Asher and I were picking up a few groceries at the local Fine Fare, less than a block from where we lived. We were still in the midst of the global pandemic and the city was on lockdown, as it had been since mid-March. For the first time in eons, the number of new cases in the city was actually falling and the death rate was going down. Things were looking up and the Governor was even talking about beginning to relax travel restrictions, even in The City. We were poised on the cusp of starting to open up.
I had mixed feelings about that, as I feared it would lead to a second wave, or perhaps it would extend the depth and length of the first wave. I’ve talked at length about my concerns with my dad, who’s a state assemblyman and a longtime ally of the Governor. As he explained it to me, the state couldn’t remain on lockdown forever and the economic impact of the lockdown was taking a toll in lives, independently of the pandemic. Drug use, domestic violence, suicides, starvation and homelessness had increased dramatically across the board. Further, the Governor had to weigh the impact on the state as a whole and Upstate, there were entire communities that had yet to see a single case of Covid-19. At least with what the Governor was proposing, as opposed to what some states in the South and Midwest were doing, the state would use a phased approach and The City would be one of the last places to remove the restrictions. And there’d be extensive testing and contact tracing to deal with outbreaks before they had a chance to spread.
The South was another story entirely and with the talk of opening things back up in spite of increasing case numbers, I feared that the southern states would see an explosion of the virus on a par with what we’d seen in New York, if not even worse. At least we had an excuse – the virus had already been spreading undetected here when things exploded in Europe. The South had time to see it coming, and yet they did nothing. The virus didn’t care about red states and blue states. The only thing that mattered to Covid-19 was the ability to spread from host to host.
I was brought out of my reverie as we were heading down the pasta aisle, when Asher suddenly remembered that we were nearly out of spicy brown mustard. “Seth, I gotta go back and pick up a bottle of Gulden’s,” he said before heading off in the other direction. Asher usually preferred to make his own, but organic mustard seed had become scarce during the lockdown. Gulden’s wasn’t his first choice but it was available.
I was just standing there, waiting for Asher to return, when I heard a deep voice rather loudly say, “You can’t wear that kind of mask here, son.”
I could barely hear Asher reply, “But it’s an N95 mask, sir. It’s many times more effective than most of the other masks people are wearing, including yours.”
“That’s a medical mask,” the loud voice continued. “It should be saved for healthcare providers, who need it a hell of a lot more than you do. I should take you in for reckless behavior.” Actually, it was an industrial mask, although a lot of healthcare workers were using them too, as it was a lot more reliable than the uncertified KN95 masks arriving from China. Some of them were so thin where the layers had been spot-welded together that you could practically see right through them.
However, that wasn’t what this was about. It was rare that I witnessed the sort of racism my husband had been dealing with all his life, but what I’d seen had been enough. I was royally steamed and so I abandoned our shopping cart and marched over to where I found my Asher, face-to-face with a white police officer nearly twice his size. His mask was under his chin, where it did little good. “Is there a problem officer?” I asked.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” the officer replied, “but I just was explaining how everyone needs to wear safe, effective protection from Covid-19.”
“It’s my business when it involves my husband,” I replied, much to the officer’s shock, “and for your information, that’s an industrial N95 mask. My dad had several boxes of them, that he uses for travel on State business. He lacks the gene for metabolizing medications used for treating TB, so he can’t take a chance on getting it.
“He can’t exactly travel right now, so we gave most of them away to NYU. We use the rest when we help out in my husband’s parents’ restaurant, a few doors down from this grocery. You’ve probably gotten Asian takeout from there.” The look on his face showed he clearly realized exactly the restaurant I was talking about. He was also probably realized that I wasn’t someone he should tangle with, given that my dad worked for the State of New York.
The officer’s posture noticeably relaxed and he said, “Sorry to bother you boys. A lot of people aren’t wearing any masks at all, and we’re under a lot of pressure to do something about it. Do remember to keep your social distancing, though.” I couldn’t help but reflect on how ironic it was that he was reminding us about social distancing, when he was the one who’d gotten in Asher’s face in the first place.
“I can’t believe you’ve had to deal with that crap all your life,” I related as the officer retreated from view.
Shrugging his shoulders, Asher responded, “My dad’s had to deal with much worse. He’s a dark-skinned Creole. At least my Asian features soften my appearance when it comes to how white people see us, so I get hassled a lot less than a lot of African Americans do.”
“Systemic racism among the police is a national outrage… a catastrophe in the making,” I countered. “It’s a simmering fire in the midst of a powder keg and sooner or later, something will come along to set it off.”
Thanks to the pandemic, Memorial Day was much more muted than usual. In New York City, we couldn’t go to the beach and the swimming pools were all shut down, and no one knew when they might open this year, if ever. The cooperative’s courtyard, located between our building and the next, was closed off to prevent parents from using it as a makeshift playground. Even so, a number of families had breached the barriers and were using the lawn as a picnic area for family and friends. Across the FDR in East River Park, it was evident that people were congregating at a much higher density than was appropriate in the face of a worldwide pandemic. It was a holiday and people were intent on celebrating it as if the virus was taking a holiday too.
Fortunately, most of the apartments in our co-op had balconies or terraces and so people could be outside without violating the social distancing norms. There were rules and city ordinances against lighting fires, yet it was evident that a lot of people were having Memorial Day barbecues in spite of the rules. We didn’t need to resort to outdoor grilling on our terrace, as our kitchen had an indoor gas grill as part of the range top. Asher prepared the most incredible feast, combining Tex-Mex, Creole, Cajun and Asian influences to create flavors I never knew existed. Our terrace was very narrow, but it was sufficient for Asher and me as well as my parents to sit outside, enjoying the incredible food my husband had prepared. We were oblivious to the events unfolding in Minneapolis, more than a thousand miles away.
It wasn’t until the following morning that we learned of the story of yet another black man dying in police custody. In time we learned that he’d been stopped for attempting to use a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill to buy cigarettes. Had it not been for the brave efforts of a seventeen-year-old girl, who recorded the entire episode on her cell phone, we might have accepted the police version that Mr. Floyd had resisted arrest. Instead, the world slowly learned the truth. Soon there were videos of the incident online, including ones recorded by others of the events leading up to his arrest. There was security camera footage too, and the officers wore body cameras, but those wouldn’t come out until much later. By late on Tuesday, all four officers involved with his death had been fired, yet no charges had been filed.
As the initial video of the strangulation circulated on the Internet, protests erupted at the site of the episode. Even so, I didn’t become aware of it until my good friend, Freck called me. Freck lived with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s brother and two dads in a house up in Riverdale. Although he was only thirteen, he and his eleven-year-old boyfriend, Kyle, were seniors at Stuyvesant High School, which we all attended. He and Kyle were Asher’s and my very best friends.
Freck had recently lost his father to the coronavirus. Because his father was the CEO of one of the best-known brokerages in the world, it had been big news. Initially, the police thought he’d died from complications of cocaine use, but the autopsy showed not a trace of it in his system. Instead he was found to have lungs that were filled with fluid. He’d literally drowned in his own fluid but as with so many victims of Covid-19, he didn’t even realize he was sick. He was only 41, and the first person I knew of personally who’d died from the virus.
“Have you seen the video?” Freck asked.
“What video?” I responded.
“The video of a cop in Minneapolis using his knee to strangle an African American man,” Freck explained.
“What?” I exclaimed. “How does one use a knee to strangle someone?”
“Take a look at the video and call me back,” he said. “You’ll see how in a moment,” he added before terminating the call.
Asher was helping out in his parents’ takeout restaurant, which was doing a very brisk business in the face of the ongoing pandemic, and my mom was on-duty at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she worked as an oncologist and research assistant. My dad was busy in the den, working on writing his book and so I used Google to search for the video on my laptop, and then I watched it alone. After the video played, I just sat there, stunned. Slowly, it dawned on me that I’d watched a man die from a public lynching by the police. One of the officers kneeled on his neck, cutting the flow of blood to his brain. The man had begged for his life as it slowly ebbed from him. He begged for his mother and again could be heard the familiar refrain, “I can’t breathe.”
