They Used To Be Strangers. Now They’re Organizing Some Of The Largest Protests In America’s Biggest City.
“I don't believe a peaceful protest is possible, because a protest, by our definition, makes people uncomfortable. It disturbs people,” one organizer said, “but we are adamant about being nonviolent.”
Just after 3 p.m. on Sunday, the front door of Derrick Ingram Jr.’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen burst open and three more organizers crowded in, all running late for the afternoon’s Black Lives Matter protest.
“Today is a big day,” Chi Ossé said to himself as the 10 or so of them shuffled around the apartment, getting ready. “I’m just worried about numbers.”
It’s three weeks into the protests that started over the death of George Floyd and a week since New York City called off its controversial 8 p.m. curfew. With many out of work and school but a virus still raging, how do you keep the momentum going?
Despite their steady growth and national reach, the BLM protests have no central leadership. They emerge in different ways in different states, without the approval of any coordinating committee. The forms they take are reflections of the young and in some cases first-time activists who come together to lead, learning as they go.
The organizers of the afternoon’s march came together — pretty much spontaneously — just a couple of weeks ago, right as the protests in New York began to take shape. Most of them met in the crowds. Joseph Martinez started up a chat on Signal and named it “Warriors in the Garden,” taken from a Japanese proverb. The name stuck. Then they started asking more people to join them.
Warriors in the Garden is just one of the groups that have popped up in New York, already garnering thousands of followers to its Instagram posts and drawing large crowds. Donations to the organization have poured in; behind the scenes, the organizers have planned routes, navigated the presence of police officers, maintained momentum, and tried to keep everyone safe.
“We came together and it just kind of just clicked.” explained Martinez. “We’re all the loud friend in the group,” he joked, adding that they seemed to be naturally good at marshaling a crowd.
In the past few weeks, the group has been all over the city — marching outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn and in front of the Trump International Hotel the first night of the curfew, or marching to the United Nations building along the East River. “We try to choose places that have some meaning and give the crowd a sense of direction so they’re not just wandering around,” said Kiara Williams, a 20-year-old college student.
As they grabbed their water and sunscreen, they got ready to leave. “Alright, let’s go take down white supremacy,” Ingram said as they walked out the door.
Olivia Rose Johnson, a 20-year-old student at Sarah Lawrence College who goes by Liv, bounded down the stairs, singing a verse of Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay.” Around each other, in Ingram’s apartment and walking down the street, the group falls into playful humor and affectionate hugs. As someone handed Williams her sunscreen, she jokingly invoked a common protest chant: “This is what democracy looks like.”
There was still a last-minute question about the route when they reached Columbus Circle, the day’s starting point. The group usually keeps its plans a surprise. Even rally locations aren’t posted on its social media pages too far in advance, because organizers assume that police are monitoring their movements.
Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” started playing over loudspeakers. Johnson and Williams skipped, ran, and leaped through the crowd to get people dancing. A couple of the others directed the crowd to fill the street and stop traffic.
Williams offered a eulogy for Rayshard Brooks, whom Atlanta police killed on Friday. His death was ruled a homicide. “Another name,” said Williams, pausing. “They shot him in the back.”
“The fact that they’re still doing this when there’s been riots, when we’ve been protesting, shows that they do not care. And we are not done until they care,” she said.
Soon, Ossé was back on his megaphone, imploring people to chant louder as the crowd spilled into the street and started to walk down Broadway. “I need everyone to shout at the top of their fucking lungs,” he said. The message was that people were still there, still marching, still demanding change.
Any anxiety that Ossé showed earlier had faded away; with thousands behind him, he was in his element as the crowd echoed his chants. His calls were booming and urgent, aided by volunteers in the crowd carrying speakers on their backs or on their bicycles.
Even after just a few weeks, the group has evolved into something of a brand, with its own style and its own identifiable look. Ossé wears a black beret at every event. Johnson is always dressed in red and black. On Sunday, she added beads that spelled out “No justice, no peace” and “BLM” woven through her long braids. The group’s protests vibrate with energy.
