On Protesting During a Pandemic

On Protesting During a Pandemic

I’ve been afraid of Covid-19 for three months, but I’ve been afraid of getting killed by police for four decades.

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The George Floyd video destroyed me. I couldn’t even finish it. The long, slow extinction of his life. The face of Officer Derek Chauvin showing utter indifference to Floyd’s condition, hands in pockets as he murdered him, as if this were a casual killing. It brought back images of lynchings attended as sport. It triggered the hell out of me.

I couldn’t help but see myself in Floyd’s position, a cop’s knee on my neck in the street. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop twitching, couldn’t stop tweeting furiously. And, worse, I felt alone. I haven’t been able to see anyone for months because of the pandemic, and now I was home dealing with yet another police violence trauma. I have so many of these black snuff films stored in my short-term memory, and being home alone with this new one and all the old ones running around in my mind was destroying my soul.

Then I saw a Twitter post about a rally happening right then—just a five-minute walk away from my place in Brooklyn. There were hundreds of people in front of the Barclays Center. Could I go? Quarantined, I hadn’t been around outsiders in months. What if I brought the virus back home to my wife and two kids? How could I go out with the crowd and stay safe medically? But another voice popped up: How could you not go?

This is too important. I’ve been afraid of the coronavirus for three months, but I’ve been afraid of getting killed by police for four decades. It was a moment to throw out that caution and stand up and fight. So I ran out to the protest and found thousands of people who were angry and chanting about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and preaching about how black lives matter. And right there I was swept away into a new world, baptized into this community of like-minded strangers connected by energy and politics and an imperative to demand a revolution. I didn’t process until later that this lifted my spirits; this energized me, gave me the high I needed to escape the valley of mourning George Floyd.

After an hour or two at Barclays, the crowd moved. Thousands marched to DeKalb Avenue, a central block in my neighborhood and in my life. I can recall walking on DeKalb to a date with a girlfriend, strolling with my wife as she was pregnant, carrying our babies as we went to the farmer’s market.

And now DeKalb was teeming with angry people as far as the eye could see, chanting and marching in the street and stopping traffic. For blocks and blocks, cars were stuck in a sea of people yelling, “Black lives matter! Say his name! George Floyd! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”

There is a unique joy in shutting down a street to boost your political ideas: It’s a thrilling show of power, an awesome display of civil disobedience; it’s about forcing others to stop their day and think about our cause. We are interrupting you because this cause is too big to be ignored one second longer. Protesting in the street with that revved-up crowd about ideas that I really believe in—ending police murder, changing the power of the police, making black lives matter—all of that was exhilarating. And I must admit it felt good to see a giant number of white people marching and chanting, “Black lives matter!” My heart was pounding with pride about what we, a group of strangers, had done.

At no point on that first night did I feel fear. Well, not from any civilians. I was afraid of the police and what they’d do, but I’m always scared of the police—even while walking down the street alone. But now I was skirting danger by breaking the law right in front of the cops, and that was exciting, too. It all gave me new energy—politically, all was not lost; there were people who cared a lot. And personally. I had a community that could give me a virtual hug and say they were standing with me in a fight for my rights.

Every day after that first day I made time to run out into the streets of Brooklyn and march with the crowd and shut down more streets. We shut down Flatbush on Saturday. We shut down the Brooklyn Bridge on Monday. But as time has gone on, the danger from cops has gotten real. They have charged peaceful protesters; they have kettled—boxed in—protesters. They have enacted a curfew that gives them the right to be violent after a certain time. All of this has made protesting seem more frightening, and that’s not exciting. I feel like the city is trying to silence me and cut me off from a needed outlet for my pain.

I have continued to go out and protest every day because it has become the most fulfilling part of my day, the moment where I am engaging with the world in an important way. And I have sheepishly gone home before curfew, too cowardly to risk arrest, and watched crowds on CNN chanting, “Fuck your curfew!” But even then, I am still drawing strength from the people, knowing that this is above me; this is bigger than me; this is a movement that will live on without me. And it gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time will be different.

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