Tens of thousands of New Yorkers have poured onto city streets for the last month. They have marched hundreds of miles, closed bridges, shut down highways and, most recently, taken up residence outside City Hall, calling for the police budget to be slashed.
In the chaotic first days of the city’s protests demanding police reform, police cars were set on fire, stores were looted, and officers laid into crowds of peaceful protesters with batons and pepper spray.
But now, marches, vigils and rallies have settled in as a part of the city’s daily life, one already turned upside down by the global coronavirus outbreak. The protest groups are smaller, the cheers softer. But daily, a corps of hundreds has continued to turn out.
Protests have been planned at least through June, and organizers and participants said they expected the energy to continue months after the death of George Floyd, the black man whose killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers first spurred protests in May.
“Do I have anxiety about the movement dissipating and stalling? Of course,” said Nelini Stamp, 32, who said she had been protesting almost every day since late May. “But here’s the thing: I’ve never seen this in my life. Days and days of sustained protests.”
More than a month since the protests first began, as police reforms begin in New York and cities across the country, the question has loomed for marchers and those who watch them: Now what?
The New York City Council also passed a longstanding piece of proposed legislation known as the POST Act, which will require the police department to disclose many of its electronic surveillance tools.
“You don’t need to protest, you won,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, addressing demonstrators after the state reforms were passed in Albany. “You accomplished your goal.”
Next week, the Council must vote on a budget proposal that would slash $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s $6 billion budget. Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed cuts to the department’s budget but has said the $1 billion number is too high.
So why are people still going out?
“Until I feel the people in my orbit care about this stuff, I can’t take a break,” said Kristen Lee, 26, who has been protesting every other day since demonstrations first began in the city.
Many other participants agreed that there was still more to accomplish. The staying power of the state’s early reforms remains to be seen, they said. Criminal justice advocates and academics have cautioned that many of the changes hailed by the Police Department could be cosmetic, simply shifting problematic officers, units and policing tactics under different names.
The protests are not monolithic, and they are evolving as reforms are being made. Their demands run the gamut, from nuanced police reforms to a complete abolition of the city’s uniformed force.
The demonstrations have also spurred a whole host of ancillary demands: Rallies for education, gender equality and social services now pop up between those calling for police reform.
“Defunding the police is something that needs to happen. Police brutality is unacceptable and inhumane. But also, there are larger forces,” said Biz Berthy, 24, an organizer for Vocal New York, a grass roots advocacy organization that has been promoting dialogue for the last month on drug policy, housing equality and homelessness.
For many, the protests have become a part of their daily routines.
Arianny Valenzuela, 19, said she had been to nine protests since the marches first began in the city. She and her friends were interested in efforts to slash $1 billion from the city’s police budget, a proposal that will be decided by the City Council next week. After that, Ms. Valenzuela said, she would demand more accountability for police who behave inappropriately.
She noted that when protests first began, marchers were demanding the arrest of the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. After he and three other officers were arrested, she said, protesters began targeting police budgets and calling for disciplinary reforms.
“There’s going to be more demands,” she said.
Who’s organizing it all?
Much of the movement is being led by a decentralized, loosely affiliated diaspora of protest leaders across the city, some of whom had never publicly demonstrated before Mr. Floyd’s death. Some are affiliated with formal groups or organizations, but others have simply emerged as ringleaders for an amorphous groups of friends, acquaintances and strangers.
David Matos, 30, has been working with a group of around a dozen people to organize marches every night since the demonstrations began.
“We’re the family that we always wanted,” said Mr. Matos, who goes by Tito. After some marches, the group hosts a workshop on black history and the movement.
Dozens of new demonstrations are listed each day on the Justice for George NYC Instagram account, a sort of unofficial digital directory of scheduled protests in the city. The account has more than 200,000 followers.
A public channel on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, keeps followers up-to-date on demonstration locations and police scanner traffic.
Cyclists gather for protest rides across the city’s bridges and between boroughs. Group meditations on racial justice pop up at city parks. Children’s marches use books, posters and crafts to promote racial equality.
In Brooklyn’s McCarren Park, a nightly vigil has become a community gathering space; on Wednesday night, tables of volunteers handed out hand sanitizer and first aid equipment, and artists displayed their paintings of Mr. Floyd.
Many protesters said they simply checked social media after work or in the evening to see if there were demonstrations happening near them.
“It’s really inspiring to see people integrate organizing and political action into their daily lives,” Ms. Berthy said. “That has been what was so desperately needed for so long.”
Are the police still arresting people?
The police, too, appear to have settled into the strange détente. Since Sunday, the police said, no one involved in protest marches in the city has been arrested, even as hundreds camp through the night outside City Hall awaiting the Council’s budget deadline.
Mr. de Blasio said on Wednesday that he welcomed the demonstration, and that the police would exercise restraint.
“They’re very familiar with how to handle something like this the right way — respect people’s rights but also make sure public safety and other public needs are addressed,” he said at a news conference.
In Brooklyn, beyond the crowd at McCarren Park on Wednesday, a group of officers with zip ties attached to their belts leaned against their cars, chatting. Behind them, a man on a bicycle brazenly popped a wheelie on a bicycle and rode through their police barricade; the officers glanced at him and went back to their conversation.
On Wednesday night, as hundreds gathered peacefully at an encampment outside City Hall, a few dozen police officers dressed in riot gear approached the area. Briefly, protesters turned to them, chanting. But within minutes, most had turned their attention back to a scheduled assembly about the police budget, put on by protest organizers.
The officers milled about. By nightfall, most had taken off their riot helmets and laid them on the ground.