White People, Meet the Protesters
“Send in the troops!” wrote Senator Tom Cotton in a New York Times editorial on June 3rd, 2020. The senator was responding to the notion that all hell is breaking loose as protests wind through American cities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. I hear echoes of these sentiments expressed in the comments of White friends and acquaintances outside New York City, many using words like “escape” and “rescue” with regard to my presence here. Some of them are city residents who have decamped to country homes. Others live far away from any city and now see fit to remind themselves and everyone else of the guns that they keep at home.
Fear and disapproval of “looters” figures prominently in these perspectives. Of course, at every moment of history, there have been people seeking to steal property from others, and we can expect that to continue. Some of these people have recently seen an opportune moment. This criminal activity is deplorable and fortunately has had a limited upside for its perpetrators — even the stores that they have broken into have confirmed this. This criminal activity is completely different from the protests and no one views it with favor.
Nevertheless, I understand how things might look on television, especially in those reports that bear the influence of a president who rarely has anything positive to say about American cities. (At the moment that I write this, a commentator on my TV is asking his guest, “How concerned are you about the protests that we are seeing?” “Very,” answers the guest.)
You’re invited to know the facts. The protests in New York are energetic and they are peaceful. The participants are multiracial and multigenerational. Their signs announce their representation of every ethnicity and gender identity and occupation. They are loud and dedicated, and yes, they are indeed joyful in their embrace of a vision.
The marchers are a generous group: everywhere are people giving out COVID masks and water to other marchers. It’s common to see someone with a sign pinned to their backpack saying “I’m a nurse! Ask me for a snack or a band-aid!”
The marchers know the issues and they know the history. “Am I Next?” ask some of the signs carried by Black men. White people carry signs with messages like “I Stand with You” and “White Silence is Violence.” When we pass by or stop near a phalanx of police, the organizers sometimes call out, “White allies to the front!” As you change positions in such a moment, your body speaks to you in a different voice, one that White people rarely hear, about what is at stake.
Organizers with speaker-phones lead the chants that you hear on TV. They also lead us in cheering any medical personnel or other essential workers that we pass on the street. “Let’s show some gratitude for the bus driver!” shouted a young organizer near me. The driver had temporarily pulled to the curb as the march passed. Everyone cheered, and the bus driver cheered back and beeped his horn.
As the protest proceeds, the canyon walls of Manhattan apartment buildings are dotted with New Yorkers leaning out their windows to applaud. The marchers see them, make eye contact, and cheer back. People on the sidewalk, drivers stopped at crosswalks, doormen, delivery bikers, office workers, moms with strollers, people walking their dogs — all these are smiling, waving, cheering the protest on.
Is it necessary to state that there are also people in the city who don’t feel aligned with the protests? Of course there are — there’s no issue anywhere that everyone agrees on. Nevertheless, the protests are undoubtedly a site of public optimism and camaraderie among New Yorkers, and an occasion where I have felt the most encouraged about the future of our city and our nation.
I don’t say this to cultivate a fairy tale narrative according to which racism evaporates completely next week, or next year, or in my lifetime. At the same time, we can allow ourselves to see and feel the potential that is coalescing around us. The protests offer us a glimpse of a world after racism and a nation that refuses to deny its racist history and or to participate in the cover-up. We begin to make out the contours of an upright nation that saves its own Declaration of Independence from irony as it finally affirms the lives and liberties of all its citizens.