The Return of the Mass Protest

tags: racism, Black lives matter, Protest

Elizabeth Hinton (@elizabhinton) is a professor of history, law and African-American studies at Yale and the author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.

Andrew Smith had his arms in the air when NYPD officer Michael Sher forcibly snatched down his face mask and fired pepper spray into his eyes. Smith and hundreds of others had gathered at the corner of Bedford and Tilden Avenues in Flatbush to peacefully protest police violence and racial injustice, as millions across the country were doing in the days after George Floyd’s murder. “I made sure my hands [were] exaggeratedly almost in a ‘YMCA’ stance,” Smith told the Daily News, “to make clear that I’m not here to make an issue.” His compliance didn’t matter. White people protesting alongside Smith also had their hands up, but Sher singled out the 31-year-old Black Brooklyn resident. “I ripped the shit off, and I used it,” Sher boasted of the incident minutes later, an admission captured by the officer’s own body-camera footage.

Smith was one of the NYPD’s numerous victims during the Black Lives Matter protests. Officers plowed a police SUV into a crowd of demonstrators in Prospect Heights — part of the wave of at least 104 “car rammings,” according to terrorism researcher Ari Weil, a number of them committed by white supremacists and law enforcement that summer. Police punched peaceful protesters in the face, body-slammed them to the ground, struck them with clubs, broke their fingers, beat them from car tops, and pointed guns in their direction. Journalists, legal observers, and medical volunteers were not spared the flagrant brutality and abuse. Protesters chanted, “We are peaceful! What the fuck are you?” in response to the violence.

In many ways, the historic demonstrations of 2020 resembled the nonviolent civil-rights marches of the first half of the 1960s, yet authorities responded to the protests violently. The police today are just as brutal as they were in the 1960s but are jacked up after decades of militarization.

New York City in summer 2020 looked much as it had in July 1964, when Harlem and Bed-Stuy erupted for six nights after a 15-year-old high-school student named James Powell was fatally shot by an NYPD lieutenant. Police beat demonstrators with their fists and their clubs, shot their firearms in the air, and detonated tear-gas grenades. Residents, in turn, taunted police, threw Molotov cocktails at them, hurled bricks and bottles from rooftops, looted stores, and set buildings ablaze.

National authorities responded to the rebellion in Harlem in 1964, and to the thousands that followed across the U.S. through the early 1970s, by declaring a “War on Crime” and supporting an unprecedented investment in local law enforcement. By the end of the decade, police departments from New York to Los Angeles had veritable arsenals at their disposal: firearms such as AR-15s and M4 carbines, steel helmets, three-foot batons, gas masks, tanks, helicopters, and a host of chemical weapons. Much of this equipment had been used by the U.S. military in Vietnam and Latin America, like, in our own time, the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles driven first in Iraq and then in New York.

Read entire article at The Cut