The video was startling for a variety of reasons. The man was completely subdued and there seemed to be no need to restrain him any further. It was surreal the way the officer with his knee on the man’s neck just stayed there, acting so casually as he strangled the life out of another human being while the others assisted him and did nothing to stop him. Passersby kept trying to get the officers to stop hurting the man, but their pleas were ignored.
Suddenly I felt violently ill and I ran to the bathroom, just making it in time to empty the contents of my stomach into the toilet. Even then, I continued to retch. Apparently, the sound of my retching was enough to pull my father away from his writing, as he suddenly appeared by my side and asked me if I was okay.
Shaking my head, I responded, “There’s a video on the Internet of a white police officer strangling a black man in Minneapolis. For maybe ten minutes, the officer knelt on the man’s neck, acting as if what he was doing was the most natural thing in the world. Three other officers helped him while they ignored the pleas of bystanders and the pleas of the man begging for his life. It happened last evening.”
“Let’s go take a look,” Dad replied, indicating that he wanted me to go with him. I didn’t think he was intentionally making me watch the video again. He probably wanted to reassure me that it wasn’t a bad as I knew it really was. Rinsing the vomit from my mouth with water and spitting it out, I followed my dad into the den and we pulled up the video on our 27-inch iMac, the better to see it, large as life. It wasn’t any better, seeing it the second time, than it was the first.
When the video had finished, Dad just sat there in stunned silence. I understood exactly how he felt. Still, having him there with me made it a bit easier to stomach, literally. Finally, I broke the silence by saying, “That was a lynching.”
After a thoughtful pause, Dad responded, “You’re right Seth, that’s exactly what it was. Never before has something like that been witnessed by so many people. There have been many episodes of racial violence at the hands of police in recent years, but none of them can compare to what happened in Minneapolis. Those men should be charged with murder… second degree at least. What those ‘peace’ officers did was anything but peaceful.”
Thinking about the reactions to previous incidents, I added, “You know, by tonight there could be riots in Minneapolis. There probably will be.”
“Mark my words, there will be protests in every major city in America by week’s end,” Dad agreed. “Let’s just hope they’re peaceful. Otherwise it’ll be 1968 all over again.”
Although my dad wasn’t even born until a dozen years after, 1968 was a watershed, and not in a good way. We’d studied it extensively in school. Entire neighborhoods burned to the ground in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than bringing sympathy for the plight of African Americans, it galvanized public opinion and fueled racism for decades to come. Most of those neighborhoods never did come back. In the meantime, the Vietnam War was still raging, and public anger was high. More than likely, the riots were the main reason that Richard Nixon was elected to the White House. That ended in Watergate. I shuddered to think what would happen if history repeated itself and the current president was reelected on a ‘law and order’ platform.
Dad decided he should discuss the video with the Governor, and so he shooed me out of the den. He wasn’t on the phone very long at all before he came out into the hall and sighed, and told me, “Once again, politics takes priority over doing what’s right.”
“Whadaya mean?” I asked.
“I probably don’t need to tell you there’s no love lost between the Governor and the Mayor,” he began, and I simply nodded. The strained relationship between the two was legendary. The Governor was a moderate and a pragmatist. The mayor was a liberal idealist who seemingly favored the right of the unemployed and homeless to remain unemployed and homeless, much to the chagrin of those who actually payed taxes. Where others saw endless poverty, the mayor saw his political base. Even worse, he was a hypocrite who thought nothing of wasting city resources so he could be driven to his favorite gym in Brooklyn, bypassing hundreds of gyms along the way, and he spent over a half-million dollars of taxpayer money on his wife’s staff. On the other hand, rumor had it that she was the one who actually ran the city. Meanwhile, the mayor was always very, very late for everything and as they say, time is money. No, I was not a fan of the mayor either.
Dad continued, “I recommended that the Governor quietly move National Guard troops downstate, so they’d be in position to move into the city, should they be needed. I recommended he instruct the mayor to implement his plan for crowd management, which we developed specifically for times like these. Closing streets would be easy, since there’s almost no traffic, and concrete barriers similar to the ones in Times Square are effective in limiting crowd movement. Physical barriers are much less likely to incite a riot than are actual police in riot gear. Deployment of mobile command centers in key shopping districts such as SoHo, 34th Street and 5th Avenue can go a long way toward thwarting looters without getting in the way of legitimate protests. It’s critical that the two men coordinate their responses at a time like this, but that’s not going to happen.
“Clearly the Governor expects things to get ugly and he intends to use this to discredit the Mayor. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all the mayor’s responsibility and it’s up to the mayor to succeed or fail.”
Thinking of the White House’s response to the pandemic, I responded, “Why does that sound so familiar?”
“Because it’s from the playbook of a petulant child, and if things turn south it’ll be the Governor who takes most of the flack,” Dad answered. “He’s letting his hatred of the mayor color his sensibilities, and as always it’ll be the people of New York that pay the price.”
“You should run for governor, Dad,” I responded. I knew he was thinking of it, but so long as the Feds were holding a bogus corruption case over Dad’s head, running for public office wasn’t an option.
“Let’s see how the hearing turns out next week,” Dad replied. “If I get a favorable ruling, I could then return to Albany and then, who knows?”
Dad and I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV, which otherwise saw little use. With a view that included the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, we had phenomenal reception on all the over-the-air channels, and all of them were carrying events live. Still, the local stations took us only so far, and with subscriptions to Sling, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Disney+ and Apple TV+, we had a lot of choice in what we watched. For the most part, we stuck primarily to watching CNN, MSNBC and ABC. Our good friend Clarke, who lived on Staten Island among Irish Catholic Republicans, sent me frequent updates on the coverage by Fox News. The difference in perspective was striking.
The first night after George Floyd’s murder, there were candlelight vigils and a shrine emerged in front of the spot where he was killed. Protesters filled the streets of Minneapolis and there were some isolated incidents, but minimal violence. Although I was glad that things were peaceful for the most part, I was disappointed at first that there wasn’t more of an outpouring of support, particularly in the rest of the country. However, the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to mobilize and peaceful protests were planned in a number of cities from coast to coast. I was determined to get involved, but my husband had other ideas.
“Seth, this cannot end well,” he began. “Yes, what happened was wrong and yes, black people suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police. Of all people, I know this. Keep in mind that we’ve been there before, and nothing happened. Think of all the incidents and the protests, and how little things have changed. But now, we have a white racist in the White House and people have been cooped up in their homes for the past several weeks. People are frustrated, and that frustration could lead to violence… will lead to violence. You watch… there’ll be a huge backlash against the protesters. It could even lead to the president’s reelection.”
“No Ashe,” I responded, “this time it’s different. The other instances of police brutality were tragic, but white people see them as police actions that went sideways. They see angry black men resisting arrest and doing stupid things that ended with their being shot. They see Brianna Taylor as a case of a tragic error… not as an illegal search. To the average white person, these instances were all justified.
“The killing of George Floyd is a whole order of magnitude different,” I went on. “He was lynched. For nearly nine minutes, a police officer slowly and deliberately strangled him. The way he was so casual about it and the way the other officers assisted him and did nothing to try to stop him was so egregious that no one can try to justify it. Not even the president, although he may well try. This is the best chance we may ever have for the Black Lives Matter movement to go mainstream.
“But think of this. There may well be violence. There probably will be, and there’ll be those who take advantage of it for their own selfish reasons. Nothing I do is gonna change that, but I can make a difference when it comes to supporting peaceful protests. I might be just one boy, but I’m a white boy… a blond, green-eyed boy next door kinda boy that white people relate to. I may well be one of the only white faces in the crowd, but by being there, I can do far more to advance the cause than a thousand black faces.”
After thinking for a minute, Asher continued, “It could get ugly. What if the alt right infiltrates the crowd and incites violence? It could taint the whole movement.”
“I expect to see things that,” I admitted, “and I expect that Fox News will only show the violence. Half the country will think we’re rioting, even if the protests are entirely peaceful.”
“The President’ll claim it’s all antifa and paint you as a domestic terrorist,” Asher countered.
