Welcome to America. Now show us your ticket or get lost.
That's what officers of the New York Police Department told hundreds of people tonight as they cordoned off a massive area in midtown Manhattan, trapping protesters, tourists, workers, residents, and others between barricades that stretched out of sight along 6th Avenue and across two long blocks to Madison Avenue. It was a confluence of two discordant events: NBC's lavish celebration of Christmas spirit, and the mourning of yet another unarmed black man viciously killed by police.
I was in the crowd created by the NYPD and found myself stuck in close quarters with no escape for at least half an hour near Radio City Music Hall, as tourists and protesters jostled to find out what was going on and where they could go.
The message was clear: the right of citizens to peacefully assemble in public spaces is less important than making sure NBC's Christmas television special in Rockefeller Center — you know, the one where they light the big tree and have Mariah Carey sing — is packed with happy faces.
The First Amendment is less important than an NBC special
People are protesting across the United States tonight over a New York grand jury's stunning failure to indict a police officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold: a tactic forbidden by the NYPD. The protests are an extension of those seen across the country in response to Michael Brown's death, and have intensified since a grand jury in that case also decided not to indict the officer involved in Brown's killing.
Eric Garner's killer, officer Daniel Pantaleo, placed him in the hold as Garner said "I can't breathe" several times. Garner was unarmed and outnumbered by police who stood by as Pantaleo choked him. Video evidence of the killing quickly spread on YouTube, and the medical examiner in the case ruled Garner's death a homicide. He was killed for selling loose cigarettes.
The NYPD's response tonight, at least in midtown, was completely inappropriate as a preemptive move against peaceful protesters. Moreover, it was dangerous; the police cordons pushed hordes of people together as officers asked those without tickets to the Rockefeller show to disperse, even though the NYPD had essentially trapped large crowds together. The people they were ostensibly protecting — those wanting to see a Christmas tree — also ended up trapped: elderly, children, parents.
The NYPD's blockade went far beyond event management; the size of the cordon and the presence of police with batons and riot visors was clearly in response to protests. The department did everything in its power to keep protesters far away from NBC's cameras.
If the police were trying to stop people from blocking traffic, they failed
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton foreshadowed the department's response earlier today, telling CBS that he did not anticipate any violence. So why did the NYPD decide to make matters worse by agitating pedestrians and protesters alike who were assembling and traveling peacefully on public streets? There is no reasonable explanation for the massive lockdown except to keep protesters off public streets adjacent to a corporate television event. If the NYPD was attempting to keep people from blocking traffic, they failed; the department itself, in its cordon along 6th Avenue, blocked traffic by standing in the middle of the road and parking their vehicles there.
"We've been preparing in multiple ways for months now, conducting a series of community meetings throughout the city," Bratton said. "And we've been tactically preparing in terms of bringing in resources to deal with any potential eventuality."
Sadly the "eventuality" Bratton appears to be referring to is the right of people to travel freely on public streets and exercise their First Amendment rights. Officers facing protesters smirked at several slogans shouted by the crowds. I asked more than a dozen officers, including two sergeants, why the police were blocking lawful pedestrian movement. I was mostly ignored outright, or referred to the NYPD's public relations office in other cases.
If police departments in the United States want to build trust with communities, they should start by not killing innocent, unarmed people. Then they should read the First Amendment.