It’s important — and easy — to tell the difference between protesters and looters.
Just as New York should have been opening up after the peak of the coronavirus lockdown, the city is instead retreating further indoors, hunkering down behind increasingly thick barriers of plywood as the evenings become free-for-alls for window-smashing rioters.
New York City, America’s cultural and economic engine, is rapidly degenerating into a scenario inspired by The Ωmega Man (1971), a post-apocalyptic movie in which Charlton Heston, seemingly the last unaffected survivor of a chemical-weapons attacks, wanders a deserted Los Angeles by day and fends off increasingly brazen bands of mutant hippies who torch the city every night. If what’s playing out in the Big Apple becomes common across the country, the summer of 2020 will rival the summer of 1968 as a season of violence, danger and despair.
Since the coronavirus lockdown was announced on March 20, the Big Apple has been a shell of its former self, with basically no traffic and few people walking around even during the workday. Nobody is out and most storefronts have been closed. I live on Bleecker Street, near the corner of Bowery in what’s called NoHo. The restaurants I get takeout from say they’re lucky to be doing 10 percent of what they were doing this time last year. Orders by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio shuttered bars for weeks. More recently, they’re back offering drinks to go, but the streets are almost completely deserted come sundown. Over 21,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 and it’s impossible to know how many thousands more have fled out of health concerns. This city of 8.4 million people has been a ghost town for more than two months, haunted not just by the dead but by the missing.
Until a few nights ago, at least Manhattan was safe. You might not see anyone else on the street, but you didn’t feel worried, either. Stores were closed, but their windows weren’t covered in plywood. That’s all changed in just the past couple of days. In the early evening on this past Sunday, my girlfriend and I joined a loud but peaceful protest against police brutality that started in Times Square and eventually marched downtown along 7th Avenue. We peeled off after a couple of blocks and walked down Broadway through Herald Square, where workmen were busy cutting and fitting plywood over the windows and doors of Macy’s, which struck as odd. What did they know?
By the time darkness fell, the march had dissipated but widespread breaking of windows and looting of stores had begun, especially in the SoHo section of the city, where dozens of arrests were made and dozens of store windows were smashed. I walked through the neighborhood at 7 a.m. the next morning and was stunned to see two white guys who looked to be in their thirties running out of the Adidas flagship store on the normally busy Houston Street. Their arms were filled with what little merchandise still remained in the store. They piled into their car, idling outside on the street, and sped away.
A look inside the store revealed it had been picked clean. Walking down Broadway toward Broome Street, that same scene played out again. A Smart Car used by the NYPD traffic patrol was torched in the street as well.
On Monday, the Mayor declared an 11 p.m. curfew. The main business activity of the day became the boarding up of businesses, most of which were already closed to the public. Walking through Little Italy and Soho, workmen were everywhere, shielding shuttered stores behind sheaths of plywood.
Last night’s property damage was, by most accounts, worse than Sunday’s. Rachel Olding, who covers breaking news for the Daily Beast, chronicled the mayhem with a sense of resignation and near-amazement. In a tweet about a Footlocker sneaker store being looted while nearby cops congregated but did nothing, she wrote, ‘Felt like this was happening on almost every block in Midtown tonight.’ That felt is important: if residents feel that the city is out of control, it effectively is out of control.
Hard to describe how rampant the looting was tonight in Midtown Manhattan and how lawless it was. Complete anarchy. Literally hundreds of stores up and down Broadway, Fifth Ave, Sixth Ave. Kids ruling the streets like it was a party. pic.twitter.com/y9Ly1UD1WX
— Rachel Olding (@rachelolding) June 2, 2020
At the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette sits Kith, a hip, expensive ‘streetwear’ retailer that used to be so busy the store would meter customers inside with a rope system reminiscent of something you’d see outside a hot nightclub. When the coronavirus lockdown hit and clothing stores were deemed ‘non-essential’, Kith emptied its shelves of all merchandise in a pre-emptive move against burglary. Walking by, you could see the empty shelves, so why bother trying to get inside? On Sunday, they had presciently put up plywood over the windows. Presciently, but not effectively. When I walked by on Monday morning, some of the boards had been broken and the windows smashed.
During the day on Monday, the store upped its game, fortifying the store even more with two-story panels of plywood painted green. Behold the spectacle of a store that was shut down by the decree of the state two months ago and is now building more barriers to protect its own emptiness.
Tonight’s curfew, the mayor tells us, is 8 p.m. ‘These protests have power and meaning,’ says de Blasio. ‘But as the night wears on we are seeing groups use them to incite violence and destroy property.’ In fact, the protests are wholly separate from the looting and vandalism. Confusing the two is something that might serve the purpose of people such as Donald Trump, who believes he will benefit from chaos by presenting himself as the ‘law-and-order’ candidate as he did in 2016. Equating protesters and looters also serves the interest of antifa and far-left nutjobs who insist, in the parlance of the city’s most popular graffito, ‘ACAB’ (‘all cops are bastards’). They believe the system is irredeemable and thus worthy of a complete teardown and overthrow; they want to conflate calls for necessary and righteous reform with their own unpopular agenda.
Going forward, it will be especially important and increasingly difficult to distinguish between serious protesters — be they conservative, liberal, libertarian or progressive — calling for an end to police brutality and for other needed reforms, and those who, for all sorts of reasons, want to see America burn a path to the November election. Like Charlton Heston in The Ωmega Man — and Kith, behind its ever-thicker set of buffers to the street — it will be tempting to retreat from the world and hide away, throwing our hands up and despairing of meaningful change. If anything, the protests need to get bigger but more focused. The rest of us must brave the streets and nights to show we still live here.