Kettled in Mott Haven

On June 4, 2020, the NYPD coordinated a mass arrest of protesters in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven. Known to many participants as “FTP4,” this protest happened on the third night of a city-wide curfew in NYC. The NYPD utilized emergency measures last put into effect during WWII, in an attempt to quash the George Floyd rebellion that had raged through the city for over a week. This event became an international news story, garnering a Human Rights Watch investigation and multiple class action lawsuits. It also symbolizes the everyday reality of police brutality that NYers experience when exercising the right to peacefully protest. There were no bricks thrown or windows shattered in Mott Haven, yet like so much of the liberal discourse about the George Floyd uprising, the revolutionary context of this event was lost in lieu of the merits of sensationalized innocence. 

At the pivotal stage that followed the initial crescendo of riots in NYC in late May, FTP4 signaled the reassertion of an activist/organizer formation into the street politics of the uprising. Organized by a coalition of decolonial, black nationalist, abolitionist, and autonomist groups, FTP4 attempted to mobilize a militant crowd, using their characteristic brand of social media propaganda. For those who gravitate towards such actions, calling for this specialized protest felt contradictory, having been made irrelevant by the self-activity of everyday people who had been rioting across the city for an entire week. With the hammer of state repression looking for a legible target, the march served as an obvious place to kettle those drawn to FTP’s brand of aestheticized radical politics.

Sweeping denunciations of groups and individuals is a common feature of the left. Having witnessed the damage such exchanges have wrought in recent memory, I hesitate to write a piece that might fall into this category. This is not written to settle scores. I’m among those who are haunted by the failures of such actions and am interested in whatever lessons may be learned from them. The ebbs and flows of upheaval and repression, the question of attending mass public events or participating in secret actions, and the role of social media for publicizing protests, are all concerns of mine. No overarching theory of organization should be tied to the events recounted here, which occurred in such a unique context, now more than two years ago. Nonetheless, by centering themselves as the legitimate shepherds of righteous, “community” politics, or even the uprising itself, FTP4 provides a salient case study of how a hyper-visible radical group can fail at orienting towards the moment and instead become an obvious target of police repression.

Context
Following the siege and burning of the 3rd precinct in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, a dizzying number of cities and small towns across the country erupted in frenetic motion. In New York City, street clashes with police began in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, May 28 with a small but furious march. The police targeted people in cowardly grab-behind arrests and chased protesters into bodegas, hauling 70+ people to jail.

Those of us that made it home that night got to see the 3rd precinct burn in real time, as well as a whole slew of other mind-bendingly glorious victories from Minneapolis. The next night people fought police at Barclays Center, and then up Dekalb Avenue to the 88th precinct. We were finally pushed back to Fort Greene Park, where we gazed in wonderment at the sight of a burned out NYPD paddy wagon. As a sea of pigs finally dispersed the crowd, bricks rained down on them from the high ground of the park. These first two nights paved the way for the truly explosive events of Saturday, May 30, when Flatbush erupted in heavy street clashes with police, and Soho was looted in Manhattan.

That night, my friend and I encountered two strangers on the pedestrian path of the Manhattan Bridge. With dozens of cop cars torched in multiple boroughs for the first time in NYC history, the feeling of social revolution was so intimately tangible that friendly recognition between strangers over the common experience of collective power gave the night an air of enchantment. These fellow travelers informed us that above, on the bridge roadway, a thousand people were marching into lower Manhattan. The limited understanding of what was happening around us, coupled with the news rolling in from around the country, gave the sense of participating in a vast continuum of struggle, larger than anything one could fathom.

As we entered Brooklyn, small groups struggled with  firefighters & police to keep them from extinguishing flaming piles of cardboard and trash that peppered the street, while others down the block schemed on looting box stores. It was finally safe for the imaginations of everyday NYers to run wild and seize the opportunity taken by thousands of others in Minneapolis and throughout the country. The glittering jewels of Soho boutiques, wagged daily in people’s faces as treasures they could never attain, were finally ripe for the picking.

