The most peculiar thing took place in midtown Manhattan Tuesday – peculiar and unnecessary.
Fewer than a dozen people, most of them seemingly middle aged or older, stood on a sidewalk on Avenue of the Americas right across the street from Radio City Music Hall. They brandished picket signs protesting what they say is mismanagement of funds that were supposed to go to the victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.
They passed out fliers, spoke to passersby, chanted, but really didn’t seem to be disturbing the normal ebb and flow of a typical busy New York afternoon.
A few feet away, behind metal barricades stood four NYPD officers, three of which were wearing protective armor and armed with automatic assault rifles.
It gave me pause as I happened upon the scene because I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’ve seen demonstrations of all types on this very street over the years.
I’ve seen hundreds march the street in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The Free Tibet movement has also been a regular fixture there, as well as countless environmental protests, Greek austerity demonstrations, people shouting down the occupation of the Ukraine by Russia. If there’s an issue in this world, rest assured people have marched on this street to make their voices heard.
But at none of them, not one, not the loudest most raucous, most disruptive to the progression of northbound and southbound foot traffic, have I ever seen militarized police holding assault weapons as if ready to open fire if the demonstrators got out of line.
These Haitian protestors did not seem very threatening and their goal was to remind people of the still-devastating consequences of the disaster, which killed more than 200,000 people.
So why did those people need to have a group of cops nearby? I could be wrong, but it didn’t seem like the purpose was to protect them.
An NYPD spokesperson told me that the detail could have been posted there for any number of reasons, including the officers being posted in front of the Time-Life building on an unrelated issue and the protestors were there coincidentally. But there was no specific, threat he said.
It’s true that Avenue of the Americas (which non-tourists call Sixth Avenue) is a heavily trafficked street and safety precautions are and should be taken there, if anyplace in the city. But if these people were not brandishing weapons of their own and not threatening people, then why could they not stage peaceful protests (the same as everyone else does) without such heavily armed police nearby?
Mind you, this is the same police department that booted me from the subway system two days before Christmas because I refused to let them search my shoulder bag. It makes you wonder if non-threatening Black people are that much of a threat to the NYPD.
“We are the original terrorists,” one gentleman told me in a Kreyol accent, as he passed out flyers. “Because we demanded our freedom years ago.”
He explained that the demonstrators did have a permit to be there and that they were breaking no laws. I asked him how he felt about having those cops there, if it made him feel any safer. He just laughed and shook his head.
I left before the demonstration broke up, unsure how many people had been reached by their message. The brisk afternoon was moving fast and like everyone else passing by, I had to get back to work.
But will the next protest on this avenue necessitate assault-ready cops? Will all small groups of not very loud people spur an order from a police captain to have Emergency Service Unit officers ready with AR-15s?
Maybe the subliminal message from the NYPD is this: Don’t hold peaceful demonstrations. And if you do, make sure you’re not a group of middle aged Haitians. Apparently, they are almost as much of a threat as ISIS.
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray