You need a permit from the police to march in the streets in New York City. You need a permit to use sound amplification. If your march will have more than 1,000 people, the police want you to apply nine months in advance for permission. There is a non-refundable fee of $25.50 for the permit. If the permit is granted and the march is large, the police will often assemble in a line of uniforms, like an impermeable blue membrane, between you and the population. At the march, the police may keep you penned in like farm animals between city blocks, letting you scream and bray your message to passersby like a herd of unhappy donkeys.
If the origin of the march lies in civil disobedience, then marches in New York City have become very obedient, indeed.
The marches that New York has experienced since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, however, feel unprecedented. What’s new is not the solidarity with the victims of police brutality. In New York, we often march for our slain brothers and sisters. Nor is it about size. New York has had many massive demonstrations. It’s neither the joy among the protestors (also common) nor the masks on their faces (although that is clearly new).
What’s different today in the Black Lives Matter protests is that the police are scared and they’re more than willing to show it. The fear is not individual. It’s foundational. You see it not so much in the eyes of the officers but in the assembled face of the force. The police have been revealed to the citizenry as the brutal army of the status quo in a moment of profound social change, and they’re frightened by their own nakedness. They believe they can beat us into closing our eyes again.
I’ve experienced such unmasking of power before, during the Egyptian revolution. Police brutality was also a spark for Egypt’s uprising, and the people showed they were no longer afraid. The revolution there has stalled, and there are never any guarantees, but the future is theirs—and ours—to win.