Collective Courage — Ciaran Short

There’s a wall of NYPD officers in full riot gear staring down at us as we kneel on the sizzling concrete. Their stance is aggressive and they’re gently swinging their batons in a way that indicates they are fully prepared to use them. Further contributing to their intimidating presence are the helmets and masks that transform the men and women of the NYPD into expressionless figures shrouded in armor. 

It’s damn near 90 degrees and I’m dripping in sweat. My limbs are lifeless and my feet are numb. Stale air is bouncing back and forth in my mask and my breath stinks. The sun has begun to recede to the west behind Jersey, but the humidity remains keeping the air thick and wet. There is no refuge from the heat. 

The crowd that has amassed on Central Park West is reminiscent of the dense hoards of people that gather to witness the revelry and floating balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This gathering, however, is not a celebration. 

Looking down at the sea of masked faces impeding the oncoming traffic is a bronze Theodore Roosevelt majestically posed on a horse. The iconic statue of the 26th U.S. President has greeted millions of visitors to the American Museum of Natural History since 1939. Roosevelt is accompanied by two men standing beneath him, one indigenous and one black, both shirtless as Roosevelt is posed regally in his military uniform adorned with multiple medals. 

Scattered among the mass is a team of cyclists lugging heavy duty speaker systems behind their bikes. In combination with the sheer size of the crowd and the amplifying power of the sound system, the collective volume of the group is astounding, being audible from blocks away. Yet at the moment, the street is silent. 

The stillness lasts for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Honking cars and nearby sirens momentarily break the quiet and ripple through the crowd, but they quickly disperse into the hushed background noises of the city. The seconds drag with the absence of any external stimuli and the symbolic significance of the time is acutely felt. 

Over 8 minutes, their full body weight gradually falls into their kneecaps, allowing for the pressure to irritate and inflame their flesh. The rough and bumpy grooves of the textured concrete indent the skin, piercing just far enough to cause pain without breaking the skin or drawing blood. 

An intense feeling of discomfort shot through my body, tethering me to the moment and forcing me to confront every second spent on my knees. Being another blank face amongst a group of thousands all engaged in a collective action provides great anonymity, but also links you to numerous strangers under the umbrella of shared beliefs. Although it is impossible to truly discern the motivations of any unique individuals, there is an intrinsic strength to draw upon when operating with the support of a movement larger than yourself. Cumulative courage emboldened the efforts of the two opposing forces that day. 

The blue wall of officers stood ready, lined up neatly across the museum’s steps. They scatter their gaze and bow their heads to avoid coming into eye contact with the kneeling body. The tension is palpable and no one on the street is happy to be in their current position. 

Surely, it is excruciating to support the heavy duty gear pulling down on their bodies in such sweltering conditions, but they remained firm and resolute in their stance. There was no way to tell if these officers had been there all day or had only recently arrived.

A somber voice distorted by a megaphone ends the silence and calls for the group to rise. The police stiffen with the movement, shifting slightly and looking intently at the crowd. A man in white comes to the front of the police line with a large megaphone and firmly commands for the protesters to disperse. A call and response begins, drowning out his directives.  

“Say his name!” “George! Floyd!” “Say his name!” “George! Floyd!”

The man continues to use his megaphone, but none of his words are audible beneath the thundering chants. Recognizing the futility of his attempts, the man gestures to the line behind him, the wall of officers taking a step forward. They’re visibly concerned.

It is hard to discern if the officers were deployed to protect the museum or suppress our group that had been marching up Broadway for the past hour. Intermittently throughout the walk and at significant locations on the Upper West Side, we stopped and took a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, forcing the evermoving city around us to momentarily take a pause and reflect on the ensuing scene. 

The museum was not the final destination for the march nor was it seen as a more significant location than any other previous stop, but the police presence was the most substantial yet. The chants grew louder and louder and the crowd remained solid, unflinching, keeping their eyes trained on the line of officers on the museum steps. 

To the north and to the south of Central Park West on both sides of the crowd, flashing red and blue lights appeared, highlighting the incoming swaths of NYPD officers in riot gear. A wall of officers stood on three sides enclosing the group, as our only possibility of exit was into the stone wall that surrounds Central Park. 

The megaphones attached to the NYPD cruisers easily cut through the chants and demanded for the group to disperse. These commands were punctuated by the threat of being detained. Concern washed over the many faces of the crowd and panicked cries rang out. Parents clung to their young children, darting their heads around for a way out, while others dug in preparing for the inevitable blitz. 

Night had begun to fall and the glow of the sun was nearly entirely gone. The blue sky had been replaced with a dark navy, indicating the black night that was to come. The blue walls were closing in and there was no choice but to commit to the mass and hope to be protected by the determination of our like-minded majority. 

Sound was our only tool of resistance, but that didn’t stop the officers from stepping off the sidewalk and into the street. 

Ciarán Short is a black artist and writer, born and raised in New York City. His work explores New York culture and tackles issues of race and masculinity. He is currently a masters student at the New School. His work has previously been published in The Independent, Newsday, and Honeysuckle Magazine