Johnson, who does a lot to hype up the crowd, said she just wants people to feel and understand what she’s chanting. “This is real. This is actually happening. People are dying,” she said. “Understand what is going on right now.”
By the time the group hit Times Square, police were guarding a line of barricades to keep the crowd from coming through. A group of bicyclists went first to act as a buffer. But as the crowd started to move the police barricades aside, cops began pulling people back. Still, a few managed to slip past.
In an instant, officers were shoving people, hard. A dozen or so officers managed to hold back the protesters for a few minutes, but eventually the crowd overwhelmed them. The officers gave up, waving everyone through.
After weeks of being in the streets, the tense encounter didn’t seem to shake any of the organizers. “It stayed nonviolent,” Johnson said with a shrug.
“I don't believe a peaceful protest is possible, because a protest, by our definition, makes people uncomfortable. It disturbs people. It’s not peaceful to shut down a highway,” he explained, referring to the time he helped block FDR Drive, “but we are adamant about being nonviolent.”
All the organizers have had frightening run-ins with the police in the last few weeks. Ingram was pepper-sprayed on FDR Drive. Williams was threatened with a Taser outside of Barclays Center. Johnson gets daily death threats. Three of them have been arrested so far.
One of them was arrested a few hours before a march was set to begin. (He asked not to be identified in this article because of his pending charges. He said he was held in a police van for several hours and later questioned by the FBI. The arrest made him feel targeted, he said, adding that he’s sure police are aware of their identities as protest organizers.)
“We are afraid, but we still come out because the purpose is bigger than us,” he said.
“George Floyd was afraid. Breonna Taylor was afraid. Ahmaud Arbery was afraid. He ran for his life. Fortunately, we have the luxury to be afraid and still go home and sleep and eat at night.”
Martinez was also arrested. He was able to keep his phone with him, and he filmed himself from inside the police van, which he later posted on Instagram. He attributes this better treatment to his skin tone, which is significantly lighter than that of others in the group.
The organizers come from a range of backgrounds and speak candidly about the differences in their privilege. Johnson, who is Irish and Nigerian, explained that she recognized her own privilege as a lighter-skinned Black woman when she saw officers push Kiarah Brown, another member in the group, to the ground while arresting her. That was the first day they met.
“It was very traumatizing for me,” said Brown, a high school senior who moved to New York from Costa Rica when she was 10. “In that moment, I wasn’t even thinking about me. I was thinking of my queer Black brother, about my nephews. Is this what they feel when they’re arrested?”
She had never protested before, she said, but the arrest only made her want to do it more.
As the group made it past Times Square, they headed toward Fifth Avenue and then north in the direction of Trump Tower. The fact that it was Trump’s birthday, along with the heavy police presence and rousing speeches, seemed to make the crowd’s cheers more urgent, more spirited, more passionate.
The organizers say there’s a tension in these events between leading and letting the crowd control things. On one of the nights under the curfew, Williams said, the group she was leading wanted to keep marching. So they did. But in that moment outside Trump Tower, Johnson, Williams, and Ingram were in the lead, dancing and shouting into their megaphones as the crowd gathered around them.
There was anger at the officers who lined the streets, but there was also an exhilaration in the crowd’s unity. “When I’m chanting and I can hear everyone, there is a joy there because I just feel like I’m not alone in this. All these other people are here too.”
The group has larger ambitions. They already have started recruiting “sub-leaders” who help manage the crowds, developing a team that will work on a policy platform, and are thinking hard about how to keep pushing this movement forward.
“It’s nice to have people demonstrating and marching in the streets — but if you don’t get anything done, what’s the point?” said Martinez.
As the day wound down, a woman ran up to Johnson to thank her for putting on the event. She found the Warriors in the Garden on Instagram and has been following them for a few weeks. “I love how you guys do your protests and just include everyone,” she said.
Johnson smiled widely, welcoming her and thanking her in return. “You’re a warrior too.”