Leonard Quart | Letter from New York: Talking to a protestor

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Instead of writing about the Black Lives Matter protests from the outside, I wanted to understand more closely who the protestors were.

So I decided to interview one young, idealistic, passionately committed protestor, whom I will refer to as J, who spent many days on the streets marching and demonstrating. I asked him a number of questions, starting with his background.

J grew up in Yorktown Heights, a Westchester County suburb, to a middle-class Jewish family, with his dad a high school English teacher and mom a social worker. The town was 90 percent white and only 2 percent black. After that he attended Oberlin focusing his studies on Japanese language and translation, as well as literary theory and philosophy. Today, he works as a marketer/copywriter at a tech startup and as a general assistant at an art gallery.

He told me that, as a boy, his parents' and paternal grandparents' commitment to social justice, and the idea that good politics "involves service and solidarity with oppressed people," shaped his way of seeing society. However, at the same time, he found himself increasingly alienated from centrist politics that he saw as pervasive within his hometown circles. In college, J said, "I became more drawn to actively antiracist, antifascist and anti-capitalist forms of politics."

I asked him about the nature of his participation in the protests. He told me he had taken part in protests in the past, but never with such intensity. He took part in three to five per week since George Floyd's death. Recently these actions have shifted from being predominantly focused on marching to taking part in an occupation aimed at reducing New York's police funding.

He feels that the protests have already accomplished a great deal — he lists "the possible disbandment of the Minneapolis police; Derek Chauvin arrested for second-degree murder; the other officers present during Floyd's death arrested as well; and the beginnings of police reforms all over the country."

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He continued by saying that he was proud of what they've achieved so far, but doesn't believe they've begun to scratch the surface. He quotes U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.: "Defunding police means defunding police. It does not mean budget tricks or funny math." What he hopes for is that the protests and occupations "will continue until real structural change begins to occur in NYC and across the country."

I questioned him about his interaction with other protestors. He told me that" "he interacted with other activists every day, whether in person or using encrypted messaging apps to communicate securely. In general, we are all in agreement that the protests are calling for major structural change in support of Black lives. And that any disagreements that arise tend to be between groups with different tactics/strategies in mind. "

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He also mentioned that the ethnicity of participants is quite mixed and that "there have been some protests in predominantly white neighborhoods that end up being, unsurprisingly, predominantly white." He went on to say that the participation in the protests "has been representative of NYC's population. Many protests and actions include chants in Spanish. And one protest that I attended was focused on canceling rent and continuing the eviction moratorium in NYC, was heavily populated by Asians — and prominently featured Chinese speakers."

When talking about police behavior, he made clear "that every single time a protest has ended in violence or strife in NYC it's been because of police action. I have literally never seen a protestor act in any manner besides peacefully. On the other hand, the cops have responded to our calls for structural change with pepper spray, batons and tear gas (e.g., a Pride march in Washington Square)." Participating in another protest in early June, he said he saw "cops slam a car into a large group of protestors."

I also wanted to know about his attitude toward looting and violence. He responded by saying that, "as Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said: `A riot is the language of the unheard' and I 100 percent agree with this statement. I believe looting and rioting are a fair response from oppressed people to a situation of extreme violence and fear."

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He won't participate in looting or riots, though — he sees it as an understandable reaction by Black protestors to seeing lives taken by the police. However, despite his understanding why some protestors may engage in violence, his deepest commitment is to nonviolence. He says he "won't stop protesting until we have created a society free of discrimination and economic inequality, which offer people the power they need to be safe and happy."

When it comes to politics he feels that though "some people in the movement may support the Democratic Party, many of us feel that mainstream liberalism has continually failed disenfranchised people. Our politics are embodied on the streets. And I don't know if voting in the national election is more politically effective than protest, though I will probably vote for Biden. However, most activists I've encountered are passionate about local politics, pushing people to vote in local elections, seeing it as consistent with the protests."

The depth of his commitment impressed me. I am more than 50 years older than he is, and except for my loathing for Trump and the Republicans, my political stances now tend to be touched with more ambiguity and pragmatism. I am fearful of politics where emotions dominate, but still know that feelings are a necessary part of one's commitments. We never engage in a protest purely because we think that it's a rational choice. There is something noble, steadfast and courageous in my interviewee's passionate commitment to protesting — hopefully a sign that in the future many more white people will have a very different consciousness about systemic racism and its social consequences.

Who knows? After living through a period of such massive pain and dysfunction, a transformed society may evolve.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.


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