Laughing, I replied, “Antifa isn’t an organization at all. It’s a right-wing way of lumping all the disorganized, left-leaning anti-fascist groups into a single conspiracy theory, which is what makes conspiracy theorists so dangerous,” I added. “That’s why it’s so important to fight them.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Asher agreed. “If I hear the President try to link what’s going on once more to the fight for the second amendment, I’m gonna puke. I half expect him to declare Marshall law if he loses the election.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” I agreed, “and the surest way to counter that possibility is with massive, peaceful demonstrations in the streets. To seize power, the President would need the army, but the generals would never go along with him using the military against Americans on American soil.”
“I can only hope you’re right,” Asher responded, “’cause if the protests turn violent, there’ll be such a backlash that the President won’t have to use the military to seize control. Even with a botched response to the pandemic. Even with the economy in the toilet. He’ll fuckin’ win reelection because whites fear violence from black bogeymen in the streets.”
“Which is why people need to see that the movement includes white boys like me,” I countered.
After what seemed like a very long, thoughtful pause, Asher responded, “Okay, I’m in. No way I’m letting you go out and protest alone. But our parents get a say in it. No sneakin’ out on our own if our parents veto it.”
Nodding my head, I replied, “That’s reasonable. After all, we might need them to bail us out. We’ll just hafta do a particularly good job of sellin’ it to them.”
At first it appeared that the protests would be self-contained and limited to Minneapolis. However, it wasn’t long before anger boiled over in the community and large crowds congregated at the police precinct headquarters of the officers who killed George Floyd, while roaming groups vandalized police vehicles nearby. The police responded in full riot gear, firing teargas into the crowd and when the protesters failed to disperse, using rubber bullets. That only served to rev up the crowd even more.
The police chief in Minneapolis was a reform-minded African American and by early afternoon, the four officers involved in George Floyd’s death had all been fired, yet they hadn’t been charged for their crime. I knew from my dad that these things usually required a lengthy investigation and the officers were entitled to due process. Further, the police unions effectively had a veto over the decisions of the leadership. That they’d been fired so quickly and that the union hadn’t intervened on their behalf reflected the seriousness of the crime.
The family of the slain man made it clear they felt the officers should be charged with first degree murder. The protesters seemed to agree. The mayor of Minneapolis, who appeared to be exceptionally young and inexperienced, told reporters that if he’d done something similar, he’d have been charged by now. If that were the case, why wasn’t the state’s attorney out in front of the cameras? Why hadn’t the officers involved been charged? Was it perhaps because of the Republican leadership at the state level?
I knew that in most states, a first-degree murder charge required strong evidence of premeditation. Making matters worse, on-duty police officers were shielded. In addition to proving premeditation, the prosecutor had to prove that the action was outside the duties of a police officer. The officers involved only had to show that restraining the suspect was necessary and reasonable in the face of his actions. The prosecutor had to show that the means of restraint either exceeded the degree of force necessary or that it was outside of accepted standards. Although no police officer in America would ever be trained to use their knee to apply pressure to someone’s neck, Minnesota did not ban the use of chokeholds. Amazingly, the use of one’s knee to apply a chokehold was probably legal. A charge of first-degree murder might well lead to acquittal.
Minneapolis was a powder keg that was bound to explode in the coming days. However, the rest of the nation was primed for action and New York was no exception. Black Lives Matter – New York was organizing a peaceful protest for Wednesday in concert with other Black Lives Matter protests throughout America. I definitely wanted to be a part of it and wanted to volunteer to help out, but Dad drew the line there. He was willing to let me participate and actually thought participating in the protests would be a good experience, but Asher and I were emancipated minors. If we were arrested, we would be treated as adults. He wasn’t about to let that happen and so we had to promise to ‘get out of Dodge’ if the police showed up in riot gear. Neither Asher nor I had ever heard that phrase before and Ashe in particular thought it was hilarious.
In the meantime, protesters in Minneapolis had practically shut down the city as people all across America remained glued to their TVs. There were isolated incidents of property destruction and particularly of vandalism of police vehicles, but for the most part the protests remained peaceful. By Wednesday, the protests in Minneapolis had seemingly grown exponentially and, much to my surprise, there were many white faces among them. Significant protests broke out in L.A. and Memphis as well, the latter of which was billed as a protest of the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Only later would we learn of the violence that had erupted in Saint Louis and Chicago.
The protests were well underway in New York when Asher and I boarded an M14A bus on Wednesday afternoon. School came first and so we weren’t able to join the protests until our schoolwork was done. We barely took the time to stuff our faces first, not knowing when we’d have a chance to eat again – not that there weren’t restaurants around Union Square, which was known for its restaurants, but the restaurants were all still closed. If we were lucky, we might be able to grab a bite later from a street vendor, or there was always the Whole Foods, Food Emporium or Trader Joe’s that were located around the square. This was our first time taking public transit since the lockdown went into effect.
I was a bit concerned about the difficulty with social distancing during a protest. Asher and I had to be particularly careful, as we worked in his parents’ Asian takeout restaurant and many of the customers were elderly. I didn’t want to take a chance on infecting any of our customers with Covid-19. Although it had been a while since I’d seen my grandfathers on the Upper West Side, the lockdown wouldn’t last forever and of course I’d want to see them as soon as it was safe. The last thing I wanted to chance was infecting either of them.
Asher and I wore our modified N95 masks, and everyone else on the bus wore at least a surgical or a cloth mask. We also wore disposable gloves, so that we wouldn’t have to touch anything directly while on the bus. Of course all bets would be off once we reached the protest.
There were a number of sites where protests were taking place around the city, including City Hall Park downtown and Washington Square Park in the heart of the New York University campus. The largest protest was actually in Brooklyn, in the area around the Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. The arena was quite controversial when it was built, because of the way entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for it, but the convergence of a number of subway lines and bus routes in combination with the vast open space made it the ideal spot for a protest. However, Ashe and I were heading to Union Square, one of the oldest venues for street protests in Manhattan. Union Square was built in tribute to the labor unions that built much of New York, including the co-op where we lived. It sat on top of the busiest subway station in the entire system.
To Asher and me, Union Square was a destination unto itself, with lots of green space, farmers’ markets offering fresh produce, a number of shopping venues and off-Broadway theater. It was the southern terminus of Park Avenue South and the northern terminus of Fourth Avenue, the shortest avenue in Manhattan, connecting Cooper Union with Union Square. Since Barnes and Nobel had closed their original flagship store in Manhattan, the Barnes and Nobel at the north end of Union Square was now the largest store in the chain. Built in an historic building, it was a multi-story department store of books with a selection found nowhere else. The café at Barnes and Nobel was always jammed, and the fourth-floor auditorium was often filled to capacity when famous authors spoke.
At the opposite end of the square – actually two blocks south of it, on Twelfth Street, was The Strand, one of the best-known and largest used bookstores in the world. It wasn’t as large as Powell’s in Portland, but it was exceptional in its own right. The Union Square we came upon, however, was vastly different from the one we’d often visited in the past for shopping, dining or to take in a show. Now, there were police barricades everywhere and the crowds were much larger than anything we’d ever seen at any protest. The crowd was disproportionately African American, but blacks were still in the minority, with far more white faces in the crowd. I thought I’d be the only one! I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that although some people weren’t wearing masks, the overwhelming majority were.
Knowing that the NYPD was one of the best-trained police departments in the world and had ample experience with crowd management, I didn’t expect there’d be any problems. Asher wasn’t so sure. For one thing, as he put it, it’s a whole different ballgame when all the hate and anger is directed at the police themselves. Secondly, Asher figured the propensity for spotty violence was high and that if there was any looting, the police would take it out on the protesters rather than the looters themselves. He pointed out that no matter how peaceful and well-intentioned the protesters might be, they would become facilitators for looting. Apparently, the police were actually trained that the best way to end looting was to limit the size of the protests. I didn’t see how that could work with a crowd this size, but Asher pointed out that the police couldn’t be everywhere and that they’d therefore focus their efforts on controlling the crowds. As far as I was concerned, that was a strategy that would backfire.
It was a warm late-spring day with ample sunshine and an afternoon high of nearly eighty degrees. Once we got off the bus and entered the crowd, the temperature went up considerably to the point it was very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but the protest was vastly different from anything I’d ever attended. For one thing, it was far better organized, with a sound system and a series of people who spoke to the crowd. I suppose I was aware that Union Square had an elevated stage, but I’d never given it much thought as I’d never seen it in use. Today it got plenty of use.
