What I Saw at New York’s Black Lives Matter Rally
As crowds gathered at Union Square, Hollywood and fashion demonstrate a willingness to merge art and activism.
On Thursday, thousands of protestors gathered at Union Square in New York City to demand justice for the fatal shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, at the hands of police officers. Their deaths set off a week of turmoil that culminated with peaceful protests like this one all over the country, only that on that very evening a sniper killed five police officers at a similar demonstration in Dallas, all but guaranteeing political unrest for the rest of the election season, if not beyond.
Along 14th Street, near the stairs that lead to the center of the park, a circle including Black Lives Matter activists, regular New Yorkers, artists, and even fashion designers and models joined those assembled in chants—“No justice, no peace, no racist police!”—aimed, once again, at igniting governmental and citizen action against police brutality.
Since 2013, when the Black Lives Matter movement sprung into action after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Union Square has served as a rallying place, much as it has throughout its history as a mecca for social activism. This was not the first time New Yorkers of all stripes have convened, exhausted, to console each other over the senseless killings of black men and women. In 2014, New Yorkers met here to protest the choking death of Eric Garner by a police officer in Staten Island. There they held banners that read, “I can’t breathe,” words Garner could be seen saying on a widely seen cell phone video right before he died. Last May, a #SayHerName vigil took place in the park to remember Sandra Bland and other women and girls killed by law enforcement.
This time, the movement’s broader message seems to have—perhaps finally—slipped into the mainstream, moving Hollywood to use its clout to call for an end of such violence against black Americans. Earlier this year, TV’s family sitcom “blackish” took on police discrimination head on in an episode called “Hope.” Two weeks ago, actor Jesse Williams delivered a searing speech while accepting BET’s Humanitarian Award: “Yesterday, would have been Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday. So I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12 year-old playing alone in the park in broad daylight.” Drake followed with an emotional note posted to his Instagram. “Last night when I saw the video of Alton Sterling being killed it left me feeling disheartened, emotional, and truly scared.”
By Thursday night, even the fashion world, a typically nonpolitical cohort, had joined the clarion cries of justice, with everyone from designers Adam Selman, Zac Posen, Phillip Lim and Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond to models Karen Nelson and Grace Mahary, posting expressions of solidarity on their social media channels.
Standing to my right at Union Square was Maxwell Osborne of Public School and DKNY, mouthing in solidarity, “Black Lives Matter!” Osborne was not far from a large white sign that read clearly, “Police Your Racism.” It’s a message that echoes the letter Beyoncé released earlier in the day on her website. The letter reads in part, “We are sick and tired of the killing of young men and women in our communities.” The statement paraphrased the Civil Rights icon, Fannie Lou Hammer’s ‘60s sentiment that, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Later, Beyoncé would sing, during a stop on her “Formation” world tour, a sobering acapella version of her politically charged song “Freedom,” as victims of police brutality names rolled on a screen behind her. Her husband Jay Z joined her call, too, releasing “Spiritual,” where he raps, “Just a boy from the ’hood that/ Got my hands in the air/In despair, don’t shoot.”
During the protest on Thursday, the artist Dread Scott waved an edited version of a 1938 black and white flag created by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that read: “A Black Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” Scott’s flag, which he made in 2015, read in bold white lettering, “A Black Man Was Killed By Police Yesterday” and several protestors took turns defiantly waving it. The flag is part of “For Freedoms,” an exhibit at Jack Shainman’s 20th street gallery featuring artists—Carrie Mae Weems, Zoe Buckman, Mickalene Thomas, and Hank Willis Thomas—trying to influence the 2016 presidential election by turning their art into political ads that will be placed on billboards around the country.
In the park, the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s anthem “Alright,” recited at times by the energized crowd, felt restorative. And after a while, “We gon’ be alight! We gon’ be alright!” turned again into moving cheers of “Black Lives Matter!” Eventually, a woman said, “Mic check” and she and others spoke of their frustrations and of the need to love one another. Those gathered repeated every single one of their words to amplify their voices. Eventually she led us in a few verses of the popular protest folk song Martin Luther King, Jr. sang on occasion, “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize.” Another woman a few feet away, barely able to get the words out, began to sob.
At some point, the crowd began to march west onto 14th street. They headed uptown, marching through the streets chanting the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Eventually, they made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The protestors stood outside, proclaiming the value of black life while inside the museum’s annual Young Members Party took place. Some of the Met’s members joined them on the steps.
The scene, took me back to the rally, when someone yelled, “If you are not angry, you aren’t paying attention!” After a few minutes, the protestors continued on, up 5th Avenue, shouting into the night, “Black Lives Matter.”