers.

Soon, the group would march through the broad avenues and narrow side streets of Prospect Heights, greeted at every turn with applause and honking horns and raised-fist salutes. Bryce Stewart, 35, of Bushwick, stopped his motorcycle and climbed atop it for a better look.

“This is beautiful,” he said.

That mood, one of spirited, sometimes vulgar but essentially peaceful indignation, lasted until dark. Then, as it had on each of the previous nights of protest, the glass started to shatter. It began Sunday around 10 p.m. in SoHo, when a knot of young men on the periphery of a large march from Brooklyn smashed a clothing store window and stole a jacket, dragging the entire mannequin out onto the sidewalk.

Scenes of rampant looting and violence between the police and protesters have dominated news coverage of New York City’s protests around the world, and contributed to the announcement Monday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of an 11 p.m. curfew in the city. The crimes being committed have frustrated the protest’s earliest arrivals, the ones who write slogans on the lids of pizza boxes to hold overhead, only to see their efforts hijacked by the shadowy newcomers with their metal bars and stolen clothing.

“There are people out there who are very negative,” said D.J. Elliott, 30, a gym manager in Harlem. “And this is their golden opportunity.”

Leroy O’Brien, who, at 63, was among the older of the protesters, was less charitable about the motivations of looters and vandals. “Knuckleheads,” he said.

At Barclays on Sunday, a crowd of hundreds, and growing, cheered for angry speakers, for the supportive honks of passing cars, for one another. At his pizza table, Mr. English, 27, who is white, said the death of Mr. Floyd left him feeling helpless.

“Avoiding feeling helpless is really what brought me out three days in a row,” he said. He and his friends set up a table with pizza, water and masks to hand to protesters.

“People started donating money and going to the store for us, getting cases of water,” Mr. English said. “A bag of granola bars. It was unbelievable.” The protesters offered a whole pizza to the police. “They said, ‘No, thank you,’” he said, but later, they asked for water.

Nearby, Ms. Sloan, 27, of Flatbush, stood and watched speakers railing against police violence. “It could be my father, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my friend,” she said. “It makes me angry.”

She carried a core memory to the gathering: “When I was young, my brother locked himself out of the house,” she said. As he paced in the streets, “three cops pulled up on him,” she said. “I’m screaming, ‘He’s my brother!’ Just because you see a black man running, doesn’t mean that he’s a threat.”

She planned on leaving early, to return to her daughter, Lalin, 2, and in case the night took a turn to trouble — “there are people out here who are drinking,” she said.

The marches from Barclays through the neighborhood injected new energy into the group, with neighbors hanging out windows of brownstones to clap, a raucous echo of the nightly clapping for health care workers that has taken place for three months.

Asked why he was marching, Mr. Stewart, who is white, standing atop his motorcycle, said, “Why wouldn’t you?”

“I’m more scared of the people who don’t show up,” he said. “This is the last opportunity white America has to listen to the problems of the black community, because they’ve been living in hell and they’re ready to show everyone else their trouble.”

His rhetorical question — “Why wouldn’t you?” — was echoed by a black man hours later, crossing the Manhattan Bridge in lanes closed to traffic. Mr. Elliott, the gym manager, was hoarse from leading call-and-response shouts while climbing the bridge’s steep uphill grade.

“How can I stay home?” he asked. “Black people have been the backbone of this country.”

Mr. Thomas, the lead abatement specialist, shared his march with a friend on FaceTime. “I’m speaking for everybody, all my kinfolk, all my brothers and sisters who’ve gotten beaten up by police,” he said. “Everybody who’s been through this situation can relate.”

To him, that message should carry the day beyond the bad deeds of looters. “I don’t condone the violence,” or the looting, he said, “but at the end of the day, no 14-year-old should be beat up by police.”

Tiffiney Davis, 39, a managing director and a mother, said she had long feared for her son’s safety around the police. She attended the Barclays demonstrations for the first time on Sunday and was struck by the diversity.

“I’ve got my white friends out here with me,” said Ms. Davis, who is black. “Now we feel like we’re getting a little power.”

Nearby, Gabe Jones, 18, of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, was also attending for the first time — it was his first protest anywhere, actually. Mr. Jones, who is black, said that his own background with the police — an officer once burst into his home, he said, and an uncle lost teeth in a scuffle with others — informed his reaction to the death of a man 1,200 miles away.

“The world is watching,” he said.

Matthew Sedacca, Nate Schweber and Ali Watkins contributed reporting.

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