Pandemic and protest: The view from New York City

Every evening since New York City shut down in mid-March 17, I timed my dog’s walk in Brooklyn to coincide with the 7pm clapping for healthcare workers. Masked and gloved, I left my apartment building at 6.30 pm and led my puppy, Iris, down the rows of tree-lined, million-dollar brownstones in my Park Slope neighborhood. Many residents had escaped to their second homes in the suburbs, allowing me to peer into their uncurtained homes and admire their imposing in-built bookshelves and fancy house plants, symbols of a thriving, fully gentrified locality. 

As a civil servant and immigrant from Kenya, these homes were out of reach. I could afford to live here because my husband’s family owned the apartment. The sidewalks were empty, even though the virus infection rate was going down every day, and with it the sirens that had pierced all of our waking hours. Afterwards, I’d walk back toward my building, to bask in the sunset on a bench by the Grand Army Plaza for as long as my restless dog would allow.

 I wanted to savor these moments. Being African and accustomed to uncertainty had made me paranoid – I still worried that I’d wake up one day and there would be no running hot water for my shower. Food delivery had expanded, Amazon boxes piled up the building entryways, burdening doormen daily so people didn’t have to step foot outside for weeks. Ikea, the furniture seller, was sold out because people were remodeling.  

But there was an inexplicable tension, an edge to these quiet days in a community that had more celebrity-chef restaurants than most cities in the country. In normal times, I rarely walked around. An outsider, I’d learned to pick up the nuances of a culture. In this mostly white and progressive bubble, I knew to keep my head down and to always be aware that beyond the Grand Army Plaza roundabout was a vast number of suffering New Yorkers.

Brooklyn, we go hard

On May 25, 70 days into lockdown, stir-crazy New Yorkers spilled into the parks and sipped spicy mango margaritas and negronis on restaurant curbs. The masks were off, literally and figuratively. At that time, 98,000 people in the United States had died of Covid-19 — it is 109,000 now —-and nearly half a million New Yorkers have become unemployed. But the air was thick with optimism and that particular NYC aspirational spirit.

No one was aggressively confronting law enforcement, screaming in their faces during a pandemic, like the predominantly white protesters in other cities were doing in a bid to get hair stylists and tanning salons to reopen.  I allowed myself to feel joyful, but kept my mask on. Walking a few blocks to the Target supermarket to scrounge for Clorox bleach wipes and hair cream, I stared at the giant-sized billboard at Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Kyrie Irving and other black Nets players dominated the board, their faces powerful, their skin gleaming with sweat, in the throes of the battle to win a game. Across the advertisement was the caption “We Go Hard,” from Jay Z’s song Brooklyn, We Go Hard. I’d seen the ad so many times, but each time, I was reminded of the jarring juxtaposition of the projected image of winning black men in America and the reality of their disenfranchisement on the ground. When you’re ‘melanated’, as the kids say, there’s not a single day that you don’t think about how the system always comes up against your blackness. 

At Target, the bleach wipes shortage persisted, understandably. But I was frustrated that my local Target didn’t carry Sulfur 8 or Doo Grow, staples for a natural Afro growth. A small thing, but a reminder that I lived in a zip code that had priced out poorer black people, but boasted many symbols of black culture.

At around 9pm New York time that night, I was putting away the dinner dishes and looking forward to watching a series.  I didn’t find out about the 46-year-old George Floyd’s death, which happened four hours away by plane in the mid-Western state of Minnesota, until the next day. It took me days to watch the video. It was just too painful. And over an allegedly fake $20 bill. The entire thing mirrored Eric Garner’s death, his words a complete echo. “I can’t breath.”

Witnessing the sustained violence against black men in a country that for a long time lectured African dictators on human rights and due process will never cease to be shocking. The States had due process, but white people were less likely to have non-violent encounters with law enforcement and more likely to get a slap on the wrist for crimes black people got harsh sentences for, like being in possession of marijuana. White privilege.

The following day, May 26, I was relieved when the officers were fired, but it wasn’t enough. There had been many protests over the years to decry the killings of black men by police. The nation flared up and days of unrest would follow: scenes of smoke and fire; the arrest of the perpetrator on flimsy charges to appease the populace, some temporary peace, and then a quiet acquittal years later when people were exhausted and focused on other issues.

In my idealistic twenties, I protested in DC to demand the forgiveness of debt for developing nations and cried buckets when it didn’t happen overnight. Now in my forties, I knew that sometimes it took generations to see change, even in well-meaning societies. 

Things do fall apart

Still, the protests felt different this time around. The crowds were more diverse than ever across the nation’s cities. Tear gas, rubber bullets and the threat of military intervention from the White House increased the crowds’ resolve. I admire Americans’ utter belief in a system that I viewed as flawed and fragile, which said more about my African baggage than I cared to admit: I’d come to expect that things can and do fall apart. It was easy to think these thoughts from my safe home in Brooklyn. I checked myself and felt glad that hundreds of thousands of people across the country had the courage to not feel resigned to fate. 

When the protests hit New York City on May 28, the city’s crises collided: the pandemic, 1.9 million unemployed, a graduating class with no prospects, cabin fever, and the gushing wound that was the sustained fraught relationship between the New York’s police and the black community. That night, people tried to hold onto normality, gathering on balconies to cheer for the healthcare workers, but the screams of the protestors cut through. “Stop with that stupid clapping, already,” someone shouted when the clapping began at 7pm. Frank Sinatra’s New York, blasting from a nearby apartment, (on a vinyl record, I imagined), was a relic of a dreamy New York that has never belonged to black people, and was now occupied by gentrifiers like me — people who, as Jay Z said in Brooklyn, We Go Hard, have “no history in my borough, they borrow with no intentions of returning, tomorrow.” Park Slope was suddenly flooded with a sea of diversity as the protests marched in.

Although the right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical at the core of America’s First Amendment, I was reluctant to join the uprising.  I couldn’t recall any recent ones where the police didn’t turn violent and a disproportionate number of black people didn’t get arrested. I lived in terror of the current administration weaponizing this right to organize and using it as an excuse to deport immigrants. Yes, even those that are citizens.

These streets, they’re ours

I decided to shelter in. Within a couple of hours, a video of a policeman violently pushing a petite woman to the floor and others beating protesters with batons emerged on social media. A photo of the crowd, facing the We Go Hard billboard at Barclays Center, was splashed across newspapers. At last, the image mirrored the aches of a city hidden under the smokes and mirrors.

Each night this past week, there have been protests, accompanied by looting in some places. Cops are employing greater force, and the mayor imposed curfew. Sirens and chants rang through the last couple of nights as the crowds moved to Grand Army Plaza. 

Even as I write this piece, on Wednesday night, protesters are marching through our street at midnight — four hours past the 8pm curfew. They were chanting, “These streets! They’re ours!” as helicopters hovered above. I looked at them in admiration through my window. They might as well have been telling those of us sheltered in that we were the impostors, beneficiaries of an apparatus that had been built on the blood of African-Americans and other people of color. 

I was wistful that I couldn’t join the crowds; ashamed and guilty that I watched others sacrifice their time and risk harm to their bodies so that I could continue my pursuit of happiness. I donated to the bail funds and plan to join a day protest this weekend if there’s one.

I know the farmer’s market will be back to Grand Army Plaza this weekend, and vine tomatoes with it. Cocktails will return, as will brunch, eventually. We’ll continue to hurtle towards a new normal; and we know even if the police are reformed, racism will still be with us.

Jakki Kerubo is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York

This article was first published in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here

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Jakki Kerubo
Jakki Kerubo is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York

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