Saturday, May 30 was the second day of New York City’s uprising over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and rallies and protests were flaring throughout the city. In the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, helmeted cops had kettled part of a peaceful, racially-mixed march into a residential street, just off an intersection, and advanced on protesters with waves of pepper spray, body tackles and arrests. Helicopters hovered overhead like wasps, and on one occasion, dipped low to blast the crowd with a gale of wind.
About two hours into the confrontation, I witnessed something new (to me). In a moment when the NYPD were about to escalate force against protesters, a white protester called for “white people to the front” to form a barrier between the cops and the black and brown people in the crowd. They did, in mere seconds. The white protesters held their ground, sometimes chanting, sometimes standing still. One girl even chatted up one of the cops--were they flirting?--before turning her back. After a few minutes, the protesters started walking forward, step-by-step, slowly nudging the scrum of riot cops back and out of the street. In the media coverage of these uprisings, there’s been a lot of emphasis on chaos and destruction--and no doubt there’s been chaos. But here was a diverse, angry crowd that spontaneously coalesced into an orderly, disciplined formation--one capable of pushing back riot-geared cops without the use of any violence--in about as little time as it takes to say “I can’t breathe! Hands up, don’t shoot!”
It made me choke up a little. For one, it gave me hope. I saw this as a sign that the culture of left activism and movements is changing and evolving, however slowly, to better reflect (and therefore oppose) the realities of white supremacy, including the fact that the right of white Americans to protest and be free from extra-judicial killing is usually respected, while the rights of black and brown people to do the same are not. At previous Black Lives Matters protests, I had seen black protesters tell white protesters to put their bodies on the line, only to be met with awkward silence and looks of confusion. “Are these calls divisive?” Uttered in hushed tones, the words came on the heels of a 2018 protest over the NYPD killing of Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights, the neighborhood next to Flatbush. Now, in 2020, the formation came together so quickly, almost reflexively, that I can only attribute it to a sea change in our general understanding about white supremacy and systemic racism in the US. Yes, we still have a long way to go, and maybe it will all be too-little-too-late (though I hope not). But I think it’s also important to acknowledge progress along the way. (Remember that four years ago, the idea of a “post-racial” America was not considered the laughable delusion it is seen as today.)
Second, this tactic was surprisingly effective. As the cops retreated, it was clear from their wide-eyed grimaces and frowns that they were worried, disconcerted, flabbergasted, flummoxed above all. I won’t pretend to know their thoughts, so I’ll just ask: do you think the outcome would've been the same if they had been face-to-face with black and brown bodies? It was exhilarating to see the tactic work. It was also a grim reminder of how deeply entrenched white supremacy remains within our institutions and the minds of the people who carry out its functions. This small, discrete victory stood on the chasm between how different shades of people are seen and treated: some with deference and respect, others with a disgust and disdain that makes them disposable.
It is not an uncomplicated matter. Discussing this incident on Facebook, in the days since it occurred, legitimate questions were raised about whether it constitutes white martyrdom. The trope is pervasive in Western culture--a white hero swoops in to save “primitive” darker-skinned people--from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar. It has served as a justification for colonialism, and in the world of progressive politics today, it often takes the form of white politicians, organizations and activists swooping into black and brown communities to fix them, as if black and brown people didn’t have the intelligence or self-possession to take care of themselves. (Despite the fact that many of America’s most cherished rights and freedoms were won by its black and brown residents, including the Civil Rights Movement). In protest situations, white martyrdom can threaten the safety of the whole crowd, drawing police reprisals that are likely to rain down with harsher fury on darker-skinned protesters. But what separates a martyr from an ally lies in who calls the shots, who does the grunt work, who gets the glory on Instagram and the evening news, and who decides, in the aftermath, how the story of the uprising--countless incidents and moments stitched into a fine tapestry--is told.
Black calls for a barrier of white bodies had been made to protect against police violence, and not only in 2018. In a moment of chaos, an hour or two before the white barrier formed, when people were running in every direction to avoid pepper spray and advancing cops, I heard a similar call from within the crowd. And moments after the barrier coalesced, a young, black woman also reiterated, with the full force of her lungs: “If you’re white, get up to the front.” Since that day, cops around the nation have only grown more unhinged, and I fear that the worst of police viciousness is still to come. Recognizing that black protesters will almost certainly receive their most savage outbursts of fury, tactics that address our lopsided reality can, with thoughtful use that takes cues from black leaders and the degree of police violence bearing down on the crowd, protect the safety of the people.
By the time I left that day, protesters of all races were arrested and left to wash pepper spray from their eyes. No one should feel that they have to “put your bodies upon the gears”--every individual has different risk factors that only they can weigh, and there are many ways for people to support the work of black movements and communities besides direct action. But what I saw in that moment was that a movement is more effective when allies have already taken the time to understand the access and advantages they hold, and then are ready to put them to service when the need and opportunity arises.
Audrea Lim is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, Harper's and The Nation, and was formerly an editor at Verso.