The days that followed surpassed anything I had ever experienced; starting Sunday, May 31, truly ungovernable masses of people swept into Manhattan, so many that the streets felt like they were bursting at the seams. Tens of thousands of people saw dozens of rebellions erupting simultaneously throughout the entire country. It was time to give it their all. As scaffolding went up in flames in Manhattan, pursuing officers were shot and stabbed in Flatbush, leading to a glut of police cars at the intersection where the violence occurred, freeing up other sections of Brooklyn to fury and revelry. This fever pitch of struggle and brazen activity continued for days as squads of youth expropriated luxury goods from blocks of outlet stores throughout the city. Some anarchists and fellow travelers folded into these smash & grab operations, generally playing catch-up to the innovations and organization of young people, sometimes making off with Balenciaga bags or jewelry to be cherished with paranoia and glee in the backs of closets, or sold months later when unemployment benefits ran out. A friend witnessed a pile of gold chains set alight in the middle of the street. Such was the surrealistic atmosphere of these nights of hilarity and danger.

Enter the Left
Left political factions in the city had less than nothing to do with these more generalized forms of attack. Neither the DSA nor any other public groups in NYC could articulate a position which honored, defended, or even acknowledged that such actions were occurring.

Entering into this situation was an older coalition of groups who had called the FTP marches in 2019, which were at the time the most militant street actions since the wave of BLM protests in 2014-15. Having touted revolutionary slogans for years, such groups may have felt the pressure to deliver on their rhetoric in the midst of such social upheaval. From afar, it appeared that having fancied themselves scientists or specialists of unrest, these groups were now totally outflanked by the decentralized self-activity of everyday New Yorkers. Well positioned to take on the role of propagandists for the exceptional acts happening all around them, this coalition instead put out conflicting calls for support, eventually announcing a fourth FTP march for June 4.

Many of us licking our wounds from the previous week of fighting looked with disdain onto the ill-formed and miscommunicated planning of FTP4. Much is best left unsaid about the details, the important thing is to recognize the failure of these organizers to understand the context of the uprising around them. The magic of late May and the early days of June was the porous nature of revolutionary activity, which dovetailed with the social geography of the city, drawing in and being catalyzed by the energy of youth and everyday people. Whereas this self-activity, such as the June 2, 2020 looting that occurred on Fordham Road in the Bronx, was generally risky, its autonomous nature allowed participants to come and go when and how they pleased.

Having been caught off guard the first week, by early June the beast was starting to awaken, and the NYPD, news media and NGOs all began to roll out their strategies to quell the uprising. The city was suddenly flush with the soft counterinsurgency of movement influencer types, professional “community leaders,” and batshit charlatans (usually a combination of the three), whose perceived racial legitimacy as black people was enough to soothe liberals into kneeling with the police. “Listen to black voices” was stolen from black rebels and used as a weapon against their agency, such that any black person with a megaphone, even those proven to be working for the police, could capture aimless liberal crowds, and even direct them to protect property and assault rowdy protesters.

Even the mass bike rides, which harkened back to the radical history of “critical mass” and had the potential for blockading infrastructure, felt like a part of the “supermodel psyop,” dominated by photogenic protest leaders and their safety-jacket, walkie-talkie toting cronies. Satiating the image and myth of “peaceful protest,” activities such as these absorbed, cooled, or alienated the hotter social elements. While the first days of the uprising blended with the nightly vandalous activities, the daytime marches increasingly began to appear as the acceptable face of the movement. Many people found themselves alienated by these tame and increasingly white protest outings, which offered little cover or support for more confrontational tactics. Coupled with the sanctioned daytime protests was the instatement of a curfew, which was enforced more brutally each night as the NYPD aligned its forces for a total lockdown of the city.

