I live on a short section of Bleecker Street in Manhattan that is in most ways completely unrepresentative of New York City, much less America. Yet as protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd continue, and violence, looting, and vandalism spread across the country, the 500 feet traversed by my block may spell out the two most-likely futures for a country that seems close to experiencing its most violent season since 1968, when major riots seemed part of everyday life. Do you see today's protests as representing the nonviolent, righteous anger of brutalized minorities who have had enough and are now demanding an end to a murderous status quo? Or do you see them as unleashing anarchy and chaos while masquerading as social justice? How you respond to them not only says something about you but about where the country might end up.
At the west end of my block, Bleecker intersects with Lafayette Street; there sits Kith, a hip, expensive streetwear shop so popular that it used to meter guests in with a velvet-rope system like a trendy nightclub would. When the coronavirus lockdowns went into effect, clothing stores were deemed nonessential by the powers that be, so Kith locked its doors and emptied the store of all merchandise to prevent would-be thieves from breaking in. You'd walk by the windows and just see naked shelves where $300 sweatsuits and $50 knit caps once hung.
This past Sunday, though, the owners boarded up the windows with plywood, as if a hurricane were coming (many businesses throughout the city did the same). They shouldn't have bothered. On Monday morning, I walked by the store around 7 a.m. and saw that the plywood had been peeled back in places and some of the windows smashed. Kith merchandise bags were strewn out on the street.
The damage was just part of massive looting throughout the neighborhood. A couple of blocks away on Houston Street near Broadway, a massive Adidas store was wiped clean of virtually all of its stock, with many of its windows broken. Early on Monday morning, I even saw two latecomer looters storm out of the store with armfuls of clothing and into their car, which they'd left running on the street. Around the corner on Broadway, an NYPD vehicle used by traffic cops was completely scorched and gutted, left in the street like the carcass of an exotic beast. Storefronts had smashed windows and many had, like the Adidas store, been wiped out of all but display stands. "Dozens of suspected looters were arrested in Soho Sunday night as protests over the death of George Floyd descended into chaos," reported The New York Post.
In response to the damage, on Monday, Kith's owners started building a stronger barrier around the perimeter of the store, this time using a scaffolding system and thick green panels that were about 30 feet high. By the end of today, the barrier stood even taller and more imposing, providing what one assumes is an impervious defense to whatever mayhem the night in Gotham might bring.
New York's curfew kicks in at 8 p.m. for the rest of the week, in an attempt to put an end to a couple of days of what The Daily Beast's Rachel Olding has described as "complete anarchy." Throughout the city on Sunday and Monday nights, Olding documented in her Twitter feed roving bands of mostly young people were breaking into stores and running out with all sorts of merchandise.
Hard to describe how rampant the looting was tonight in Midtown Manhattan and how lawless it was. Complete anarchy. Literally hundreds of stores up and down Broadway, Fifth Ave, Sixth Ave. Kids ruling the streets like it was a party. pic.twitter.com/y9Ly1UD1WX
— Rachel Olding (@rachelolding) June 2, 2020
The response of Kith's owners is emblematic of one way of dealing with the new reality in New York: hunker down more and more, worried about chaos. The coronavirus lockdown had been stultifying, but it didn't inspire fear the way the past few nights have. The city's streets had been deserted but they were also peaceful. Now, they are still mostly vacant but the nights are also punctuated by sirens, shouts, and the sounds of breaking glass. Police helicopters patrol the sky, providing a background rumble to the darkness.
In an encouraging sign, last night was calm. There was a massive show of force by the NYPD once the curfew hit and next to no looting. "Some protesters lingered and looting appeared to lessen with an earlier curfew," reports The New York Times. If there is relative calm until the curfew expires at the end of the week, even more of the tension will dissipate.
Anxiety about looting will also fade if there are more events like the one I witnessed yesterday at the other end of my block, where Bleecker meets Bowery. Around 4:30 p.m., a large, long, loud protest march streamed by, headed uptown, with thousands of people chanting, shouting, and making noise. Police were present, restrained, and sometimes smiling, even as the protesters called out law enforcement for killing George Floyd and other misdeeds.
Loud, large, nonviolent protest against police brutality on Bowery in #NYC. Do not confuse with looters smashing windows and decking people later tonight. Police reform is needed. @reason @realDonaldTrump @JoeBiden #GeorgeFloyd pic.twitter.com/i0vZNXmQJ5
— Nick Gillespie (@nickgillespie) June 2, 2020
All told, it took about 20 minutes or more for the protesters to pass by, a testament to their number and energy. They were a mix of ages, races, and genders—a Benetton ad for social action and social justice. These probably aren't the same people doing late-night smash-and-grabs at Footlocker stores and CVS pharmacies around the city. Protest organizers seem to be increasingly vigilant about making sure to keep their distance from the more-destructive elements. The Times' account of last night includes this:
As some people banged on windows at two stores at the intersection of Vesey Street and Broadway early on, a young organizer shouted into a microphone, "Stay calm and peaceful" and "Keep it moving!"
Similar scenes played out all night. Occasionally, as at Gentlemen's Barber Spa on Church Street, an entire window would be smashed, and objects would be thrown into the street. But organizers would corral the rest of the crowd, depriving the vandals of cover.
"It's really frustrating when the protesters get mixed in with the looters," said Moses Gardner, 26. "It's really hurtful to the message. People are looking for reasons to discredit the protests."
Events in New York and across the country are not taking place in a political vacuum. The presidential election looms large over recent events, just as it has during the coronavirus lockdowns. In an in-depth conversation published here earlier today, Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow discussed his research on how protests in the 1960s influenced elite discourse, public opinion, and the presidential race in 1968, which Richard Nixon barely won in a three-way contest with Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. When protesters were nonviolent, he found, they moved public opinion and sympathy in their direction (the effect was stronger still if law enforcement acted violently against them). When protesters acted violently, though, voters recoiled. "Violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the election" to Nixon, he concludes.
Exactly how his findings map on to today's situation isn't clear. In New York at least, marches and protests are bumping up against late-night crime sprees and many observers seem willing to conflate the two, either to minimize the looting or to use it to discredit calls for police reform. In 2016, Donald Trump explicitly invoked Richard Nixon's calls for "law and order." This time, he is once again running as disciplinary figure. But he's also the incumbent, meaning that he might well be held responsible for any chaos on his watch. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a speech yesterday calling out Trump as a racist authoritarian and promising swift criminal justice reforms, but his 44-year career stands as a testament to his own hysterical law-and-order bona fides. From intensifying and expanding the drug war to successfully pushing longer sentences to supporting legislation that gave local police departments access to military gear, Biden has mostly been on the side of law and order himself.
Over the coming weeks and months, we'll have a better sense of how the protests over racialized police brutality play out and how the leading presidential candidates respond. Exactly how the protesters and the police respond to one another isn't yet clear, but it may well dictate whether police reform happens and who will win the 2020 election.