There were many booths all along the streets that bordered the park, some selling refreshments but most being manned by progressive organizations that were handing out literature, freebies and even signs to be used during the protest. I grabbed a simple sign that read ‘Black Lives Matter’ and Asher actually managed to find a sign that read ‘Queer Lives Matter Too’. I’d wondered what we’d do for bathrooms when we needed to go, but there were rows of portable potties in addition to the public restrooms by the playground at the northeast end of the park.
I wasn’t sure how we’d pass the time but quickly found that wasn’t an issue. There were a lot of teens and college-age kids at the protest and everyone was anxious to talk about the recent events. When we weren’t listening to the speakers, and often even when we were, we engaged in conversation with everyone around us, making friends as we went. It might not have been the wisest thing in terms of social distancing, but we were all wearing masks and the need for conversation was great. In the end, I added over two hundred new contacts to my phone’s address book.
We needn’t have worried about food either. There was plenty of food available and a lot of vendors were giving it away for free. When I asked one of them why he was doing it, he replied that under the stay-at-home-restrictions, there were way too many food carts chasing too few people. When I asked him why he wasn’t taking advantage of the crowd to make money now, he replied that most of us weren’t carrying cash, which was true.
“Besides which, as an Arab American, this is my fight too,” he added. “A lot of people see us as the enemy as it is, but the police are the worst. They see us and they assume we’re all terrorists. Most of us were either born here or came here as small children. I’ve known no other life, so I know what it’s like to be treated as a criminal. I can’t go back to the Middle East either,” he continued. “They kill people like us over there.” Ah, I realized he was telling us that he too was gay.
Once the sun dropped behind the buildings on the west side of the square, the temperature dropped considerably and it started to feel much more comfortable out. A number of the protesters, some of them even younger than we were, told us they planned to stay out overnight, even if it meant they’d be arrested. The scene took on a much more festive atmosphere, but at the same time the odor of pot was noticeable and people were getting rowdier. Asher and I took it as our cue that it was time to ‘get out of Dodge’, and so we crossed over Fourteenth Street and got on the first M14A bus heading east. Twenty minutes later, we were home.
We arrived home to find Dad already glued to the TV, so Ashe and I sat down together on one of the living room sofas and watched along with him. Unfortunately, by the time the sun set in Minneapolis that night, small groups of protesters turned to violence, setting police vehicles on fire as well as an auto parts store. Only later would we learn that the fire had actually been set by a known white supremacist. Later, an angry group of protesters surrounded the police precinct house where the officers involved in George Floyd’s murder had been based. A few of them managed to set the building on fire while other protesters tried to stop them. Of course, the pictures shown all over the world by the news media gave the impression that the whole city was on fire. Those who watched Fox News would have thought that blacks were rioting in the streets and burning the city down. We usually don’t watch Fox, but we felt it important to see how the different news outlet were portraying the violence and so we switched back and forth among CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and Fox.
Elsewhere, a group of protesters in L.A. managed to shut down Highway 101, one of the main arteries in California. In Saint Louis, a man was killed when protesters blocked Interstate 44 while some set fires and attempted to loot a FedEx truck. Chicago, however, saw some of the worst violence, with six people being shot and one killed.
Not that I could ever justify the violence, but from what I could gather, the vast majority of the protests were peaceful. However, with images of a burning police station in Minneapolis and other buildings on fire, the public perception was of a city on the verge of anarchy. The mayor appeared to be out of his depth and so the Republican governor had to do something to at least give the impression that order had been restored, and so he sent in the national guard. Not that I could blame him, but it resulted a dramatic escalation in the degree of racial tension and tension between protesters and police that was probably avoidable. Even though the guard wasn’t involved directly in confronting the protesters, the effect was that the very police who were under scrutiny for the death of George Floyd were responsible for keeping the protesters under control, thus ensuring that the protests would continue for a very long time.
I asked Dad what he thought of my perception of the situation. He replied, “Seth, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s evident you’re destined for a career in politics. You have my deepest sympathy.”
School again took precedence on Thursday, however, we managed to finish all our studies by noon. In the meantime, through text chat and FaceTime, we filled Freck and Kyle in on our activities at the protest the previous day. Freck and Kyle were anxious to join us in the protests, but Kyle’s brother, Roger, was dead set against it. The dads were busy seeing patients and although not nearly as busy as they were at the peak of the pandemic, they were in no position to supervise the boys at a protest. At first, they simply told the boys ‘no’, but under intense lobbying by our friends, told them they could go with a group of us if there was a parent or guardian to supervise. That turned out to be much easier than I’d thought at first.
Our good friends Carl and Clarke lived on Staten Island with Clarke’s older brother, Joseph, who was in law school at Columbia University. Joseph was the closest thing Clarke had to a parent, since both his parents were in prison, and Joseph was in fact the legal guardian for Clarke and his sisters. Joseph was more than happy to go with us to the protests, as he really wanted to go himself, but didn’t want to go there alone. The only problem was one of logistics. Clarke, Carl and Joseph lived on Staten Island. Freck and Kyle lived in Riverdale in the North Bronx. We lived in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side. The Staten Island boys could get there by taking the Staten Island Ferry to the subway, and Freck and Kyle could get there by taking a Metro North train to Grand Central Terminal, and then taking the subway. We of course could take the M14A bus.
My concern was that we might have trouble finding each other in the face of an ever-growing crowd. Although it was a bit out of the way, we decided we’d all meet up at Astor Place first, in front of the Cooper Union at 2:00, and walk the rest of the way. Asher and I would simply walk there – the weather was great and it was just over a mile-and-a-half away. We advised everyone to bring backpacks with plenty of water, sunscreen, masks and gloves, as well as snacks in case the street vendors ran out of food.
Getting our stuff together, Ashe and I set out just after one o’clock and headed west on Grand Street, right into the heart of Chinatown. Turning to my husband, I said, “It’s interesting to walk through an area where I’m distinctly in the minority. Not that I’m in the majority in our neighborhood, but at least there, no one is. Here, it’s pretty clear that I’m out of my element. At least you’re half-Asian…”
“You think they treat me any better for having Asian features?” Asher interrupted. “They treat me with deference because I speak to them in Mandarin. Almost no non-Asians do, so they listen to me and I can negotiate better prices and get fresher fish and better cuts of meat. However, I think a lot of that’s because they know my mother. But when a Chinese customer enters, they literally stop whatever they’re doing and go serve them before they return to serving me. To them I’m still a black boy first.”
Shakin’ my head, I responded, “You see that jewelry store on the corner,” I began as I pointed to the store on the corner ahead of us. “I went in there in early March, ’cause I liked what I saw in the window displays. ’Course it’s closed now because of the Pandemic…”
“Don’t be so sure about that,” Asher interrupted. “I’m willing to bet that there’s at least one person in the back, and that if you call from a phone number in their database and speak to them in Mandarin, they’ll let you inside and show you their inventory, and sell you whatever you want.”
“Well in my case,” I continued, “I didn’t speak the language and although they let me inside, they practically ignored me. If I asked a direct question, they gave me a perfunctory answer, but the prices they quoted me all seemed pretty high and the moment I asked about buying something, it wasn’t for sale. What really got to me though, was when a Chinese customer saw an item I’d just looked at that ‘wasn’t for sale’ and bought it right then and there. I might not have spoken the language, but they didn’t even try to hide that they sold it for half the price they’d quoted me a moment before. It was then that I realized that everything was for sale, but not to me. I left in disgust.”
“Welcome to being on the other side of the coin,” Asher quipped and I couldn’t help but laugh along.
When we came to Bowery, we turned right and headed north. Bowery would take us the rest of the way to Astor Place. At one time The Bowery had quite a reputation and there were still spots where I wouldn’t want to walk alone at night, but gentrification had largely remade The Bowery and the flop houses that used to predominate had long been displaced by fashionable businesses and restaurants. Not that I missed the flop houses, but they served an important need, providing cheap housing to those who could barely afford it. It wasn’t like the residents disappeared along with the flop houses… they filled our homeless shelters, displacing families the city was now forced to house in expensive hotel rooms. Of course, the lack of affordable housing was also evident by the large number of men who slept in the open on the streets during the day so they’d be able to defend themselves after dark. Those men also reflected the crisis in drug addiction and mental health. We as a society needed to face up to those challenges, rather than ignoring them and watching them only get worse.
