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How Long Can We Live Like This?

Dispatch from a post-curfew New York City protest, where the bicycle is decreed illegal, and misrule rules

by
Armin Rosen
June 05, 2020
Benjamin D. Feibleman
Near the Manhattan Bridge, New York City, June 2, 2020Benjamin D. Feibleman
Benjamin D. Feibleman
Near the Manhattan Bridge, New York City, June 2, 2020Benjamin D. Feibleman

On a bike, the domes and columns and golden menorah of the East Midwood Jewish Center glitter like an artist’s rendition of the Third Temple. For a few seconds you are gliding through a preview of heaven, buoyant on the welcoming sea winds. In the late afternoon, amid days of violence and pestilence, Sheepshead Bay, a mile or two farther down Ocean Avenue, is almost too wonderful to seem fully real. Clouds from a Renaissance ceiling; footbridges over lazy waters, an altogether friendlier sun than the one that heats the furnaces of Flatbush and Crown Heights; Russian and Turkish in the air; kippot and hijabs—a paradise.

“This is where my mother lives,” said David Brodsky. “This is where my grandmother lives. This is where my child lives.”

Sporting fashionable black glasses and a luscious beard, he wears blue fatigue-pattern pants, blue basketball shoes, and a hoodie from The Underground Gym, whose logo is a polar bear wielding red boxing gloves. Two days earlier, Brodsky, who works in wealth management, and a friend named Isaak Boltyansky, who is a Fordham law student, started a WhatsApp group to organize an unarmed neighborhood patrol in Sheepshead Bay. Brodsky and Boltyansky both wore NYPD baseball caps, and keffiyehs that read Am Yisrael Chai in Hebrew beneath the fringes. Brodsky was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1980; Boltyansky spoke to a nearby Voice of America journalist in sprinting Russian.

“Everybody you see here grew up here,” Brodsky said. The miracle of a New York immigrant neighborhood is that everyone is of there, even though no one is originally from there. The 50 volunteers gathered in the plaza in front of the Kervan Turkish Restaurant, which is diagonal from the Taste of Dushanbe, included leather jacket dudes from the Bratva Russian Bikers club and sturdy-looking mixed martial arts enthusiasts. Among them was an intense older man, unsmiling yet unsurly, who was apparently a four-time world champion in a Russian combat discipline called Sambo. The logo for his Sambo school is a hand chopping into a raised knife.

What is Sambo? “Here, I show you,” he whispered. The Odessa-born gentleman invited me to stab him with my pen. He twisted my left arm into a terrifying vise grip, applied by hands that undoubtedly still have the ability to kill, then produced an actual, honest-to-God stick and performed a swift gouging motion. “Knife, gun, any weapon, doesn’t matter.”

In Sheepshead Bay, and in much of America, people don’t spend much time intellectualizing violent outbursts, or explaining that rampant property damage is a much-needed, consciousness-raising exercise or the people’s righteous revenge against the oppressive and racist forces of capital. Instead, to many people, images from earlier in the week of midtown being ransacked by roving mobs brought a wary realization that most of us cannot depend on a highly cultivated killing ability to guarantee our own physical safety. The night before, seemingly everyone from Gov. Cuomo on down had watched in astonishment as looters swept through several Manhattan business districts, encountering little if any significant resistance from the police. Hence that gathering on Emmons Avenue. “We are asking the mayor to untie the hands of the NYPD, and do what needs to be done to bring justice to violent looters who are breaking off from the peaceful protesters,” said Boltyansky.

“I’m old enough to remember just being hated for nothing,” Brodsky added. “The elderly population in this area are all veterans and Holocaust survivors ... it’s insanity what they’re going through. … The community doesn’t feel the cops can really protect them. If they can’t protect Fifth Avenue, where millionaires and billionaires live, why would they be able to protect us?”

Brodsky claimed the NYPD did not see a neighborhood patrol as any kind of a criticism of their performance. “The police are very supportive of us. They think their hands are tied.”

Jason Cohen, a retired 20-year NYPD veteran who wore a tank top showing off two badass upper arm tattoos, agreed. “We’re in solidarity with the police trying to keep peace and order,” he said.

While Cohen didn’t support the demonization of his former colleagues, he didn’t dismiss their critics either. “Anti-police sentiment hits home for me, being that that’s my family also. But I can see where the people are coming from.” The killing of George Floyd was “a travesty of justice,” said Cohen—“a public execution,” added another nearby volunteer.

“They can march here. They can march all day long,” Boltyansky said of the protesters. “But once someone picks up a rock, it’s over.”

I had been in Manhattan the previous night, where I witnessed the NYPD pull off a tactical masterpiece. At around 10 p.m., a group of protesters marched up the Bowery, throwing trash and plastic construction barriers into the street to slow the patient advance of a half-dozen cop cars. The numerous police following on foot never charged the demonstrators, even after a string of small trash fires on the sidewalks. It was long after curfew but neither side craved confrontation. Armies of police were waiting at Union Square, but they had little to do. An apparent doctrine of dispersal by attrition, enabled through the use of seemingly the entire NYPD motor pool and a half-dozen helicopters arrayed at various altitudes, had succeeded in ending any significant gatherings of people in Manhattan by 11 p.m., 24 hours after the debacle in midtown.

