Michael Brown Grand Jury Demos, Day 1

The official NYC “Ferguson Response” to the Michael Brown Grand Jury verdict was planned for the day after the announcement. However, on November 24th, when the prosecutor proclaimed during the work day that he would read the verdict that night, people began gathering in Union Square to listen to the decision together as if by instinct.

In the drawn out lead-up to the verdict, the mother of Ramarley Graham held the attention of the crowd longer than anyone else, laying down truth after truth in an incredibly powerful speech. She discussed her own long process with the criminal justice system after her unarmed black son was killed by a white police officer who still walks free today.

As we all waited for the Grand Jury verdict of the man who killed Michael Brown – waited for a glimmer of hope that things may have gotten better since Ramarley was killed, waited to hear what semblance of justice would be done for an unarmed man shot down in the prime of his life – one thing Ramarley’s mother said stuck with me:

“Remember, even if we get an indictment, it doesn’t mean anything.” I recalled the case of Ramarley – what should have been a fatal indictment of broken windows: cops alleging to chase him into his home and shoot him to death over purchasing a small bag of weed. The officer who killed him – and threatened to shoot his grandmother afterward – was indeed indicted, and on very serious charges. But the judge dismissed the verdict on a technicality, and now Ramarley’s family waits for a Department of Justice investigation – for any semblance of justice – years later.

That feeling of helplessness – that feeling that even an indictment for Darren Wilson would result in little justice for Mike Brown and no justice for the millions of Americans who face institutional racism every day – was palpable in the crowd that night.

Then the verdict was announced: “Not guilty on all charges.” I could barely hear the words over the roar of the demonstrators but I knew exactly what was said from their physical reaction. The masses poured into the street as if it were choreographed, but with far more energy than any planned march:

It was the largest unpermitted march I’d been on in NYC since Occupy Wall St, when the NYPD did everything within its power – and outside of its power – to break up the marches: from snatch and grab arrests to kettle netting whole crowds.

I was shocked to see the NYPD deploying none of these tactics, and the march going strong. It broke into several groups – some took the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges and marched through the outer boroughs. I stuck with a march in Manhattan that took over whole avenues for blocks, flooded Columbus Circle, and headed straight to Harlem, unmolested by the NYPD. The only pushback from the cops came around midnight, in Harlem, when protesters marched over the Triboro Bridge.

As we crossed 125th St from west to east, it didn’t even occur to me that we would walk up the onramp onto that bridge. I literally could not imagine pedestrians flooding that massive, sterile vehicular skyway that never sees a breath of human life let alone a political demonstration.

It didn’t occur to the police either, until we were already doing it. Then they sped into a flurry like a rattle beehive, sending vehicles and officers on foot in every direction they could to cut us off. They did, and stretched kettle nets across the road. I was sure mass arrests were imminent, but the cops merely pushed everyone back, off the bridge. The only arrest I saw was of someone stuck at the onramp trying to join the protest on the Triboro. That is not to say it wasn’t an overly aggressive arrest, and that the cops didn’t push back everyone filming the arrest by violently swinging batons, because they did:

But where similar scenes routinely resulted in insane escalation by the police during Occupy, the cops fell way back after this and let the march proceed for hours longer, through much of NYC. It became very clear to me that the NYPD had decided to take a much different approach to these demonstrations than any previous one I had experienced when we were allowed to march through the wealthy UES at 1:30 a.m chanting “Wake Em Up!” without a single cop marching alongside us – with all of them hanging back several blocks.

I think most of the other demonstrators were also caught off guard. But as the march bled into the next day, and most of us went to work in what felt like a brief break from the next protest, the ramifications began to sink in as an even larger demonstration was forming.

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