“…there’s a man with a gun over there, tellin’ me I got to beware…”

carryin’ signs, mostly say ‘hooray for our side…’” ~ Buffalo Springfield, 1968

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down…”

I went down to Union Square early Tuesday to spend some time with my friend. I traveled from Washington Heights at the far north end of Manhattan on the subway, which — to be honest — has been a real pleasure, if you must travel, since the MTA started steam cleaning the trains every night after the Covid-19 shutdown was instituted. For the most part, there are a handful of people on the trains wearing masks and keeping their distance, which New Yorkers will admit, suits us fine. Absent the tourists and the college kids, the clean trains and lack of drama are most welcome.

It’s always obvious, when people who don’t live here talk about New York City, that most of them have a deep bias about what they have no experience of because they’ve been listening to people who have an agenda. And extremists’ agendas rely on latently terrified, hyperbolic suckers to exist at all.

But this is different. I’d dropped my iPhone a few days earlier so I was traveling without the means to communicate and that bothered me more than I thought it would. If you’ve navigated situations where things change fast and sometimes lethally, as they can do right now, you’ve developed a healthy skepticism of traveling without devices. So I was edgy on the train, especially in the subway stations where there were few people around and many blind corners to turn.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey added: ‘We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out-of-state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.’

But I got crosstown from the westside on a bus to meet my friend in front of the Whole Foods on 14th Street without incident and the park was quiet early in the day after a late night of the intense protesting and the interlopers. My own perception is that — while there are clearly some bad actors trying to stir unrest among peaceful protesters in other places — NYC is conditioned to identify hardcore terrorists’ threats and these are not those. Most of the low-rent ‘crime’ is being perpetrated by what are basically ‘hoodlums’ from the region, who are fast being identified and locked up before they can say ‘boo.’

My friend and I sat in the park over on First Avenue for a while, as we generally do before heading back across town around 3:00pm so I could catch the train uptown. I don’t say much about this because most of the time it has little to do with our personal relationship — and it’s no one else’s business — but my partner is roughly George Floyd’s size and age, and he’s about about as black as Floyd was, so I find myself being concerned for his welfare in ways I generally am not. On most days I feel his protective instinct as the decidedly ‘masculine’ aspect of our partnership and am calmed by it. There are a whole lot of charismatic, well-coiffed weak men in this world, he is not one.

It’s s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

As we approached Third Avenue we were stopped by the front end of a stream of protestors, mostly young people — under thirty — but not all. A mass of black and brown and white faces, a whole lot of pink and blue and orange and green hair, elaborate ‘tats’ and piercings and some decoratively shaved heads. The mass of marchers was so dense we couldn’t cross the street and that was fine. They carried signs and chanted, ‘I am George Floyd! Don’t shoot!’

They were breathtakingly beautiful.

So we turned South and headed down to 14th Street thinking we could turn West there. And the kids just kept on coming. The hundreds at the front end turned into thousands. Onlookers were cheering and taking videos. Mike and I just held hands and walked: sort of what all this youthful energy and clear-eyed intention evolves into in middle-age. He and I are both very politically engaged and proactive — trust me, Trump’s White House would prefer I disappeared — but we do leave the totality of a long march to younger activists as there is a very real possibility of being confronted with eruptions that I — for one — simply cannot deal with physically.

And they just kept coming. As we reached the Mount Sinai medical facility at Third Avenue the medical professionals wearing scrubs stood outside greeting the protestors with cheers and high fives. Some of the folks came down to the street in surgical scrubs to meet these kids.

Just in case anyone is mislead about how actual New Yorkers feel about these peaceful protests for justifiable reasons. Don’t forget it.

I’d intended to pick up a fews things from Whole Foods but by the time we got there the street was throbbing with protestors so workers were boarding up the store’s facade in anticipation of what might happen when the sun sets and the activists might or might not be replaced by the criminals. So much for that. Good thing the ‘take-out’ in my neighborhood is really very good.

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

So in a few more steps we reached Fifth Avenue. Looking South towards Washington Square and beyond that to Brooklyn there were waves of protestors: hundreds turned into thousands, thousands turned into tens of thousands coming across the Brooklyn Bridge, the pulse of the city.

I know that as the days wear on and the protestors who stay are the most passionate and ardent, and the cops get tired, conflict happens in the best of situations. It is not acceptable for a cop to pound a protestor with a night stick, nor is it acceptable for an activist to hit a cop with bricks. Those are both criminal actions and once either takes that step they become responsible for all the intended — or unintended — consequences of it. At that point both parties have forgotten that everyone is merely human.

But I saw none of that in the afternoon, there were tens of thousands marching while cops directed traffic and tried to shepherd busses and pedestrians through clogged streets and crosswalks. Police standing behind barriers protecting storefronts that — at that point — were not under siege.

We stood watching for some time because the whole thing was remarkable, and as it should be. Then I insisted that we walk back up a few blocks and that my friend head back home — instead of walking me to Eighth Avenue — before the potentially inevitable shift came. Because what these young people have yet to experience is that getting hurt is not fun and if you get hurt badly, it will be with you chronically for the rest of your life. A thing I have some expertise in.

And black folks — men, in particular — basically come into the world schooled in that reality.

And if you get avoidably killed owing to aggression or stupidity, none of it will matter to you dead.

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

But what I also genuinely hope is that these crusaders for ‘right and justice’ are taking from all this is that they did not invent moral outrage or justifiable civil disobedience. I’ve felt over much of the last several election cycles that there’s been so much time spent on social media that the young rebels started believing that taking it to ‘Twitter’ really was the same thing as ‘taking it to the streets.’ That living a life online in self-reinforcing echo chambers is living a life. There has been little real flesh-and-bone consequence to their extreme positions and demanding of extreme action until now. Whether that’s the disruptive actions of Wikileaks or Anonymous, the left, in particular, has largely existed ethereally. Theoretically. Hypothetically.

And now they appear to be realizing what those of us old enough to remember the surreal unchecked police violence of the 1968 Democratic Convention or the still shocking murders by armed guardsmen of four kids in the student protest at Kent State in Ohio in 1970 have long known: rightwing extremism is a physical ‘clear and present danger.’ Some of these people actually want to break into your dark safe space in your mother’s basement where you express to the world your ‘lefty’ butthurt feelings and kill you.

To be clear: responding in kind is not a solution so just get over that.

That is why we’ve tried to find another path, because when people die it is all over. And that is no fun at all.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

And when we told you that helping to throw the 2016 election to Donald Trump as a form of protest and disruption was more horrible than you could possibly imagine, and you didn’t listen because you knew that you were more clever, this is what we meant.

And even those of us who’ve been witness to the particular craven madness of Donald J. Trump in NYC for decades — those of us who knew this would be bad — even we could not have known that his particular depravity is this existentially bottomless.

Having said that, I was really proud to see it all coalescing into our literally primal grasp of the basic constitutional directive that this democratic experiment is built on: a government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’

Words to live — and die — by.

For What It’s Worth

Buffalo Springfield

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It’s s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, now, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

About the Author:

Gayle Leslie is a writer, political consultant, published author, actor, and policy wonk publishing extensively on Medium and other platforms. She is a native Texan, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC. She wrote her serialized memoir, Dwelling in the Vast Divine Vol. 1 & Vol 2. You can follow on Twitter at @gayleleslie7

Author of “Dwelling in the Vast Divine.1 & .2" Political consultant, policy wonk. https://www.amazon.com/Dwelling-Vast-Divine-1-Serialized-Memoir/dp/1495477746

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