In Sheepshead Bay, one could feel a weird sort of optimism—the uncool people from uncool Brooklyn, unconsumed by politics or culture, were capable of balancing a sense of decency with an understandable desire for calm.

An hour after leaving the neighborhood, I looked at the rows of police, lined up two deep just feet away from a crowd of about 500 protesters that had gathered at the top of Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, and fell victim to what now feels like an embarrassing delusion. I believed I was seeing people who also wanted calm. It was 45 minutes after the 8 p.m. curfew.

Mine was one of the finest and most efficient beatings taxpayer money can buy.

As the police formed an L-shape formation around the edge of the crowd, I thought: We are in no real danger. During the curfew, any crowd under darkness is a standing challenge to standards of public order. But this wasn’t a large or particularly rowdy group—its worst offense was existing, thus delegitimizing a curfew that seemed ridiculous anyway, this being New York City. The march could even be seen as an ideal form of civil disobedience: mild in terms of any real public safety risk, but also an unmistakable clarion of dissent, amplified through the violation of a bullshit municipal edict. Surely the cops would understand that.

“Two deep,” an officer ordered his rank and file as the line formed. “All this riot gear!” one young woman yelled. “Could’ve gone to schools, hospitals!” The police advance effectively spread out the crowd, which was leaderless, and struggled to maintain cohesion while on the move. “Take a knee!” someone would yell whenever de-escalation seemed wise. There were cycles in which hundreds of people crouched in silence in the middle of the Cadman Plaza roadway, then rose, their hands up, as the police advanced.

Soon the cops fully deployed across both Cadman Plaza and the opposite sidewalk, meaning they now had the protesters surrounded on three sides. Antsy riot squad cops twirled their black batons. On two occasions a panic near the line of cops set off terrifying stampedes—I stood frozen still, praying I wouldn’t get body-checked to the pavement.

“Don’t leave a small group of people with the police!” another young woman yelled in frustration. “Jesus!”

Under a tree on the park side of the plaza, two cops bumped into each other and nearly fought. “Shame!” protesters chanted. The crowd grew more restive, their discontent more personal. “Quit your jobs!” “Go back to Long Island!”

Where does one go? Are you safe at the very front, putting yourself at the bottom of another human tidal wave? Are you safer at the very back, feet away from a line of police, whose intentions were very much in flux? The middle of the crowd seemed like the most vulnerable place of all, as it combined all the disadvantages of front and back while putting you the farthest away from escape. Moreover, the police were herding the protesters toward a chokepoint, compressing the crowd into the narrower pedestrian plaza to the east of Borough Hall.

A sudden rain struck during this quickening diagonal pursuit, zero to monsoon in the space of 30 seconds. Cop and civilian slid across the wet stones; in the darkness it was all but impossible to tell the groups apart, or to know why people were being tackled or even to count how many officers were tackling them. Some cops wore uniforms dark enough that they were almost invisible. Moreover, the mind was receiving information faster than it could be processed.

Between the row of demonstrators lined up against a wall and the arrestees with their faces flat against the asphalt and the quickening strides of the increasingly jumpy police phalanx and cries of “disperse!” there were abundant signs of a rapid shift in the tactics among the forces of order.

At some point—who knows what or who really triggered it, whether it was any specific command or the result of something more nebulous, like some shared psyche-level cop instinct—the objective shifted from herding the crowd to dispersing the crowd by force. Such a switch felt impossible even as it was happening. This was a group of a few hundred people, hardly an insurrectionist mob—a puny threat to civil order if left to its own devices. There is a limit to how bad things can get, one thinks, even as the limit dissolves right in front of you before a flying V of truncheon-wielding law enforcement officers.

I, a simpleton still living in the world of logic, pulled off to the side of the crowd, and leaned my bike against a dark, low structure on the right outer edge of the plaza. It was pouring; my notebook was at risk; I needed to transfer it somewhere dry. How stupid to have my back to the police, who, unlike me, lived in the world of reality.

The blow to my right shoulder—which came from behind me, seemingly from nowhere—was applied with supreme competence. Baton smashed into muscle, and I crumpled to the ground. There’s an annoying globe of pain currently lodged in my mildly swelling left butt cheek, so I guess I was struck there too.

Mine was one of the finest and most efficient beatings taxpayer money can buy. From the wet earth I began to grasp that at least four cops had joined in ruthlessly neutralizing whatever threat I’d posed—or at least they thought they’d neutralized it, since they didn’t seem to know, and then didn’t seem to care, that I’d be writing it all down. “What the fuck is in here?” one cop barked in the name of public order and social harmony. I stammered something about being a journalist who still likes writing on paper.

The cop unzipped every compartment in my bag and threw my bike lock to the ground. I do not have one of those lanyard-hanging New York City press badges, but in these United States the right to report is conferred by the Constitution. I was wearing a bike helmet with the word PRESS written in black marker on white duct tape. At no point was I asked for any ID of any kind.

“Get the fuck out of here, pussy,” one of the police officers yelled. Another cop shoved me forward and I nearly fell again.

“Can I have my bike back?” I screamed.

“It’s not your bike anymore,” someone replied.

“Can I have a phone number?” I asked, which was a really stupid and naive question—one that someone who hadn’t in any way absorbed the actual fact of what had just happened to them would ask. “Get the fuck out of here,” came the reply.

I approached a cop in a button-down white shirt who seemed like a commanding officer. Please—you all have taken my bike, who do I call to retrieve it? “Don’t fucking talk to me,” he shot back. What precinct were these cops from? What were their names and badge numbers? Who the hell wanted to stick around to find out?

My mind finally reconciled with my vision as I watched police dart down Willoughby Plaza in pursuit of lone protesters. Yes, this really was happening: The police were uninterested in anything but the infliction of their own will. They were possessed with the thrill of righteous total victory. For a moment there were no sides, no conflicting ideologies, no bigger questions at play beyond a narrow enforcement objective. The face of the state was frothing aggression, animal hostility, amid which the public had ceased to exist.

The bike suddenly became my sole remaining escape from the enormity of it all, the only thing I had that could bring me even a temporary sense of freedom or control. Life without it was unimaginable. And then suddenly the police had snatched it from me.

The police were not protecting some higher civic covenant but winning a street brawl. I had witnessed a very simple thing. One side had gotten what it wanted, at the expense of my person and my property—and not just mine. My civil rights had just been violated, and I had lost one of the few objects I’d truly loved—my bike. But then what?

Much of the country is now asking “then what?”—except about abuses far worse than I’d just suffered, and about things more painful and permanent than a single act of robbery. But I don’t want to downplay my own losses, either. Old possessions are like old friends, and after a while you’re left with a diminishing number of them.

That bike was an old friend. During a dazed subway ride, I’d remembered how excited I was the day I’d bought it, on an August afternoon in College Park, Maryland, well over a third of my lifetime ago, and how eagerly a younger and stupider version of me had once fought the Manhattan traffic in Times Square or Canal Street. I remembered how sleek and nimble my machine felt rocketing down Fulton Street that very evening. I looked back at my friends’ inability to ride a fixed gear, which in my mind made me better than them—and my bike better than their bikes.

Of unknown make and origin, held together by a frame that was already at least 20 years old on the day I bought it, my bike was a perfect object, light enough to carry up and down flights of stairs, free of any gadgets or frills, though an awful pain on the knees sometimes. As I grew older, I began to understand just how long life really is and how little sense it makes to risk what’s left of it while perilously exposed in New York traffic. It went untouched for the year before the coronavirus, at which point the bike suddenly became my sole remaining escape from the enormity of it all, the only thing I had that could bring me even a temporary sense of freedom or control. Life without it was unimaginable. And then suddenly the police had snatched it from me.

Ben Feibleman

Two hours later, a friend of mine, a photographer with whom I’d trekked around Manhattan the night before, passed through Borough Hall, hoping to document the Brooklyn crackdown. He found my bicycle just behind the low metal structure, right where the cops had discarded it. He also saw at least three other bikes, which someone had leaned neatly against a nearby fence.

On Twitter, multiple people who had rescued a stranger’s bicycle from Cadman Plaza reached out to see if they had in fact found mine. Video of cops savaging a cyclist in a Brooklyn crosswalk hit Twitter. The next night, evidence emerged of a doctrine of NYPD bike theft: A police officer told a Newsday reporter that bike possession was an “automatic collar,” grounds for arrest even for members of the media. The cops didn’t keep the bikes; thus there were no official records of them ever having been taken. They just left them there.

I am certain each victimized cyclist felt the same soul-deep anguish I did. Even with the bike back in my possession, there is still an unreality to the club-shaped welt on my right shoulder. I am newly aware that there are forces—a column of very pissed-off cops, for instance—against which abstractions like selfhood or innate rights to property or assembly or speech are a pitifully thin defense. All these misty concepts are contingent on the whims of dark-clad strangers wielding night sticks, total cyphers who might suddenly cease to care about you or really about much of anything. One night they are bulwarks against chaos; the next night, they are the chaos, carelessly reducing the entire concept of order to something worse than an absurdity.

In their hands, and in the hands of a state and municipal political class incompetent to meet the severity of the moment, the civic compact has undergone a series of darkly comic revisions. Tonight, it is permitted to loot midtown; tomorrow the bicycle is decreed illegal. The sun goes down; the curfew begins; this bizarre experiment in rule by misrule resumes, and New Yorkers wonder how long a great city in a great democracy can be expected to live like this.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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