Scarcely ten minutes later, we walked into Cooper Square, in front of Cooper Union, a small, private university. We thought we had plenty of time to kill before our friends showed up, but Freck and Kyle were already waiting for us.
“What took you so long, you fuckin’ slackers?” Kyle exclaimed when we caught up with them.
“And I suppose you’ve been waiting here for hours?” I replied.
“We’ve been waiting forever,” Kyle responded.
“Yeah, many, many seconds at least,” Freck chimed in. “Actually, we just got here before you did,” he added. “We weren’t sure how much extra time we’d need because of the crowds in Union Square, so we left extra early. Of course we had no trouble getting to Grand Central, but the crowds waiting to get on the subway were unreal. No sooner did we swipe through the turnstiles than we came to a long line just waiting to get to the platforms. At least we didn’t have to face all the usual summer tourists with their beer bellies hanging out, crowding the platforms in their tank tops and shorts and failing to observe even the most basic social etiquette.
Then Kyle suggested taking a bus, so we turned right around and left. The M102 brought us right here, and with no delays.
“At least we got a free transfer,” Kyle added, “not that it matters much. It woulda been worth it to pay again, just to get away from all the sweaty bodies on the subway.” Nobody laughed at Kyle, as we’d all had unpleasant experiences on crowded subways.
“So we’re just waiting for Carl, Clarke and his brother?” Freck asked.
Then I heard the distinct call of Clarke as he approached us, “Hey guys, been waiting long?”
“We’ve been waiting forever!” Kyle complained.
“Don’t listen to him,” Asher countered. “We all just got here.”
“Did you have much trouble getting here?” I asked.
“The ferry was practically empty,” Carl related. “It was like having it all to ourselves, but then the subway was crazy, man. The trains arrived from Brooklyn totally packed. We let the first few go by, thinkin’ that sooner or later, something less crowded would come along, but that never happened. Finally, we just forced our way on, like I’ve heard they do in Tokyo. Forget about social distancing. I hope the virus isn’t transmitted through sweat, ’cause the air conditioning wasn’t helping very much. The odor was not pleasant.”
“That’s what has me worried,” I replied, “the crowding, on the subway.”
“Kyle and I bailed on the subway and took a bus,” Freck noted. “Guess that’s not a good option from the Ferry though.”
“If we’d known how bad it was, it would’ve been worth it to take the bus,” Joseph exclaimed, “even with having to transfer.”
“Well you guys are all spending the night at our place,” I suggested. “No use putting you in harm’s way on the subway again.”
“Hey, some things are worth taking risks for,” Carl responded. “The police aren’t much better when it comes to the Latin population than they are with blacks, and they’re downright homophobic when it comes to anyone who’s effeminate or in drag. This is our fight too.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” I replied. “You shoulda seen how a police officer treated Asher when we were shoppin’ at Fine Fare the other day. He actually stopped Asher for wearing an N95 mask that should’ve been reserved for medical use. On the other hand, he was wearing his mask under his chin.
“However, there’s no reason to put ourselves any more at risk than we have to, and taking the subway clearly puts us at risk. Asher and I walked here and if need be, we can walk home tonight. So are you all ready to show the world that black lives matter?”
“Let’s do this,” Joseph responded, speaking for the first time, “but first, let’s enable the ‘Find My Friends’ feature on our phones. We may need it later.” I then led the way up Fourth Avenue. Even from where we were, six blocks to the south, we could hear the sound of the crowd. I was sure glad I had the foresight to synchronize our phones, as staying together became very difficult once we arrived.
“Holy fuck, what’s goin’ on?” Freck shouted as flames leaped into the air, easily reaching higher than the tallest buildings around us.
“Nothing we want to be anywhere near,” I replied. We’d had a blast and probably stayed longer than we should have. I’d lost track of the time and it had been hours since the sun set.
“Nothing good happens after dark,” Joseph commented. “We should keep that in mind tomorrow. Let’s get out of here.”
“I see an M14D bus coming,” Asher shouted. “Let’s grab it if we can.”
“I’m with you there,” I replied as we all ran across Fourteenth Street and waited for the bus to arrive. It wasn’t our usual bus and it would take us out of the way, but it would get us to within two blocks of home. Our hearts were racing, and we just wanted to get out of there.
We were supposed to swipe our farecards at the kiosk on the street before boarding, but there wasn’t time. I doubted the transit police would be checking on a night like this, but I for one was willing to take a chance on having to pay the fine. A hundred dollars was way better than whatever was going on after dark in Union Square.
When we got home to our apartment, of course we immediately switched on CNN while my husband prepared a late-night snack for us all. Kyle called home to let his dads know he and Freck were spending the night with us. Likewise, Joseph called Carlos’ mom, who was their live-in housekeeper, to let her know that they were staying with us as well.
Protests had erupted all over America in spite of the pandemic, and in city after city, the majority of the protesters were white. People of my generation were sick of a society where people of color didn’t have equal protection under the law. 56 years had passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and yet blacks were still being denied their civil rights. Gays too, for that matter.
It turned out that the flames we saw at Union Square were from some idiots who set the trash cans on fire. That did not portend well for the future of the protests, especially with the weekend coming up. In the meantime, I got a text from our friend Josh. It read, ‘Just got back from Union Square. It was crazy.’ Josh lived with his three sisters and their dad in the building next to ours. I texted back that we were there too and suggested we all chat on Zoom. Josh’s boyfriend Dave’s mom was a nurse who’d actually gotten COVID-19. She was out of the woods now but more than a month later, she was still hospitalized in Bellevue. In the meantime, Dave’s uncles from Seattle were staying with him and had gone with the group to the protest that day. We conferenced the full forty minutes, until Zoom shut us down, and agreed to get together by 2:00 on Friday to go to the protest as a group.
Of course, my parents wanted to know all about our experiences at the protest and so we didn’t get to bed until 2:30 AM. I set up a bunch of air mattresses and we all crashed in the living room.
“I can’t believe he only got third-degree murder,” Freck reiterated for about the fifth time.
“And second-degree manslaughter,” I pointed out.
“And the other’s got off without any charges,” Carl chimed in.
It was the Friday after the murder of George Floyd and the prosecutor on the case had finally issued charges against the police officer who’d effectively lynched a black man. He’d been arrested, but at minimum I would have thought the charge should have been second-degree murder. Proving premeditation might be difficult, but at some point, the officer made a conscious decision to ignore the pleas of the suspect and of bystanders around them and apply sufficient pressure to the man’s neck to strangle him.
The use of a chokehold might not be illegal in Minnesota and although not standard procedure, the use of one’s knee might not be either, but any use of lethal force in a situation that didn’t warrant it was murder. To call it manslaughter would have meant that the officer did not have a reasonable expectation that the application of force could have resulted in death. No police officer could have claimed such a thing, so I wasn’t sure why manslaughter was even on the table. Every police officer was trained to know that the simultaneous application of pressure to both sides of the neck, as in using one’s knee to push the neck into pavement, will impede blood flow to the brain. The old adage that a talking person is a breathing person simply doesn’t apply in cases of strangulation. George Floyd’s death wasn’t a case of manslaughter.
Likewise, three other officers assisted in holding Mr. Floyd down while he was being lynched. It wasn’t clear from the videos if they said anything against the action, but there was no evidence that they did anything to attempt to stop it. Regardless of the chain of command, a police officer is obligated to intervene against a fellow officer when that officer does something illegal. The three officers were therefore accessories to the crime and should also should have been charged.
“One thing’s for sure… no one’s gonna be satisfied with those charges,” Carl continued. “They’re just adding fuel to an already smoldering fire.”
“Let’s not forget that the officers are entitled to due process,” Asher countered as he prepared a feast for our brunch.
