Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the Incidents in New York and at Union Square Yesterday

I've been dealing with other things most of the day, so I haven't checked on the continuing Crisis of Authority in New York since fairly early this morning. Some of what I post now may therefore be out of date.


There was a huge rally at Union Square in New York City yesterday called "The Million Hoodie March" in honor of Trayvon Martin who was killed last week in Sanford, Florida -- for walking while black.

Unfortunately, this is still (partially) the United States of America where such demonstrations are necessary. I say "partially", because we've come a long way from where we were when I was his age, but progress on race issues has come at a tremendous cost. That cost has been the criminalization of entire cohorts of young men of color, and the assumption by public guardians -- whether they be the man who shot Trayvon Martin or established police forces -- that if a male is black or brown and within a certain age group he is likely a criminal, and that shooting or imprisoning him is of little or no social consequence.

What is the meaning of "equality" in such a context?

At any rate, there were thousands gathered at Union Square to honor the memory of Trayvon and hear from his mother, and to consider how widespread the condition of oppression is in this country. And how vulnerable young black men, especially, but not just them, are to arbitrary impositions of authority than can and do turn deadly too often.

After the rally, the people took to the streets, marching in solidarity to a destination that wasn't entirely clear... well, that's how these things go. From what I saw, there was a spontaneous decision to march to Washington Square and then return to Union Square. From what I can recall of my times in New York, that seemed quite reasonable given that the locations aren't that far from one another. Their symbolic nature is what seemed most important at the time and now.

So, off they went, accompanied by police who were flummoxed by the size of the crowd, its energy, its determination, and its spontaneity. Their attempts to control the march and confine the marchers to the sidewalks failed. And that, in case anyone was wondering, is the essence of the Crisis of Authority in New York.

It is not that no one pays any attention to the NYPD -- they are, after all, a violent group of gangsters and thugs -- but their authority is being eroded every day in almost too many ways to count. What happened yesterday was instructive.

Mass media -- and even New Media (talkin' 'bout you, Tim Pool) -- was at pains to diminish the size of the crowd that assembled and marched. From what I could see of Tim's coverage -- which was mostly very good, though the 4G service he uses for livestreaming was spotty at best -- the crowd filled the open space in Union Square completely and was spilling out onto the streets round about. My estimate of the crowd size, based on what I could see of it from Tim's video vantage point on what appeared to be a light post, was around ten thousand. Tim was saying... "hundreds." Sometimes "thousands." Sometimes "huge crowd." He seemed to settle on "about 2,000" after talking to numerous other people who estimated crowd size.

This is the open space in Union Square as imaged by Google:

It is quite large. It was packed solid:

And that's only about half the crowd, from Union Square E to just west of the statue of George Washington. The crowd continued at that density all the way to Broadway, and as you can see from the picture above, they spilled onto and actually were standing across 14th Street. It was a huge crowd, that was reported in some cases as "dozens". I kid you not.

When the march began, they headed west on 14th Street, decided eventually to go to Washington Square and then return to Union Square, a circuit of a little over two miles I would guess. The crowd, however, was so large, it split into three and thus the marches didn't seem quite so spectacular. All along the route, the police were futilely trying to wrangle and manage the marchers, who insisted on taking to the streets no matter how many times they were told to get back on the sidewalks or were herded by scooter cops.

When they returned to Union Square, the crowd had diminished in size somewhat, but it was still impressive. The failure of the police to wrangle them successfully was symbolized by the fact that barricades set up by the police were overturned:

As more and more police assembled, the crowd defied them with chants of "Whose streets? Our streets!"

Finally, around midnight, hundreds and hundreds of NYPD officers -- estimates were up to 500, the most on one operation since the eviction from Zuccotti/Liberty Park on November 15 -- were assembled at Union Square to control what by that time was no more than a couple of hundred demonstrators, and the sight was absurd. Which, by this time, even the police seemed to recognize. The smallish crowd did some spontaneous actions, including marching around the park -- accompanied by police who couldn't keep up when they ran, and then dispersed.

The police were left there, all dolled up with nothing to do.

This was a nearly textbook example of how authority is delegitimized. One of the things that demonstrators in New York especially, but throughout the Occupy Movement internationally as well, have made clear is that they are not afraid of the police. The demonstrators will comply when it suits them, they will defy when it suits them. They are setting the ground rules of confrontations, and that is partly what is causing discomfort among more traditionally oriented activists. The rules, as they understand them, are set by authority, not the other way around.

The practice of delegitimazation doesn't always work, and the methods are not always comprehended by those involved, but as the "American Spring" gets fully underway, we're likely to see more and more of these tactics employed.

FURTHERMORE: I didn't know they'd gone to Wall Street and desecrated the Bull: (Oh. My! Not only that, they de-arrested one of their comrades who had mounted the Bull. Things fall apart...)


  1. Carl Davidson had an interesting piece about Ida B. Wells and lynching. Seems as though Wells didn't focus on lynching until three of her friends were lynched in the Curve Riot. Interesting reading - I had no idea of how frequent lynchings took place nor did I know the reasons behind the lynchings. Bichler and Nitzan make more and more sense ...

  2. I remember writing a paper on lynching when I was in college, and Ida B. Wells was a primary source. She opened a lot of eyes to what was going on and its utter foulness. I've seen estimates of more than 10,000 lynchings of blacks between Reconstruction and the mid-1920's, but blacks weren't the only ones lynched.

    One of the first plays I produced -- a long time ago now -- was an original script about what was called "the last lynching in California." It took place in the main plaza of San Jose in 1933.

    Two white men, accused of kidnapping and murdering the son of a local department store owner, were brutally lynched by a mob that included many of the town's most prominent citizens.

    Lynching was pretty common in California up to that point; and in this case, the Governor himself came to the defense of the lynchers.

    These days, most Californians have no idea nor any memory that any such things ever happened. In California, the victims were mostly Asian, Native American, Chicano, and not infrequently poor whites. Blacks were not immune from lynching in California, but there were relatively few in the state at the time.

    The era when Ida B. Wells began crusading against lynching was a time when Jim Crow was being consolidated and institutionalized, and not just in the South. Crackpot "race science" was behind a lot of it. Add to that the nature of mobs, and the volatile mixture is not easily controllable. It took decades and decades for shame to start controlling the mobs, and the visual consequences of WWII to set aside the fantasies of "race science."

    The history of lynching and all that goes with it is yet another blot on America's exceptionalism.