The most powerful example of Brooklyn’s incredible melting pot of cultures can be found not in the Caribbean enclaves of Flatbush or the Russian area of Brighton Beach, but rather on the quiet residential streets of Bay Ridge. That’s where the Trump supporters live. It is they, ironically, who represent the real diversity here. As I stood on Fourth Avenue on Sunday, watching a mass of white people holding TRUMP-PENCE 2020 flags and “Blue Lives Matter” signs advance down the middle of the street behind a vanguard of Harley Davidsons, I thought: “I can’t believe I’m still in Brooklyn.”
You have to go all the way down to the far southwest corner of Brooklyn, in the shadows of the bridge to Staten Island, to find the sort of classic all-American scenes — flag-toting moms unloading kids from the minivan to go march with angry racists — that played out in Bay Ridge this weekend. New York City keeps such things confined to the geographic margins. Neighborhoods are fortresses. A “Blue Lives Matter” march likely wouldn’t make it three blocks up Flatbush Ave without being showered with trash, but in Bay Ridge it was all smiles and pro-police chants like, “Who protects our senior centers? N-Y-P-D!” The crowd was heavy on middle-aged women and overly tanned men with permanent scowls, people who look like they were born ready to argue. Lots of medium-high ankle socks and cargo shorts. One woman faced her cell phone as she marched along, livestreaming. “The funny thing is, you don’t see looters out here,” she said to her virtual audience. “You won’t see rioters…”
I’d gotten a ride to the event from my friend from Long Island and who shares a certain personality type with the pro-cop South Brooklyn crowd (confrontational, loud), but does not share their politics. “The racism is so damn strong there. I know three drug dealers who are pro-cop now,” he yelled on the way over, amid road rage outbursts. “I’m like bro, what the hell are you talking about, ‘I support the police.’ You’ve been selling drugs for thirty years! That’s what racism does to people.”
The otherworldly quality of the pro-police march snapped back into New York City reality when the counter protesters arrived — hundreds of them, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” restoring in an instant one’s faith in the city. Because my friend and I are both short-haired white men with no politically identifiable slogans on our t-shirts, we could blend into either side of the protest. Once, on the pro-cop side of the line, several young men with flag bandanas on their faces paused as they ran by us, apparently on the way to find a fight. They said to us, wild-eyed, “Come on, we need more guys!” Later, we stepped away from the action for a moment to stand on a curb, and a Bay Ridge local sidled up to us and asked conspiratorially, “You guys ready for another Fort Sumter?”
There were some tense moments. Water bottles and eggs were thrown back and forth. I saw a police officer shove one young female counter protester as hard as he could, and another was hit with a taser for no good reason. Twice I saw counter protesters snatch American flags away from people on the other side. The first was torn to shreds triumphantly to cheers, and the second was burned underneath the Gowanus Expressway overpass. That was shortly after a car carrying a pro-police couple got hemmed in on three sides by counter protesters, and on the other side by a parked police van. People started yelling at the occupants, and then the car accelerated a bit in a dangerous jolt, and someone kicked the door. It felt, momentarily, like we might be in for another episode of demonstrators being run over, as we’ve seen in multiple cities. But the car managed to escape.
Mostly, though, there were little knots everywhere of angry Bay Ridge residents cursing at BLM supporters, and vice versa, as the police sort of lazily drifted around keeping them more or less apart. When an “NYPD suck my dick!” chant started, an older man on the other side yelled, “Shame on you with the language! Real classy language!” A few minutes later, he pointed at a young woman and laughed, “She’s crying like a bitch.” Likewise, one of the locals who kept rushing around with his arms flared and his neck muscles tense was carrying a pro-NYPD sign that read “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.”
After this dynamic had gone on for an hour or so, and the cops had broken out the riot helmets and started to form a line across the road, one BLM protester finally exploded. “Why are you always facing us?” he demanded, inches away from an impassive cop’s plastic-shielded face. I hadn’t noticed before, but he had a point. The NYPD had not only marched along smiling with the original Blue Lives Matter march, but, after the other side arrived, they had consistently kept their backs towards the locals and faced the BLM side. This, despite the fact that there was, from what I saw, an equal amount of hollering, pushing, and throwing of things from both sides. Perhaps there’s a page in the police training manual on this mysterious “one side only” tactic.
There is no doubt that real danger lurks at these events. Had there not been quite so many police officers between the two groups, there certainly could have been a bloodbath, because both sides had a fairly high percentage of muscular young men who had that recognizable gleeful lust to punch someone flashing in their eyes. Even the less violent among us have to admit that the draw of these events is not just the chance to wave a righteous sign, but also the much more visceral thrill of screaming in the face of someone we consider to be our enemy. This is a universal human pleasure. And, I think, one that is healthy, right up until the punches start.
It’s okay to be mad about injustice. Every earnest conversation between the pro-cop and anti-cop people that I saw inevitably devolved first to sarcasm, then to insults, then to profanity, and sometimes to threats. It may be that we should just give ourselves collective permission to scream sometimes. The catharsis might help to avoid that whole “next Fort Sumter” thing.
Watching the contrast between all of the uplifting slogans about how the Boys in Blue are here to Protect the Community and the reality of what was playing out on 4th Avenue made me wonder how sincere we really are with one another. Though painful, rudeness is probably preferable to schmaltzy, dishonest PR slogans in the long run. I stood for three minutes and watched one conversation between a BLM protester and a local spiral downwards until the large Bay Ridge man in a white t-shirt was just standing there, behind a line of police, shouting, “Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother twice!”
That, at least, is sincere. If you want to march for freedom, it’s better to know what you’re up against.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.