In hindsight, it’s clear that we were walking into a trap on June 4. The flier for FTP4 was absurdly sketchy, conveying the message that if you were a militant, if you were down, if you were a race traitor, if you would live & die for black liberation, you better come to the South Bronx. “The standard is Marilyn Buck and John Brown.” They were, of course, speaking my love language! How could we stay away? Like moths to a flame, we went, albeit full of wariness at the ridiculousness of such a spectacle; hundreds of radicals from around the city and beyond piling into the largely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, like a scripted caricature of the outside agitator narrative. Of course the police lapped up the social media fervor as well, having surveilled and repressed the highly visible FTP coalition for years prior, and were preemptively staged around the meetup intersection.



Into the Trap

We hadn’t brought much more than drums to bang on, and were in our usual way doing our best to enjoy ourselves whilst sticking our heads into the lion’s mouth. The march commenced and was actually quite lovely. In contrast to the incendiary fliers, the crowd weaved its way through the summer streets in the pleasant, cooling evening heat. Neighbors banged pots out their windows or waved as the march went by, some joining us as we walked. A friend who planned on dropping us off and leaving before things heated up decided to stay because the march was so chill. An organizer had us all cheer for an old diner which had been a mainstay for working class residents of the South Bronx. This was more of a walking tour and cultural celebration than anything. No one was going to start smashing up the neighborhood. 

As organizers led us down smaller streets in the midst of housing developments, the SRG anti-terrorism unit (known as “turtle cops” for their goofy padded ninja body armor) started flanking us on either side and blocking the street in front. Rather than letting the crowd change course, the protest marshals seized the moment and started up with their familiar orders: “white people to the front,” “hurry your ass up,” pointing us down the hill towards the line of SRG forming a bicycle barricade.

There are two things to do in this situation: avoid the cops (“be water”) or break through their lines. When neither of these things are done, the cops will reinforce their barricade and start to crush you, which is exactly what happened. 

At 7:50 pm the cops kettled and squeezed the crowd of 300 from both sides, waiting until the stroke of 8pm to start beating and arresting us. Many of those arrested received baton blows to the ribs and face and some now have permanent damage in their hands from the nerve killing zip ties. Much has already been written about the atrocities the NYPD committed that night, which have been detailed in a Human Rights Watch report and multiple class action lawsuits. Perhaps the reader or your friends were among those of us unfortunate enough to have heeded the orders to go down the hill and face off with the police. At the very least, you likely heard about the mass arrest in Mott Haven as another exceptional moment of police violence, which in the liberal imagination came to define the uprising as a series of victimizations at the hands of state repression; idealizing the “peaceful protester” to erase the experience and agency of everyday people. As always with ‘human rights’ stories, the larger tactical, strategic, and political thread is lost.

Residents of the South Bronx who were arrested in proximity to the protest experienced consequences which were detrimental and life altering. Devaughnta “China” Williams, a life-long Bronx resident, still working three “essential” jobs during the pandemic, joined the protest after getting off his day job, figuring he had time to enjoy the energy of the crowd in his neighborhood before his graveyard shift began. Despite having the necessary papers to prove he was permitted to be out past the curfew, the police arrested and locked Mr. Williams in jail for a week, away from his two kids, jeopardizing his employment and alleging that he had violated his parole by joining the protest.

Another Bronx resident, now facing a year on Rikers as a result of his arrest that day, wrote us:

“On a hot day I was walking with my girlfriend from a friends house and I seen a lot of people outside I’ve gotten shot before so I was scared so I put a loaded .357 in my girlfriends purse it wasn’t to hurt anybody it was to protect my self the streets get scary sometimes especially the south bronx so as we are walking we past a group of protesters we didn’t even stop to look we just kept on walking next thing u know I got 4 officers with guns pointed at my face my girl friend kept walking because as I already explained she had a gun in her possession but she kept looking at me scared of what the cops might do so they seen her looking a lil bit to much and grabbed her they had no reason to nobody knew the gun was there unless she called the cops but I know she didn’t because they charged both of us at the time she was pregnant so i decided to just say it was my gun after all it was mine but the police had no reason to stop me they really were just using the protest as an excuse to stop and frisk people like me when I say people like me I mean people who look young n because when I got to the police station there was a bunch of people my age that had just got stopped for no reason.”

