All my life I have lived inside a bubble wrapped in white privilege. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor; it is just reality. This reality was never clearer than my experience during the George Floyd protests in New York City on Saturday.
Appalled, angered and riveted by the events unfolding this week across this country in the wake of Floyd’s inexcusable death in Minneapolis — and every other horrible thing that presently inflames our country — I couldn’t sit there watching on TV with an ice-cold beer in my cozy apartment in a gentrified part of Harlem and sit idly by.
Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. African-Americans suffering and dying disproportionately in the COVID-19 epidemic. Angry, rifle-wielding white people “defending their rights” by storming state capitols at the behest of white billionaires, including the white billionaire occupying the Oval Office.
I’d had enough.
I’ve joined marches in the past, going back to racial unrest on college campuses. My mother was a politician who believed in activism. I was a sports journalist for more than 20 years and would try to walk a fine line of neutrality in those situations. I’m no longer encumbered by that journalistic ethic, having left the profession two years ago. I long supported efforts from editors — sports or otherwise — who put a mirror to society and on racial issues, including some who now work at Deadspin.
The protests began not far from my home, and after seeing inspiration from others on social media — how white protestors were standing as safeguards between police and people of color — I felt moved to act. I left my wife and twin toddlers, and I set out for 125th Street.
That’s where my long day’s journey into night began — alongside thousands of peaceful protestors.
Were demonstrators accusing police of racism? Accusing them of murder?
Did a few angry protestors try to provoke the NYPD with taunts? Were some vandalizing buildings, vehicles, and sidewalks with spray-painted messages?
Do I condone the vandalism?
No. But the anger is real. I’m angry, too.
The few people acting in this manner were encouraged to stop, and brought back into the bigger fold by other protestors and event organizers. I was also impressed by the calm, restrained behavior of members of police along the protest route. For the most part, I felt like they were doing their jobs — protecting and serving everyone, even the protestors.
The public reception was overwhelming warm as we marched. People of all colors and creeds honked their horns in solidarity, or clapped and cheered in a way reminiscent of the “Clap Because We Care” we do at 7 p.m. each night for front-line and essential workers — NYPD included.
It felt like being a part of something together. Perhaps my intention of being a white deterrent to violence would not be necessary after all.
The march remained peaceful as we gave our vocal homage outside the front doors of Trump Tower.
When we moved on to Times Square, the NYPD’s posture changed dramatically. This is where they would make their stand. Some looked to be itching for a fight.
At 47th St., a wall of blue appeared. A few younger protesters tried to walk up 7th Ave., but cops told them to turn around. Apparently some, in the eyes of law enforcement, did not turn around fast enough. One youngster, who tried to resist their physical push by running away, was gang-tackled and pummeled by at least six cops on the 47th St. pavement. Several other scenes like this one would soon spring up.
So in the middle of Times Square — right in front of Broadway’s famous ticket service TKTS — I placed my fat, middle-aged, white ass in between police and people of color.
A few water bottles flew over my head, aimed at the officers, along with plenty of verbal missiles. The white shirts behind the NYPD’s line commanded the rank and file to rush.
“Oh, shit, here they come.”
Did I want to be hurt? No, but I was ready for it anyway. Yet, somehow, my whiteness served as a shield. The river of blue went right past me, like I was some invisible rock.
I never felt as white as I did in that moment. As I stood, shocked, dozens of men and women in blue — some themselves non-white — hurried past me to attack blacks.
I’ve known in my mind and my heart that my friends and neighbors of color are treated differently in our society. When I was younger and more influenced by my often ignorant father’s views, I, too, was guilty of this. I’ve struggled for years to deprogram, through learning and living. I’m not perfect at it.
But to see the extent my whiteness protected me in that moment, it made me sad and angry. It disgusted me.
Right there, I realized that I could use my whiteness to fulfill the intentions I had all along. I would make myself impossible to ignore. There was power there.
As cops and protesters skirmished along the western side of Times Square, I made my way back to the corner of 47th and 7th as younger men and women were taken into custody around me. The NYPD had initially told us to stay off the streets and on the sidewalk. For the most part, I obeyed that directive. Now, over amplification, the NYPD was telling us to disperse.
We were “unlawfully assembled,” they said.
The lines of blue worked their way to the curb. I could see protesters shouting angrily in their faces from the sidewalk. A few white demonstrators moved in front of protesters of color. I quickly sidled up next to them to form a line of demarcation.
The amplified message the officers continued repeating the order for us to disperse. Part of me wanted to follow that order, but now I was all-in. As long as there was one person of color behind me, I wasn’t budging. And there were hundreds. This time they’d have to break through the white line or stop and arrest us if they wanted to get to the people of color.
And for the first time in my life, I was arrested.
If you were watching CNN or perhaps following Twitter late Saturday night, you may have seen and/or heard progressive broadcaster and commentator Keith Boykin describe his experience of being arrested and its aftermath. After the zip tie cuffs went on, my story is similar to his. We ended up in the same holding cell together at 1 Police Plaza.
After being placed in cuffs, I was escorted by my arresting officer, who was black, to a paddy wagon.
He asked if I was OK. Physically, I was fine, except for those cuffs. That’s uncomfortable shit right there. I told him as much, but as I saw more protesters being tackled to the ground — in one instance officers were pressing and rocking a steel barrier on top of a man on the ground — I replied, “I’m just worried about my neighbors and fellow humans.”
He answered with genuine concern. “I know, I know.”
Having never been arrested before, I didn’t know what to expect. When I entered the holding cell to join roughly 30 other men, I was given a cheer. Some fist bumps and much more. The next three or four hours were a strange, inspiring, and scary experience.
We were all there for the same reason, all arrested during the protest, so there was an instant kinship and camaraderie. We were from all walks of life: African-Americans, Latinos, Arabs, Whites, Asians, East Indians, straight, gay.
We told our war stories from the protests. I bonded with Nyle, a young African-American man from New Jersey, since we sat together on the paddy wagon and the bus. He was arrested alongside me at 47th and 7th. He had at least four members of the NYPD corralling him as he asked, “Why are you arresting me?”
The only fear I really had in there was the potential spread of COVID-19. At least a third of the men locked up with me didn’t have a mask. Social distancing in a holding cell isn’t easy.
My other concern was for my wife and kids at home. My wife had to be worried sick. I didn’t get a phone call and the payphone here, in holding, was of course not working. She didn’t hear from me until I was released and given my phone back.
“Your wife has been calling and texting,” my arresting officer told me.
Upon my release, the officer escorted me past dozens of protesters waiting in line just to enter the building. As I crossed the street to the free world, there were cheers from across the street. Dozens of people from Antifa and/or Black Lives Matter — I was too dehydrated and tired to ask — or other organizations were there with hand sanitizer, Gatorade, water, sandwiches and snacks. They asked if I needed medical attention and offered legal assistance with my summons (Disorderly Conduct, yeah, right). They even offered me a ride home if needed.
Was getting arrested worth it? Was spending six hours in custody and four hours in a holding cell worth it?
More than worth it, yes. And I would do it again.
The only way this cycle of insanity can be reversed is if more people of white privilege like me stand up and risk something for those who are systematically being targeted and oppressed. As Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “Justice will not be served until those that are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
During the march toward Midtown, there was a man wearing what used to be a MAGA hat. It had the word “Again” erased. “Make America Great.” It made me think that other than a few fleeting, poignant moments of American history, most recently with Barack Obama’s election as President, when have African-Americans truly felt America was great enough that they want it to be “great” again? Just more proof of how racist that slogan is.
Earlier in the evening, while waiting in line outside 1 Police Plaza to get my mugshot taken before being placed into holding, my arresting officer re-engaged me in conversation, bringing up our brief exchange from Times Square. He asked me why I was here. Was it my intention to get arrested? I replied, “No,” but acknowledged to him it was a possibility.
I told him about joining the protest after being inspired to stand with other whites to stand between black people and the NYPD.
After hearing that, he said, “Thank you.”
Ian Powers is an award-winning former sports journalist who served as the Sunday Sports Editor at the New York Daily News until 2018.