A day after the verdict, I arrive late to the Trayvon Martin demo in New York City. The massive crowd has spilled out of Union Square and has started an unpermitted march down Broadway. I join the march a few blocks south of Union Square, wading into the flow of chanting bodies. I immediately see friends. One of them says to me, “You got here right on time. It was boring until the march started.”
I look around me. Besides the usual sectarian groups and Occupy folks, there are a lot of black youth at this demo. It has brought together certain New York City demographics that don’t normally mix—white and black, professional and working class, union members and anarchists. The general mood of the crowd is angry but jovial. There are outraged signs—“Black life is worth nothing in America!”—alongside boisterous chants—“Who’s streets? OUR STREETS! Who’s streets? OUR STREETS!”
A demo redefines and repurposes whatever space it passes through. A street for cars becomes a pathway for marching bodies. A little-used plaza becomes a thriving commune. An empty parking lot becomes an impromptu dance floor. The very presence of the demo alters the function of the surrounding space, often in direct opposition to that space’s designed and sanctioned use.
The demo acknowledges no distinction between private and public space, since every space it enters is by that very fact a public space—public, not in the sense of being owned and regulated by the state, but rather public in the sense of being conducive to the formation of fresh social ties.
Streets, sidewalks and parks are regulated by laws that purport to promote “safety” and the smooth circulation of automobiles and pedestrians. Most of us aren’t aware of the many laws that regulate our movement through the city, since we follow them more or less unconsciously, as a matter of proper social conduct. However, when we break these laws—by taking the streets, by occupying a park—we learn just how repressive they are. The exhilaration of frolicking through traffic during a demo makes us realize that laws of “public safety” are expressly designed to suppress such outbreaks of collective euphoria. The sense of power that comes from blocking a freeway makes us realize that traffic laws privilege the circulation of commerce over the coming-together of bodies. When we appropriate streets, sidewalks and parks to use in accordance with our collective desires—only then do we understand how unfree we are when we confine ourselves to their “lawful” use.
The march has changed directions several times and is now going west on 23rd Street, one of the widest streets in Manhattan. From the front of the march, I turn and look towards the back. The column stretches for blocks—there must be four or five thousand of us. We take over both lanes of traffic, causing a horrendous traffic jam. The cops try to corral us into one lane but we keep breaking out of their police lines and retaking the second lane. Some of the trapped drivers give us thumbs up and honk their horns in support. Black pedestrians on the sidewalk pump their fists to the rhythm of our chanting. A few even step into the street and join the march.
A demo deflates the vanity of individuality. One does not say, “I took the Brooklyn Bridge today.” One says, “We took the Brooklyn Bridge today.” When the demo accomplishes something—taking a bridge, blocking an intersection—it does so as a collectivity, as an intersubjective force greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The joy we feel when we’re in the streets together is almost entirely independent of the stated purpose or theme of the demo. The sheer visceral thrill of marching through the streets of Manhattan, defying the police, going where we’re not supposed to go—this is what makes the Trayvon demo so electrifying, even though it was a horrific tragedy that brought us together in the first place. This paradox applies to many demos.
The march has turned up 6th Avenue and is now nearing 34th Street, one of Manhattan’s busiest shopping areas. Up ahead, there is a wall of cops across 6th Avenue blocking our way. When we reach the wall of cops, people near the front of the march start a futile chant: “LET US MARCH! LET US MARCH!” I escape the growing congestion of marchers by pushing my way onto the sidewalk, which the cops aren’t blocking. A few of the young black men who have been leading the march escape this way too. I try to suggest to them that we should guide the march onto the sidewalk, around the wall of cops, and back into the street, but they’re arguing amongst themselves and don’t hear me. Then the cops notice the escape route and block the sidewalk. I scamper behind the wall of cops, through the traffic-clogged intersection, to the opposite sidewalk. The cops aren’t blocking it yet. Some of the marchers are drifting onto this sidewalk, realizing it’s the only way out. I jump up and down shouting, “This way! This way!” Other people start doing the same. Then the march surges over the sidewalk and immediately back into the street. We roar in triumph.
We are now marching west on 34th Street, chanting louder than ever: “Who’s streets? OUR STREETS! Who’s streets? OUR STREETS!” I go to the front of the march and run into two OWS comrades who I haven’t seen in months. I hug them both. Then I say, “We need to keep turning so the cops can’t predict our route and try block us again.” One of them points to the cross street two block ahead and replies, “We’ll turn on 8th Avenue. There’s another march coming up 8th Avenue.” I’m stunned. “Another march?!” I say. Then, just as our march reaches the intersection of 34th Street and 8th Avenue, clusters of marchers appear in the adjacent roadway, ambling up 8th Avenue. More marchers appear. Then more. Miraculously, the two marches have reached the intersection at the exact same time. Each march seems surprised to see the other, and then cheers erupt as the marches converge and take over all of 8th Avenue. We head towards Times Square.
A demo not only introduces us the joys of violating the rules that restrict our collective movement through the city. It also introduces us to the joys of violating the rules that restrict social life in general. The experience of seizing a bridge or blocking a freeway provides a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a social world shaped by desire and voluntary association rather than by wage labor and the imperatives of “order.” The demo gives us a foretaste of liberation.
Why do we march? Is there a purpose beyond the immediate thrill of it? Not that we need any further justification. But yes, there is: ultimately, we march in order to make life outside the demo more like life inside the demo.
We enter Times Square. Instead of packing ourselves into the designated pedestrian zones, we come to a halt in the middle of a cross street. We’re exhausted. Sweat pours down our faces on this sweltering summer night. The chants continue, and then speakers take turns mounting a trash bin to harangue the crowd. We all sit down. The demo evolves into a community speak-out in the middle of the most commercialized area of New York City. I catch up with several friends who I haven’t seen in months. One friend says, “The best reunions happen in the streets.”
An hour later, the march continues. I’m utterly depleted, so I stay behind. Later, I learn on social media that the march went through the Upper East Side, Harlem, and all the way to the Bronx.
There’s a certain activist mind-set that conceives of marching or occupying as categorically separate from more “private” social activities, like holding a BBQ. On the contrary: there is a continuum between the time we spend in the streets together and the time we spend sharing a meal or hanging out at a bar together. They are equally vital parts of the same tightly knit social world of friendship and revolt.
When a demo ends, there is a palpable comedown. The euphoria of the march fades. Ordinary life reasserts itself. This depressing deflation brings the poverty of everyday capitalist life into stark relief.
I say goodbye to my friends and walk toward the subway. The march has left Times Square but pedestrians who followed us into the streets still linger in the roadways. I see a teenage girl posing in front of an array of mega-screens as her mom takes her picture. I see a woman in her twenties, naked except for an elaborate headdress and a layer of yellow body paint, dancing to the drumming of a shirtless man while onlookers take furtive photos. From the opposite direction, a parade of four or five hot rods enters Times Square, revving their engines and blasting rap music. They turn down Broadway and pedestrians form a tunnel around them, snapping pictures. Times Square has returned to its normal state.
This piece originally appeared on the blog Desert Flood.