It was a tense moment. Thousands of protesters had made their way across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn on Tuesday night and were close to flooding onto Canal Street in lower Manhattan. But a line of police officers in riot gear was waiting for them, battle-ready with shields up. Most protesters had no gear at all besides a cloth face covering or a surgical mask. A standoff ensued. As the minutes ticked by without the cops letting up, more police vans arrived.
“My heart was pounding the whole time,” said 32-year-old Dan Hancho, who was at the front of the crowd near the police line.
But thanks to the efforts of protesters such as Hancho to avoid physical confrontation, violence was averted. Now the question is whether they can do the same tonight as New York's curfew remains in place until Sunday and movements across the city are limited.
Several New York protesters said their efforts on Tuesday night were an effort to counter the mayhem of the previous few nights. “There’s a difference between protesting and looting. Our agenda is for protesting,” said Alseny Frederick, 24, a recent graduate of Syracuse University. “If we saw anything like that, we shut it down immediately.”
New York City set an 8 p.m. curfew on Tuesday following widespread looting on Monday night. Police stood guard at subway station entrances, allowing only essential workers through; Citi Bikes were locked; and ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft suspended services. Vehicle traffic was largely suspended below 96th Street in Manhattan.
But many New Yorkers decided the 8 p.m. curfew would not keep them from speaking up for justice and the value of black lives.
They marched through the city for hours past the 8 p.m. deadline. But as they did so, many said they were determined to keep things peaceful and break from the lawlessness and looting of the last few evenings.
The standoff on the Manhattan Bridge, however, felt, for a time, like it could tip into violence. Police set up stations on both ends of the bridge, trapping the protesters between them.
It began when a group of demonstrators who had been gathered at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn splintered from the main group and walked up Flatbush Avenue toward the Manhattan Bridge. Crowds arrived just before the curfew was scheduled to take effect, protesters said.
“Every minute past curfew was important to show them that their rules don't matter to us,” said Hancho, who works as a plumbing contractor during the day.
“They didn’t give a curfew during the whole pandemic when people were dying, because they said people are gonna do what they’re gonna do,” said a woman protester who declined to give her name and had been on the Manhattan Bridge as well. “So why now, when we’re protesting for a good cause, do you want to put on a curfew?"
“My grandma was calling me, telling me to come home,” said 23-year-old Nick Wendall, another protester who was on the bridge past curfew. “But this was for a good cause. She’ll understand when I get home.”
As the demonstrators moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan and were stopped by the police line, authorities initially said they would be let off the bridge in about 10 minutes, recalled protesters. Instead, hours ticked by and tensions rose.
Several protesters who were at the front lines said they tried negotiating with police to get through.
After about an hour, police told protesters at the front that they would guide them off the bridge, said Frederick, the Syracuse graduate. At the front, as well, he started to call back into the crowd that police were going to make a route for them.
But that didn’t happen. “They kinda lied to us,” he said.
At one point, protesters on the bridge considered trying to rush the police line, said a couple of people who were near the front, but they decided the move was unwise.
“They were definitely prepared for tough physical tactics with us if we had tried,” which would have put protesters in danger, explained Hancho. He pointed to a burlier friend, describing him as “the muscle.” But, Hancho added, “the whole point was to keep everyone safe. We didn’t want to get anyone injured on the way in or on the way out.”
Indeed, many in the crowd worked to quell the tensions when some people tried to get rowdy. Whenever someone tried to throw something at cops, others told them to stop.
“We took extra levels to make sure it was peaceful,” said Kamal Waters, a 22-year-old who was on the bridge. “We had people leading us, telling us, 'No arguing with the police,'” he added.
Protesters continued to inch their way forward, but eventually two police vans showed up to help reinforce the line of cops. As cops built up their ranks on the Manhattan side, “they had more people with gear come in, and other people with riot shields come in. We just figured, okay, they’re ready to blitz us,” added Frederick.
Some were prepared to stay even longer. But toward the back of the crowd, they decided to head back to the Brooklyn side of the bridge as the cops held their ground on the Manhattan side.
In an effort to stay together, the front of the crowd moved with them. “There were too many lives at stake, especially with tensions the way that they are,” added Hancho, who has been protesting the last several days. “It was beautiful, man. It was amazing. Just watching everyone working together for the same cause.”
Another line of police was waiting for the group on the Brooklyn side. Behind them, more police vans were waiting — their red and blue sirens flashing.
A couple of protesters came over the bridge minutes before them in the bike lane, and a group of cops burst over and arrested them. “Ouch! What the fuck are you doing!” screamed one as her hands were held behind her back. “I’m not resisting,” she repeated.
Just past 11 p.m., the larger group arrived back at the Brooklyn entrance. They paused just in front of the line of police, asking to be let through and explaining they were peaceful. The police moved aside, allowing a narrow exit for protesters. Thousands of people who spent three hours in a standoff with police spilled off the on-ramp with their hands in the air.
“Hands up, don’t shoot,” they chanted. “Peaceful Pro-test,” the crowd called out again and again.
As they walked off from the bridge, starting to peel off and head home, the mood felt victorious: The night had ended without incident because the protesters had worked together to fight for their right to protest and avoided escalation into violence.
“It’s empowering. It feels so good,” said Hancho, smiling.