A few weeks ago I joined a peaceful protest that began at Foley Square and made its way north to Washington Square Park. It had been maybe 2 years since I last spent time in this park. I had ended up splitting a bottle of wine with an on-again, off-again friend before a serendipitous encounter led to us taking a tourist picture for a couple that became a surprise marriage proposal. From that example of romantic love of eros to the radical love of agape in this moment, being there in Washington Square Park in the midst of a global pandemic as multiple marches convened together was a powerful moment. Honestly, I don’t enjoy the speeches that are often part of a protest. Like most graduations, the speeches are rife with cliches and roundabout reminders of our purpose. For myself, the labor of walking, interacting within the confined physical space of a protest, greeting voyeurs, and seeing the chaotic restlessness of a New York City pause is where the inspiration for change develops. While some teachers march for their students and mothers march for sons, the drive that brings people together is a reminder that a common sense of morality can compel you in times of injustice.
Eventually, the protest again moved north from Washington Square Park towards the east side of the island, stopping by Union Square for a powerful moment of shared solidarity with a group of healthcare workers at the Mount Sinai offices on Fourth Avenue. As healthcare workers and protestors took a knee together, the overwhelming feeling of acceptance was relieving. As COVID-19 continually spreads across America, with cases spiking throughout the country, protest detractors claim the selfishness of marching during this time is no different than the desire for an economic reopening simply for a return to normalcy. I find the constant need to remind others that marching is not a social event or act of leisure, but a necessary response to injustice tiring. It is a laborious feat, requiring time, energy, and post-walk recovery. It’s a resistance march with a desire for radical change with a willingness to risk the immediate public health crisis of COVID-19 to address a long-term ignored public health endangerment that has taken more lives than the coronavirus: institutional racism and anti-blackness.
The march paraded north through the Upper East Side before culminating in another kneel beside the main entrance of Carl Schurz Park on 87th Street. Gracie Mansion, the traditional home of the New York City mayor, is located in said park and is a symbolic structure of elitism located on the gap that separates the class divide of Spanish Harlem and the Upper East Side. As a former student of Regis High School, located on 84th Street and Park Avenue, I spent many hours in Carl Schurz as any commuting Bronx teenager would: lounging, rowdy, anxious to feel seen and heard in a place that was quick to other me. The Peter Pan statue located in Carl Schurz had been a place of solace for my friend group. Urban Lost Boys, we fantasized of a future where adults didn’t correct our behavior, police our bodies, and worry about our intentions.
In summer 2012, my first summer after freshman year of college, a white friend and an Asian friend joined me in Carl Schurz for a day of leisure. Young and irresponsible, we made the poor decision to smoke outdoors in a NYC Park. My white friend asked that I hold paraphernalia for him, though I resisted his request. I argued that if any police officer were to stop us, I’d be the prime suspect to be carrying anything of note. My friend chided me for my paranoia arguing that as the son of retired police officers I would be fine. My Asian friend, prone to being extreme bouts of agreeableness, accepted the duty without a fuss. This action most likely caused my white friend to quickly reconsider his position and accept this burden.
Within 100 seconds of leaving our smoke spot and exiting the park to where I would kneel in solidarity 8 years later, we were stopped by two police officers. One officer informed us that people had complained about smokers and they would need to search my persons to ensure that I had no drugs or weapons. I’ll never forget the assumption of weapons despite the stop being related to an in park smoke complaint. I told the officer I had nothing of concern. He demanded I immediately empty my pockets. I did so carefully and quickly, laying my keys, wallet, and phone on the cement in front of him. The officer smiled and sent us on our way with a stern warning to avoid the park.
If the cop cared to look at my friends, he would have noticed smoking paraphernalia hanging from each of their back pockets. At that moment, I knew they were policing me and only me, the black Puerto Rican in the scenario. My friend’s potential for weapons or drugs were left unchecked and disregarded. As their bodies remained unchecked, the officers’ eyes stayed focused sizing up my frame. They did not see my Puerto Rican ethnicity or connection to the police. To these officers, my black skin held the potential for criminal mischief.
Taking that knee of solidarity 8 years later next to the spot that drastically changed my view of policing from what I had been taught by family members and my education was surreal. That was when I stopped pretending cops would not racially profile me based on my privilege adjacent to the work of my parents or protection from the pursuit of a higher education. I’ve had terrible interactions before and after this moment, but this is the one that made me an outspoken critic of the fundamental flaw of policing. The inherent racial bias that cops develop from the Academy to their career fosters a mindset that some are guilty until proven innocent. That a stereotype gives permission to act upon their worst assumptions. That criminality can be guessed rather than proved. And that some are absent of such possibility. That imbalance is why we march.
We want to name and change the system that upholds this cycle of exerting extreme force over the illegal sale of cigarettes; this cycle of young black boys in hoodies across America being subject to immediate suspicion; this cycle that allows death to be the price of using a supposedly counterfeit bill; this cycle that allows for the smart choice of sleeping off your intoxication in your car to be a death warrant; this cycle that could have the wrong person gunned down in their home in the middle of the night; this cycle that allows black women to report sexual assault without any follow up, leading to their murders.
We march against the cycle of the status quo. We march against the suspension of presumed innocence. We march against the dehumanizing nature of being asked to justify your existence.