How a City Besieged by the Virus Turned Out to Be Heard – The New York Times

A teenager outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, taking a knee on a block crowded with protesters, relished the feeling lost these last months — of being part of something.

A 23-year-old art teacher, Evan Woodard, was thrilled to see his city at the fore of a nationwide event. “I’m proud to call myself a New Yorker,” he said. “This is everyone’s city.”

People who just last month were dutifully keeping behind doors and masks have turned out by the tens of thousands in the past week to gather in the streets and shout to be heard.

The lurch between twin crises with opposing aims — isolation and assembly — has been jolting, and to many, positively liberating. People feeling penned for months, then pushed past a tipping point by images of a man’s life ending under an officer’s knee, have surged to the streets — for some, mask be damned — to be part of something.

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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

For those coming out day after day to protest, marching with friends and strangers under cheers from the open windows above feels something like normal. If sheltering at home was a reaction to a threat, this is the opposite — action.

Simonez Dega, 23, a waiter at Olive Garden at a protest near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, welcomed the change from making music alone in his apartment to marching elbow to elbow. “It feels truly warm,” he said. “It felt like we were all bees in the hive. Now it’s like, that’s another bee, that’s another person that is here for the same reason. It’s a different energy.”

Mr. Dega added: “As a black male, I had to go out and protest.”

The demonstrations would consume the city at any time, but they arrive at a particularly anxious moment, with virus restrictions about to start easing after months of a curve-flattening quarantine.

Even as new cases ebb, New York City remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. More than 200,000 residents have contracted the virus and 21,000 have died, or are presumed to have died, of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The protests over the past week have brought thousands of New Yorkers into the streets, night after night, chanting, “Say his name! George Floyd!” The marches have been largely peaceful but have led to confrontations on recent nights as people have stayed out beyond an 8 p.m. curfew.

More than 2,000 people have been arrested. The arrests continued on Thursday, with thousands of people still on the streets past the curfew, and confrontations with the police again flaring up.

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Credit…Anthony Geathers for The New York Times

Looters have taken advantage of the distracted police to hit Manhattan’s boutiques, the flagship Macy’s in Herald Square and mom-and-pop stores in the Bronx. Many storefronts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, darkened since March, are now hidden behind plywood.

It is a jarring split-screen view, a city simultaneously reopening and boarding itself up. On Wednesday, the ritual 7 p.m. pause to clap and bang pots and pans in support of health care workers was followed, exactly seven minutes later, by the pealing of millions of smartphones showing alerts that a mandatory curfew was beginning shortly.

Hovering over these protests were the memories of earlier ones in past decades in New York City in response to acts of police brutality against black men like Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Eric Garner. But those demonstrations were never this widespread, nor this long-lasting.

The degree to which the two forces — pandemic and protest — affect one another will be studied in the weeks to come. With images of body bags in refrigerated trucks still fresh, there is widespread concern that the virus could be spreading through the crowds.

“Many of them wear masks, thank God, but there’s no social distancing,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday. “We’re going to open the test facilities for all people who were at a protest. The protesters have a civic duty here also. Be responsible, get a test.”

Others see another link, one event borne in part out of the other. “People were stuck inside and forced to look at this content until they got mad,” Mr. Dega said. “Covid fuels these protests.”

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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Aileen Torres, 42, an assistant teacher from Maspeth, Queens, recalled venturing out, haltingly, for her first protest earlier this week.

“Going from being at home, sheltered in, and immersing myself in people,” she said. “There was some anxiety in that, but just being around people, seeing different faces and being outside on a balmy night with others felt good.”

At a crowd of marchers near Barclays on Tuesday, Ms. Torres looked at her fellow protesters and saw a turning point after three months of hardship from an outbreak that had besieged the city.

“This is their way of getting the control back,” she said.

And in an uplifting twist, another population has arrived at recent protests to cheer those marching — health care workers.

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Credit…Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

But far from those scenes, in neighborhoods that ring the city’s tumultuous center, other New Yorkers look on with unease.

In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, seemingly a world away with its charter fishing and ocean breeze, Zev Fischer, 69, an electrician, fears the results of essentially ignoring the coronavirus. “If we don’t get a spike in the next two weeks, I don’t know,” he said, as if a different outcome, based on all that people have been told, wouldn’t make sense.

He feels deeply for the protesters — “I always used to protest for the Jews,” he said, pulling up a sleeve to show a replica of the tattoo branded on his father at Auschwitz, A-3338. But the looting, especially of mom-and-pop stores in the Bronx, was like an overlaying of misery upon misery.

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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
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Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

“People lost their jobs because of the coronavirus, and now people lost jobs because of the looting,” he said. “2020 is a nightmare. And I don’t know what else is coming.”

No one does. The protests have taken a firm hold, and with them, the stubborn flare-ups that dominate the next day’s news, the broken windows, overly aggressive police encounters and attacks on officers.

But Ms. Torres thought back to the memory of the earlier hours of a recent protest: “The spirit of the night was still peaceful. There were moments where there was just a hush over the crowd. Even those moments of silence were powerful.”

Isiah Duran, 19, was among protesters in Manhattan on Wednesday near the Port Authority. He has quarantined with his twin brother and their grandmother in Chelsea, and he called the protests, and all they stood for, “fantastic.”

“We now have a common cause to fight for,” he said. “That is the most powerful thing we can have. This stretches beyond both our lifetimes. It feels great.”

He added a beat rarely heard these last months: “I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Jo Corona contributed reporting.