“As was George Floyd,” I replied. “Of course, the police officers are entitled to due process, but it doesn’t take much of an investigation to see that they’re guilty of at least second-degree murder. They should have all been arrested and held on that while the investigation continues. We’re trying to prevent a riot here.”
“Exactly,” Kyle chimed in. “There wasn’t any way anything those officers did could be justified, and there was no immediate threat to their lives or to anyone else’s lives. There was no justification for the use of lethal force, nor was there any expectation that kneeling on someone’s neck couldn’t be lethal.”
“The first time I saw the video, it made me sick,” Clarke added. “I had to run to the bathroom before I threw up.”
“The same thing happened to me,” I added.
“Me too,” Kyle stated.
“Listen, there was looting in Minneapolis, in L.A. and in other places last night,” Joseph interjected. “And the President has threatened to send in the National Guard, with or without the permission of the state governors. That’s some pretty serious shit. And then he tweeted the words of Miami’s police chief from the Civil Rights era, arguably one of the most racist police chiefs in history. That’s really pouring gasoline on the fire if you ask me.”
“With us heading into the weekend, you can probably count on there being some violence and maybe looting here. We need to be extra careful.” Dave’s Uncle Alan chimed in.
“Definitely,” I agreed. “If the protesters block Fourteenth Street, we won’t be able to catch a bus outta there, and the subway’ll be jammed. If things go south, let’s plan on heading straight down Fourth Avenue to Cooper Union, where we can regroup. We can then head down Bowery to Grand Street. It’s the most direct route home.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Dave’s Uncle Peter agreed.
I was surprised that when we arrived at Union Square, it wasn’t nearly as packed with people as it had been in the early afternoon just yesterday. I was with my husband, Asher, our best friends, Freck and Kyle, our good friends, Carl and Clarke, as well as Clarke’s brother, Joseph, a Columbia University law student. Also with us was our good friend, Josh, Josh’s boyfriend, Dave, Dave’s Uncle Alan and his husband, Peter, and Josh’s sisters, Sarah, Stacey and Robin. Robin was with her boyfriend, Larry, who came down from the Upper West Side.
“Is it my imagination, or are there fewer people here today?” I asked.
“I think it’s because people are spread out all over the city,” Joseph answered. “There was a march from here up Broadway to Times Square, for example, and I imagine a lot of people are up there right now. There are protests in several of Manhattan’s parks. In Brooklyn, they’re filling the streets from Prospect Park, all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Union Square is still the center of activities in Manhattan, but it’s not the only place where people are protesting.”
We all had our signs from yesterday, but most people were sporting much more professional-looking signs today and so we went in search of nicer signs for ourselves. Of course, we also took the time to check out the freebies the booths were giving away and to pick up literature. A number of the booths were selling souvenirs of the protest and although we weren’t attending as tourists by any means, there were some great t-shirts, tote bags and the like and we all ended up buying stuff.
With a population of over eight million, New York City is more populous than most states in America, and that doesn’t even include the millions who live in the suburbs. The image of New York as an anonymous, cold and uncaring place, however, is simply not true. I know most of the proprietors in the places where we shop, and they know me. New Yorkers by their nature are friendly, engaging total strangers in conversation while riding the bus or when standing ‘on line’, waiting to check out their groceries. From riding the elevators, we know all our neighbors, and not just the ones on our floor.
More than any other place, New Yorkers are engaged in city politics. Signing petitions is a way of life and it’s not at all unusual to be stopped at random on the street to sign a petition. Neighbors often knock on our door, asking us to sign petitions. Asher and I are too young to vote and although we’re considered emancipated and have the rights of adults, we still can’t sign most petitions. If a petition has merit, though, we’ll ask our parents to sign, as well as our other adult relatives.
The local government of New York City uses a hybrid model, with community boards consisting of volunteers that handle such issues as local zoning and budgets, and a city council that functions as a part-time paid legislative body. There are five boroughs in New York, each of which is its own county. These include Manhattan (New York County), Brooklyn (Kings County), Queens (Queens County), The Bronx (Bronx County) and Staten Island (Richmond County). Each borough has its own elected district attorney and its own system of courts. In addition, each borough has a borough board, presided over by the elected borough president and consisting of the community board chairpersons and the elected council representatives. The mayor serves as the elected administrator of the entire city and is empowered to appoint a number of deputy mayors to head the various divisions of the administration. As a check on the mayor’s power, however, there’s also an elected public advocate.
Unless one has the bully pulpit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as Giuliani did, or Mike Bloomberg’s wealth, the best way to run for mayor is to first run for Public Advocate or for one of the five borough presidencies. One of the booths we came to was set up by one of the candidates running for Manhattan Borough President in 2021. The man standing before us was the city council representative for a district on the Upper East Side and although his district was one of the most affluent in the city, he was strongly progressive and a major advocate for criminal justice reform. I’d long been a subscriber to his email newsletters, but I didn’t think he knew me from Adam. I was wrong.
His face lit up as he spotted me and he rose to his feet and bumped elbows with me as he said, “Seth Moore, it’s so good to see you. It’s been years since the last time I saw you. I think you were maybe nine or ten back then, and now look at you.”
“I can’t believe you knew who I am, let alone recognized me,” I replied.
“Of course I know,” he responded. “I’ve known your dad for a long time, and your grandfather even longer. He’s a true city treasure, and now he has a partner! How incredible it was that they were reunited after so many years, and I understand that you and your husband had something to do with that.”
“You know about Asher and me?” I asked in surprise.
“Of course I know, Seth,” he replied. “It’s not common that one of the municipal judges is asked to grant a waiver for minors to marry, particularly when they’re from outside the Hassidic community. I also know that Pete Wells considers your husband to be the finest Cajun chef outside of New Orleans, and that you’re both students at Stuyvesant. You should hear how your father talks about his ‘sons’.”
Then turning his attention to Freck, he said, “Francis I was so sorry to hear about your father. We seldom saw things the same way, but he was an important fixture on Wall Street and a pillar of The City. He will be missed.”
“Pardon my French, but my father was an asshole,” Freck responded. “He never paid any heed to his children. We were just trophies to show off. He was the biggest jerk I ever knew.”
Laughing, the councilman responded, “I’m not sure I can disagree with you there, Francis.”
“Please don’t call me Francis,” Freck corrected him. “I hate that name. I don’t like ‘Frank’ either. Formally, I go by ‘François’, which is a reflection of my French roots, but informally everyone just calls me ‘Freck’ because of my freckles. They’re fading now that I’m a teenager and I probably won’t be able to go by that name much longer.”
“Freck, you should go by whatever name you like best,” the councilman replied. “I know you weren’t close to your father, but in a way you’re his legacy and like it or not, his name’s going to follow you around the rest of your life.”
Nodding his head, Freck responded, “Yeah, and his money too. I don’t really get that either. When he was alive, he barely paid attention to me. He didn’t even seem to care when I attempted suicide. But when my mom filed for divorce, he changed his will. None of us knew it, but he left everything to me. That’s just plain wrong.”
“Well, your mother is a billionaire in her own right,” the councilman replied. “I hear she’s worth even more than your father was. She doesn’t need the money.”
“Yeah, but she’s doing something with her money,” Freck countered. “She’s started a foundation and she intends to give it all away to help the homeless. She could have used some of Dad’s money and seen that it went to a worthy cause.”
“Your mother certainly has done an about face,” the councilman agreed. “I have to admire her for that.”
“The thing is, I also have twin sisters, and he left them nothing,” Freck complained. “Maybe Dad thought the twins should be Mom’s responsibility, but that’s not how it should work, especially since my mother’s gonna give all her money away. It’s not fair to my sisters, and so I’ve asked my attorney to make it right. I’ve asked her to petition to void the trust and to split the estate four ways, with a quarter put into a trust for each of my sisters, a quarter to Mom’s charitable foundation and a quarter to mine.”
“You have a charitable foundation?” the councilman asked Freck in surprise.
“I do now,” he replied. “I already have a trust fund worth millions and the proceeds from the sale of his properties, including the penthouse. I have more than enough to put myself through school, to get my Masters in Architecture and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, both from M.I.T., and maybe a Harvard M.B.A. That’s the plan anyway. Even so, I’ll still have enough to create the largest sustainable architecture firm in the world. It’s imperative that we reverse course on carbon emissions immediately, but even so, we’re going to be dealing with mitigating the effects of climate change for centuries to come.
