I started my New York sojourn during the height of the Charlottesville white nationalist rallies. Tired after an overnight flight from Guatemala, and roaming the streets of The Bronx for hours as I waited for my AirBnB check-in, the details of the developing crisis did not fully sink in until the evening of Monday 14th August, when I stumbled on an energetic protest on 5th Avenue and 57th Street, across the road from Trump Towers.
There were two sections to the protest: the stand-off and the main body. The main body consisted of around 1000 people, wielding an array of witty and creative banners ranging from the colorful and professionally printed, to roughly cut pieces of card with slogans scribbled in black felt-tip pen. In the middle was a lively drum circle being led by an elderly Thai lady, supported by a duo of brass players, percussionists, vocalists and a troop of rave-style dancers. Chants of ‘no trump, no KKK, no fa-cist U.S.A’ dropped masterfully in and out of the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. People of all ages and ethnicities were present, standing together in a fire of defiance.
As they always do, representatives of various Worker’s parties and Communist groups weaved through the people, selling their slim newspapers and spinning the events to serve their cause. The copious police overseeing the proceedings were calm and neutral, and the police helicopter hovering high above us gave a sense of gravity and seriousness to our efforts.
It was an excellent protest, and gave me the distinct impression that while politics and world order has taken a surprising and urgent turn in recent years; protesting and resisting it could make up in creativity, fun and inspiration for what it takes in the form of anxiety and upheaval.
The stand-off section was quite a different experience. Behind the main body, one street back was a small group of counter-protesters; a rag-tag group of 20 or so eccentric figures, cordoned-off behind portable metal gates within a semicircle of armed police officers. They stood in their red MAGA caps, exchanging venom with a much larger group of anti-racism protesters. The atmosphere was charged with stress and aggression. Personal attacks were launched in either direction; an ongoing ruckus that lasted the whole four hours I was present and beyond. A small Caucasian lady with short blonde hair wearing a Make America Great Again cap and heavy eye make-up led the chants with a microphone, while two provocateurs worked their way up and down the space whipping up the small crowd. No matter what the other side shouted at them, the answer was always ‘Trump!’. ‘Fuck White Supremacy!’, ‘Fascists Go Home!’; answered only with the cry, ‘Trump!’ Or ‘We Love Trump!’, as if ‘Trump’ were a slogan of defiance and the summery of a stand-point.
The provocateurs were a short man in his mid-30s wearing an Infowars (of Alex Jones fame) staff tee-shirt; who behaved in a hyperactive and idiotic manner, and a tall Brooklyn-born man in his 20s, who claimed to be the organiser of the gathering, and the leader of a group called The Modern Patriots. He wore thick stylised glasses and was handing out personal business cards, appearing to me as if he were promoting himself as a sort of alt-right Milo Yiannopoulos figure.
One older gentleman on the counter-protest side had misspelled his banner, and after he called the protesters a bunch of stupid libtards, the other side mocked him mercilessly. There was something heartbreaking about this moment, as the old man shyly smiled and looked diminished, heckled by a group of young adults so clearly endowed with both intelligence and the moral high ground.
I stood in the midst of it all feeling raw and overwhelmed. As the crowd chanted a penetrating chorus of ‘SHAME SHAME SHAME SHAME’, and the little gaggle of counter-protesters screamed back ‘TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP’; it seemed such a low-point for us all.
The next day, after Donald Trump issued a statement of support for the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in a shocking press conference, I returned to 57th and 5th. A few hundred people with banners were present, as the sunset threw pastel pink and orange hues between the skyscrapers. After a jubilant round of ‘The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated!’ a confident speaker addressed the crowd over a megaphone. He denounced Trump and his cowardice, listed a long repertoire of his failings and declared that they, The People, had the power to ‘get these motherfuckers out of office!’. The crowd let out an ecstatic cry.
A nearby bearded man then began to speak to me. ‘The guy with the megaphone is Robert Barrera’ he said, ‘he is with No Fascism USA, which is a part of the Revolutionary Communist Party.’ A member of this same group had approached me the previous day selling newspapers, and I had been struck by his cleaver framing of the situation; placing his movement in the position of the solution and savior. ‘I don’t like them so much’ the bearded man continued ‘I used to be with them, and they don’t do much to organise the working people – they just want us to go out leafleting for them.’ Another round of ‘SHAME SHAME SHAME SHAME’ rose in the crowd, led by Barrera. To my ear, the rally suddenly took on a very different tone; in less than 48 hours, armed with megaphones and scripted speeches, experienced political players had seized the moment and started to take control. I looked again at the banners and saw that over half of them bore the No Fascism USA logo. How quickly something sincere and innocent had been harvested and utilised.
So what I unexpectedly learned was that if we allow our anger to overpower our senses, someone shrewd will gather it up and funnel it in a direction of their choosing. They will stand back aloof, and plan ways to work the swell of energy that is our outrage. If we predictably erupt into hatred, that very reflex will be capitalised; used and traded between political operators. We need to take a step back from our feelings, channel them in to sustained effort and to practice deliberate thinking. As satisfying as it is to burn with righteous indignation and scorn, it results in a kind of violence emanating from us and violence always causes more problems than it solves. Always.