Because he wasn’t considered a “protestor,” a personal friend of his had to advocate for this young man to receive support and representation from the activists’ legal and bail funds. Seeking to maintain a public air of innocence, activists strategically distanced themselves from him, lest they be on the hook for someone bringing a gun to their protest, an incredible point considering their invocations of militancy.

Missed Opportunities
I don’t want to make the mistake of blaming activists or organizers for the violence of police, but there needs to be some reckoning with the decisions that led the most surveilled activists in NYC to advertise an ultra-militant march in a residential zone of the South Bronx. What ideas led the organizers to bring the full force of NYPD terror into an already heavily-policed working class black and brown neighborhood? Did the organizers think; the city is popping off, if we call a demonstration in the South Bronx and get the anarchos and commies to come, everyone will unite to smash the cops? This is certainly what the fliers conveyed to the police, who got the message that this could be a decisive battle, which could determine whether a pre-existing revolutionary formation could successfully intervene and amplify the uprising. Well then, why didn’t shit pop off? Why didn’t the crowd make an honest attempt to defeat the cops in the South Bronx, proving that there was a revolutionary left that could fight alongside the everyday people of the city?

First off, the feel of the meetup and kickoff of the march in no way conveyed the grandstanding militancy of the fliers and propaganda, such that those in the crowd who had anticipated things getting heated, quickly assumed the classic ultra-left position of rolling their eyes at the proclaimed organizers speeches. The crowd felt earnest and angry but also humbled by the dense surround of the neighborhood. The housing projects, bubbling with the social life of their South Bronx residents, were a far-cry from the more familiar theater of riots in downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan. Having a protest march through a working class neighborhood is an appropriate and good thing to do, and the positivity reflected back by residents was tangible. However, the generalized forms of attack and dispersal which characterized the victories of the uprising were antithetical to this type of spectacular demonstrative ritual, which drew the extensive, preemptive attention of the police. Furthermore, the strength of the march to “be water” and improvise its route to avoid the trappings of the police, was undermined by protest marshals ordering people to directly face off with the NYPD riot squad. 

FTP4 stings in my memory because it feels like a missed opportunity for those oriented towards revolutionary politics to make a coordinated intervention that would have resonated widely at such a pivotal stage in the uprising. The uprising truly felt like a popular insurgency at this time, and a unique sense of rupture and possibility permeated the city. In this case, the FTP formation forfeited the strengths the mass movement had in its favor – choosing the territory on which to fight and having the element of surprise – in favor of utilizing their social media platform to call for a showdown. Ultimately, FTP4 served to bolster the liberal recuperation of the uprising, which reframed it as the victimization of peaceful protesters at the hands of police – a familiar sad story which doesn’t inspire feelings of agency or possibility. In this case, organizers and revolutionaries did not spark more struggle but did the opposite – the mass arrest signaling the defeat of riots and class struggle.

Most importantly for me is a general question of how activist groups relate to the self-organization of everyday people. If nothing else, the role of revolutionaries and radical organizations is to widen openings that allows everyday people to get busy, in whatever form that may take. This means participating in order to support and build on these activities, as well as learning how to express one’s own tactical ideas and desires in real time. Sometimes it means getting out of the way to let someone handle something you’re not ready for. In my eyes, the task for revolutionaries is organizing to build shared understandings about how to act and move together in ways that open up space and expression for others. Acts leading to insurrection are infectious and can hugely expand the field of imagined possibilities for those who witness and participate in them. Anyone who participated in the George Floyd uprising experienced the feeling of being awed by the actions of those around them. Revolutionaries should become accustomed to being humbled by the actions of everyday people, and seek a dynamic exchange that draws from and contributes to this process.