“My foundation has two purposes,” Freck continued, “to develop sustainable cities, and to provide for climate justice. We’re going to need to move billions of people out of harms way as sea levels rise and the weather becomes more violent. My money will be a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed, but at least we can provide affordable solutions to help people transition and to prevent the climate refugee problem from turning into a crisis… or world war.
“The issue of sustainability is for the long term, and we’re gonna hafta invest in new technology the way we invested in the Manhattan Project and in the moonshot. The use of high-rise hydroponic agriculture, for example, would allow us to produce massive amounts of organically-grown food without despoiling the land or taking way from the forests and grasslands needed to absorb the world’s carbon. Green energy is especially critical to the future, but doing it right is much more difficult than most people realize. Solar farms use massive amounts of toxic semiconductors while crowding out the greenery needed to replenish our oxygen. Wind turbines rely on magnets made from rare earth metals that are highly toxic to the environment and that involve mining by exploited peoples. Still, wind energy is the only renewable energy source that doesn’t negatively impact the planet. My boyfriend, Kyle, and I are working on the design of passive wind technology that doesn’t use any moving parts, based on the same principles that generate lightening.
“Sorry, but I tend to get carried away,” Freck concluded.
“No, this is fascinating,” the councilman replied. “I know you’re a genius, but even geniuses don’t usually get accepted to M.I.T. at the age of thirteen…”
“Kyle was accepted to the astrophysics program, and he’s only eleven,” Freck countered. “He’s the pragmatic one, though, and he realized we’d never be taken seriously at our ages, so we’re spending a couple of years at HSMSE, getting dual credit.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” the councilman responded.
“Councilman… ah…” Asher began.
“Please, just call me Ben,” the councilman interrupted.
“Councilman Ben…” Asher began again.
“No, please. Skip the Councilman part. Just call me Ben,” he interrupted again.
“Okay… Ben.” Asher tried a third time. “You know, I think my husband would be a fantastic city councilman, and maybe mayor someday. Is there a way he could, like, get involved in politics even now, while he’s still in school? Could he even run for city council at his age?” my stinker of a husband suggested with a smile.
“Well, you know, there’s no minimum age to run for city council,” Ben replied. “You need to be eighteen to run for State Assembly or State Senate, and you need to be thirty to run for Comptroller, but there is no age minimum for any other state or local office in New York. It’s hard to be taken seriously when you’re only a teenager though.” Then turning to me, he asked. “How old are you, Seth? Fifteen?”
Sheepishly, I admitted, “In a few more weeks.”
“So you’re fourteen, almost fifteen, and finishing your sophomore year at Stuyvesant,” Ben replied. “You’re a full-time student and in a little over two years, you’ll be starting college, possibly out of state.”
“Not if I can get into Columbia,” I countered, “and then Columbia Law. That’s where Joseph is going right now,” I added as I nodded to my friend’s brother.
“That would be great, if you got into Columbia, or even NYU or Fordham. They’re all great schools, but what if you’re offered a spot at Yale, Stanford or Harvard?” Ben countered. “Would you really turn down a spot at, say, the University of Chicago in favor of being wait-listed at Columbia?”
“Hey, I have to finish my undergraduate degree first,” I pointed out. “It’s a bit premature to talk about where I might go to law school, don’t you think? The bottom line is that I’m not going anywhere unless there’s a spot for Asher in the same city, too. Asher’s my husband. We’re a package deal. I’ve no intention of running for city council while I’m still in school, especially while I’m still in high school. I’m not an idiot. Our education has to come first.”
“The City Council is a part-time job with full-time responsibilities,” Ben explained. “You have to be able to drop everything for a critical meeting or vote, and you have to be available for your constituents on their schedule, not yours. It’s pretty hard to do that when you’re a full-time student, and you’re right… your education does come first.”
“It’s pretty hard to do it when you have a law practice or a business to attend to either,” Asher countered.
“There are plenty of ways to get into city politics at your age, Seth,” Ben went on. “Most politically-active kids start out by volunteering on the campaign for a candidate they like. They start by gathering signatures on the petitions that allow their candidates to run, and then they go door-to-door to campaign for them. The scut work they do often leads to an internship once their candidate wins, which is a great way to get your feet wet in politics.
“Although a lot harder, another thing you could consider Is running for a slot on your community board. That’s actually how I got my start, but you either have to be nominated by your city council rep or win an election in your precinct, but it’s up to the borough president to appoint you. The community boards meet only monthly and they’re a great way to gain experience in city government before running for the city council. It’s also a way to see what politics are really like, particularly when you earn the ire of your neighbors for allowing zoning of projects they don’t like. The positions are voluntary and there’s no pay or reimbursement for your time. Your precinct is served by Community Board Three, which is one of the most diverse boards in the city.
“Because of all the housing projects, the median income’s only $36k, yet the area includes one of the largest luxury condo buildings in Manhattan. The board serves a large Spanish-speaking contingent, Chinatown and a portion of the Hassidic community, not to mention black and Muslim populations, none of which are gay-friendly. Regardless of whether you choose to run or not, I’m here to help. I’ll be running for borough president next year and I intend to win. I’d be delighted to have you on Community Board Three but as you said, your education does come first.”
Turning to look at Asher, I replied, “What the hell have you gotten me into.” Then turning back to the councilman, I added, “It was nice seeing you, Ben. I may well need to come to you for advice someday.”
“Please give your dad my best,” Ben responded, “and wish him well in resolving the whole federal corruption thing.”
“The hearing’s next week,” I replied, “but it’ll still be virtual, I think. Either way, we’ll know the judge’s decision regarding whether or not the evidence is sufficient for further investigation of possible prosecutorial misconduct.”
“He’s not going to want to be put in the position of judging whether charges of prosecutorial misconduct have merit,” Ben countered. “Your attorney should request summary judgement. The judge would be a fool not to avoid having to make a career-defining decision.”
“That’s exactly what I said,” Carl chimed in.
“Another budding attorney. I’m impressed by this group,” Ben said, echoing my thoughts. “Nice meeting all of you, and please remind your parents to vote.”
With so much going on and so many kids our age to meet and talk to, time passed us by much more quickly than I think any of us realized. I wasn’t sure when the shadows of the surrounding buildings began to extend over us, but we were all having a great time. Of course we were all observing social distancing as much as possible, and we all wore masks except while eating. There were those who ignored the rules, most of whom seemed to be college-age kids, but most people seemed to be doing their best to avoid the spread of the virus.
It wasn’t until twilight, as the sun began to set, that I realized it was getting dark out. By then we were spread out around the square and in spite of my best efforts, I’d lost track of where our friends were. Although our group was large, Asher was the only one of us I could actually see.
Turning to Ashe, I said, “We need to leave before it gets any later. It’s time to head home.”
“Why don’t you send out a text to meet at the bus stop?” Asher suggested.
“I’ll do that,” I replied as I sent out a group text, ‘Meet at Union Square east-bound bus stop in 5 minutes.’
We attempted to make our way to the bus stop, but the crowd had swelled and the sidewalks were literally impassable. Turning again to my husband, I suggested, “Maybe I should tell them to meet at the Irving Place bus stop.”
Shaking his head as he tapped away on his phone, Asher replied, “The MTA has suspended service on Fourteenth Street west of Third Avenue. In fact, all bus service through the square has been diverted.”
“Well shit, I guess it’s time for Plan B,” I replied. “I’ll text everyone to meet up at Cooper Union and if need be, we’ll walk home from there.”
Within a few minutes, I got a text from Josh that he was with his sisters as well as Dave, Dave’s uncles and Larry, and they were on their way there now. Shortly after that, I got a text from Joseph that he was with Carl, Clarke, Freck and Kyle, and they’d see us there soon. What none of us knew was that at that moment, people who’d congregated in Brooklyn were streaming across the Manhattan Bridge and were headed our way. Among them were some who were intent on using violence to make a point, as well as looters seeking to take advantage of the situation, and we were heading into the thick of it.
