I grew up in Brooklyn, two-to-four stops away from where Barclays Center is now, depending which train you take. One of my first media experiences was as an intern at Brooklyn Community Access Television, whose offices were four blocks away from the eventual site of the arena. One of my favorite events of any year is the Atlantic Antic, an enormous street fair that goes from the water’s edge to the Flatbush Avenue railroad terminal, atop which the sports palace, where this year I took my son to his first NHL game, was built.
As a Brooklyn kid born during the time without big-time sports there, between the departure of the Dodgers and the arrival of the Nets, I longed to know a world in which Brooklyn could have a team all its own. Each borough has its own pride and identity, but none quite like Brooklyn, and some of that does go back to the legacy of the Dodgers.
A lot has changed from the Ebbets Field era, including Brooklyn gaining a reputation as a hipster haven. A real-estate boom jacked rents way up and priced a lot of people out (including me, a Queens resident since 2004 but forever a Brooklynite), but to paint the entire borough as a caricature of gentrification is wrong: as of the last census, Brooklyn had the highest percentage of black residents of any borough.
As nice as it was for Brooklyn to get its own team again with the Nets, their arrival did come with the negatives of displacing longtime residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Moving the basketball team from New Jersey to Brooklyn always was about a real-estate deal for Bruce Ratner, and that’s the original sin of Barclays Center.
Friday night’s protest outside the arena was one of many across the United States as people took to the streets against police brutality. And in Brooklyn, the NYPD’s response was to beat people with batons and pepper-spray protestors, including State Senator Zelinor Myrie and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson.
This is the same NYPD that had to pay Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha a $4 million settlement after breaking his leg during a 2015 incident, showing that even a black man who’s rich and famous can be assaulted by the police.
Earlier on Friday, embattled New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you cannot have a safe city if there’s no trust between police and community and the NYPD is working to earn and keep that trust.”
So much for that, when the police show up to a protest against police brutality and start brutally beating people. It doesn’t help at all that de Blasio’s solution to nearly every problem, and maybe the only thing he agrees with Governor Andrew Cuomo on, is to assign more police.
Last November, Cuomo put more police in the subways, and their idea of making things safer was to arrest immigrant women selling churros. As COVID-19 had ravaged the city, de Blasio has made it clear in budgeting that he prioritizes the NYPD over providing services to help the city get back on its feet.
Meanwhile, the mayor has been slow to make any reforms on transportation, even as cities around the world have gone to great lengths to open their streets to more bicycles and pedestrians. And the governor said on Friday, with regard to people figuring out how to commute in a reopened city, “People always have the choice, take the train or take the car.”
If you don’t have a car, and the recirculated-air environment of the train gives you concerns about coronavirus, well, tough luck. Less than half of households in the city own a car, and the city’s map of car ownership by area shows that automobiles are most prevalent in wealthy and mostly-white neighborhoods.
And, of course, the bumbling response of New York’s mayor and governor (on top of the shambolic federal response) have led to the city being the country’s leading COVID-19 hotspot, with more than 200,000 diagnosed cases so far. Black New Yorkers have suffered the most, with a confirmed infection rate above 1% that obviously doesn’t include all cases because of the paucity of available testing.
So when people went to Barclays Center on Friday, they weren’t just angry about George Floyd’s murder. They were angry about the overpolicing and racial injustice of policing where they themselves live. They were angry about a government that has mishandled the pandemic to the detriment of the entire community, but especially among the black population. They were angry about leaders who have done almost nothing to help them, and still don’t seem to get it, even while cloaking themselves in progressive bon mots. And they were right to be angry about all of those things.
Barclays Center represents a lot of what there’s been to be angry about in Brooklyn. But it’s also a central location to stage a community gathering that the borough of my youth didn’t have. It’s not something I ever thought about as part of the return of sports to Brooklyn, but it’s there now, even with the Nets not there for the foreseeable future.
It’s the essence of Brooklyn, and neither coronavirus nor the NYPD can take that away.