There were nearly a thousand arrests across NYC on June 4, 2020. For the NYPD it was decidedly the night they sought to end the initial proletarian phase of the uprising, and send a message to the revelers that the party was over. Without overstating our importance, the concentration of many of the city’s militants into a single block was certainly the worst place for us to be. Doing literally anything else would have been better. Immersing ourselves in the scatterings of other activities or creating dozens of situations throughout the city could have spread the police thinner and provided openings for experimentation that may have inspired further action. Although no easy task, finding one another to gather force and participate in the daytime marches in ways that felt powerful could have allowed for the participation and expression of rowdier elements.

Unfortunately, repression works, and the reality is that arrest often has a serious chilling effect. For many, their arrest in the Bronx that night marked the end of their participation in street actions for the rest of the summer. Even though most of those arrested were released within 24 hours with minimal charges that didn’t stick, many people left jail shook and exhausted. Injuries needed to be tended to, trauma and paranoia crept in as people came down from the collective highs of rebellion into private self reflection, and the potential for a big class-action lawsuit against the NYPD for their actions that day became the site of struggle for many. No longer on the back foot, the NYPD utilized the curfew to arrest anyone they chose after dark.  Meanwhile, most everyday people, having taken tremendous risks and seeing that the window of opportunity had closed, went back to their neighborhoods and celebrated surviving the mad first half of 2020 by shooting off historically grandiose amounts of fireworks.

Although distinct from the initial popular phase, many people transformed and catalyzed by their experiences during the uprising participated in the largest black blocs in New York City history, lasting through the summer & up until the election. These specialized events relied on underground and largely inaccessible communication networks, making them increasingly countercultural events. Nonetheless, these actions were hugely generative for many, creating new bonds of affinity and friendship and often drawing in passersby, if only for a few hours. The practical question of how to meet and gather without the baggage of pre-existing organizations was briefly solved with the national innovation of the “autonomous action” flier; a template circulated on Telegram channels which could be quickly customized with the local details of when and where things were kicking off. 


End
This piece considers both the irrelevance and the failure of radical leftists in supporting everyday people’s desire to have another riot. The critiques advanced by A New Institute of Social Research in their piece The Struggle Within the Struggle, and the bitter medicine of Monsieur Dupont’s Nihilist Communism, have been helpful to formulate a more realistic sense that it is the tectonic shifts of capital and crisis which move masses of people to act, not the control or guidance of activist cliques. While coming to terms with our own insignificance as revolutionaries can be a healthy way to avoid the burnout and megalomania common in activist cliques, we should reflect on the types of organization and decisive action that did generalize throughout the George Floyd uprising. 

As the police regained a foothold, unemployment payments dwindled, and the city began to draw our energies back into its churn, the feeling of common antagonism was once again atomized and quartered off into separate realms of work, leisure, and the mundane violence of daily life. Nonetheless, I can still remember the moments I shared with strangers in the George Floyd uprising as we moved together.

As Idris Robinson writes in his essay On Pain, mourning the fading experiences of insurrection is an excruciating process. In this reactionary comedown in the aftermath of the uprising, we are siloed back into our private worlds of neurosis and trauma, where “there…exists a reigning injunction against sharing what is undoubtedly the most profound and vital aspect of the human condition, namely our capacity to suffer.” In the context of everyday social war and hostility, finding people with whom to explore shared antagonism and desire is a wonderful thing which can be powerful and inspiring when actualized in word and deed. Such experimentation should deepen our affinities and orient us towards class struggle as it is actually occurring, so that we are not hindered by the trappings of outdated forms of activism during times of proletarian insurrection.

For jailbreak and impossible freedom, 

Anonymous

–November 29, 2022