We got as far as the Strand Bookstore, at Broadway and Twelfth Street, when we spotted a wall of people advancing up Broadway. Realizing we’d likely be swept up in the mass of people, we attempted to slide over to Bowery on Twelfth Street, but found the way blocked by a wall of police in riot gear. Similarly, there was a wall of police to the west of us on Twelfth, headed our way. That left us no other option but to retreat back the way we came, to Union Square, but the way was blocked by a mass of protesters headed down Broadway too. We couldn’t have known it at the time, but the order had gone out to clear Union Square and nearby Washington Square before the mass of people from Brooklyn could get there. Police were marching south, through the square as well as down the adjacent streets. A wall of police at University Place and at Broadway was supposed to channel the protesters out onto Fourteenth street, where they were urged to retreat peacefully and go home. Any that became violent or failed to leave were channeled into Fourth Street, where they were arrested and loaded into waiting police buses, and then removed from the area via Twelfth Street. However, the police line at Broadway didn’t hold.
In all of the confusion from being forced into a smaller and smaller area, a mass of protesters managed to break through the police line on Broadway and were headed our way, and with the advancing column of protesters headed north on Broadway, we were caught in the middle with no means of escape. We had no idea where our friends were and could only hope they were okay. With any luck, they had the good sense to escape down Fourteenth Street, but of course they were looking for us, and so they couldn’t have helped but get caught up in the same mess we were in.
Caught in a melee of protesters all around us, I had no idea what the object was that landed near my feet, but then there was a hiss and smoke seemed to pour out of it. A nanosecond later, the effects of the teargas hit me as my eyes and lungs felt like they were on fire and I became violently nauseous. I don’t know what I might have done, had it not been for Asher grabbing my hand and pulling me away. We had to get out of there. There really was no place for us to go but into the line of waiting police on Twelfth Street – not that I could even see where we were going. I felt strong arms pulling my arms behind me, and then something went around my wrists and I couldn’t pull them apart, no matter how hard I tried. I was pushed down onto the ground and when I resisted, not knowing what the fuck was going on, forced to lay prone on the dirty asphalt, where I remained for what seemed like forever. Even still, I could hardly breathe as the acrid smell of teargas permeated the air. In the distance I could hear the sound of breaking glass and the endless screams of sirens that seemed to be coming from everywhere.
“Seth, are you there?” I heard from nearby. It was Asher’s voice. I turned toward the sound of his voice, but all I could see was someone’s bare torso, right next to my face. I knew it wasn’t Asher, ’cause the skin color was much lighter and yellower than Asher’s.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I responded.
“What the fuck’s goin’ on?” my husband asked.
“I think we’re bein’ arrested,” I answered. “We need to be sure we stick together.”
“Why are we bein’ arrested?” Asher asked.
“I think we just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” I replied. “We were stuck between two masses of protesters and there literally wasn’t any place for us to go. I think there may have been some vandalism or maybe even looting and the police didn’t want it to turn into a riot.”
“They were the ones who turned it into a riot,” Asher replied. “It was a peaceful protest before they got involved. Was that teargas they used on us? That stuff’s nasty.”
“I’m pretty sure it was teargas,” I answered. “Pepper spray’s even worse from what I’ve read. I wonder if anyone else from our group is here,” I asked aloud, and the I shouted, “Freck! Kyle! Carl! Clarke! Joseph! Are any of you here?” When there was no response, I tried, “Josh! Robin! Stacey! Sarah! Dave! Larry! Are any of you here?” Again, there was no response.
“I don’t suppose you can reach your phone,” I asked Asher.
Laughing, he replied, “I only hope I still have my phone. My hands are held behind my back with handcuffs or something. Aren’t yours?”
“They’re tied behind me with what I think is a plastic cable tie,” I replied.
“They use plastic cable ties?” Asher asked.
“They’re cheap and disposable, and they don’t need a key to unlock, yet it’s nearly impossible to get out of one as you’ve probably figured out,” I responded.
“So what happens now?” Asher asked.
“It’s possible they’ll just let us go,” I answered, “but they’ll probably take us downtown for booking. That way they can see if we have a record, and they can enter us into the system, so they can track us in the future.”
At that moment, I felt myself being forcefully lifted and I had no choice but to stand up. Only then did I see Asher, but there were several people between us. When the police started marching us down the street, I made sure to nudge my way closer to my husband, but there were just too many kids between us. In spite of my best efforts, I managed to get no closer than from where I’d started and saw him loaded into a different bus than the one into which I was pushed. I saw his bus leave while mine was just starting to be loaded. I had no way to know if he was even taken to the same place where I was ultimately taken. I never felt so alone in my life.
Fortunately, most of us were wearing masks, as there was no such thing as social distancing in the police bus, nor in the station they took us to downtown. I never did catch sight of Asher as I was herded in a series of long lines, first to show my student ID and to have my information entered into a computer, and then to have my picture taken. They made me remove my mask for obvious reasons, but then I was allowed to put it back on. Lastly, I was fingerprinted, which was certainly a first for me. Since I was an emancipated minor, my police record wouldn’t be expunged when I turned eighteen. I’d be in the system for the rest of my life as my very own ‘badge of courage’ for participating in the protest.
My backpack was searched by hand and I was patted down, and even then, my stuff was x-rayed, and I had to walk through a metal detector. I objected strongly when my phone was confiscated, as it was the only means I had for contacting Asher and my friends, but I was reassured it would be returned to me in the morning. At least they didn’t make me undress and change into prison garb, and they let me keep my mask on. After booking, I was marched along with a hoard of people into a block of cells and was unceremoniously shoved into a large cell with about fifty other guys, all of them who looked to be over the age of eighteen. By now the police undoubtedly knew I was an emancipated minor and I was being treated as an adult. If our friends were arrested too, I could only hope that they were being held separately, and that their parents were called.
There were no bunks for us in the holding cell, nor could any of us have slept if we’d wanted to. We were all pretty keyed up from the events of the night and for most of us, this was our first arrest. I might have been the only one under age eighteen, but we were all kids, none of us older than twenty-two. I got to talking with Angel, a guy who was a senior at Seward Park, the local high school in our neighborhood. He actually recognized me from having eaten at the Ragin’ Cajun, which had been near his high school. He was blown away when I told him Asher and I were legally married. He had a girlfriend, but with college ahead of him at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, marriage was just about the last thing on his mind.
The fact that he was going into the study of criminology naturally led to the question if he intended to apply for a spot in the Police Academy, and he did. As a Latino, he felt that the Black Lives Matter movement was critical to the future of policing and that the only way forward was for the NYPD to recruit heavily from minorities and to push ahead with a heavy emphasis on community policing. Change could only come when police officers were seen as valuable members of the communities they served and as partners, rather than as adversaries, in the prevention of crime.
I asked him how he’d feel about living with his wife and kids in a housing project, to which he replied that he grew up in one and lived in one now, and that one of the problems with the NYPD was that police officers, by virtue of their income, didn’t qualify to live in public housing, yet they could barely afford a house in the city. He suggested that new police officers should be required to spend their first years on the force living for free in a housing project, and that in return, the money saved during that time could be used for the downpayment on a house or apartment they otherwise could have never afforded. I thought it was a damn fine idea but expressed my concerns that armed officers would always be seen as outsiders. He respectfully disagreed, stating emphatically that young police officers would never be accepted or respected unless they were armed. They had to be able to counter the profusion of guns carried by members of the various street gangs. He did agree, however, that a background in social work rather than criminology might be better for future police officers. It was an interesting conversation!
As the early morning hours passed, I worried increasingly about Asher and about what might have happened to all my friends. Without my phone, I felt totally disconnected from the world at large. It turned out that Asher spent the night in a nearby cellblock and we were reunited in the morning when we were arraigned, adjudicated and released after ‘time served’. Only later would I learn about the extensive looting in SoHo and on the Lower East Side, thankfully none of it affecting our own neighborhood, and that Kyle, one of my dearest friends, had been critically injured by the blow of a police baton to the side of his head. At that very moment, he was in surgery, fighting for his life.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage and pre-teen boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is unintentional. Although there are references to political figures as inspired by current events, any resemblance to a particular figure, past, present or future, is intended to be coincidental. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not necessarily representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.