All week I’ve been fixated on images of peaceful protest met by tear gas, diminished by riot. Some images are current, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Other images are memory. I …
All week I’ve been fixated on images of peaceful protest met by tear gas, diminished by riot. Some images are current, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Other images are memory. I can’t help comparing the two.
Through the 1960s and early ‘70s, I was a newsfilm reporter in New York City, covering nearly every anti-war and civil liberties protest of that decade. For graduate training in street chaos, I was gassed at Grant Park during the Chicago convention.
The frightening images of the past week can make a viewer despondent about the possibility of peaceful protest remaining peaceful. But it can be done. I’ve seen it. The cure is leadership.
A half-century ago, protest marches were rampant. City police, often the butt of signs and chants, became increasingly disturbed. The NYPD finally tried a new ploy, intended to disturb protest solidarity and make a count of marchers difficult. Barricades diverted many marchers onto side streets, bifurcating them again and again to make them seem less newsworthy and easier to handle.
After several such diversions, I found myself with a small band of marchers on Irving Place, a stretch of street with townhouses. A shirtless young man leaped from a stoop and knocked a mounted policeman off his horse. This idiotic act ignited the smoldering anger in the accompanying policemen and what followed was a police riot. My cameraman had a front-row view of peaceful marchers being clubbed, picked up like sandbags and thrust painfully into a paddy wagon.
I watched, standing next to a deputy mayor. “I can’t intervene,” he told me. “I’m not department.” It was only then that I noticed that the many subdivisions of the march had left the group without a superior officer of any kind. There was no one who could order the angry cops to desist.
A few days later, Mayor John Lindsay introduced the press corps to an impressive, six-foot-six, red-headed Deputy Chief Inspector. This man would train all policemen who came in contact with protesters, we were told.
A month later, the scene was 100 Centre St., courtroom site of the Black Panthers trial. A line of cops in riot gear guarded the building, a line of surly protesters faced them across the street, camera crews watching. Dozens of protesters began throwing stones, some bouncing off police shields and helmets. The cops were unmoved. This provocation continued for a nervous hour, throwers running off guiltily and returning with more stones.
New police appeared, collaring some miscreants as others ran off gleefully. There was no violence. The collars were escorted to vans as cameras watched, and riot police remained stolid at the gates. We reporters watched in amazement.
Not many days later, well before dawn, protesters were blocking the entrance to 39 Whitehall St., where new draftees were processed before being sent to basic training. I watched leaders of the protest negotiate with police, and by agreement, a protest line was repositioned to allow troop buses to move freely. Police later moved among the protesters and asked who would like to be arrested. Those who did, including Dr. Spock (Benjamin, not the Vulcan), were escorted peacefully into a comfortable police truck and taken away to be booked.
The city has since seen many other protest marches—race, environment, anti-war, the women’s march—crowding streets peacefully with as many as a million people. It took training, commitment, and leadership on both sides, but they were all mostly free of violence.
Jim Stratton has been a news reporter, columnist, district leader and community board chair in Manhattan, and also a bar owner. After two decades as a part-time Narrowsburg resident, he now lives here full-time with his wife Cass Collins.