“Curfew”: From 14th Century French couvre-feu, to cover hearth fires so villagers can sleep.
“Broadway babies don’t sleep tight, until the…..truncheon snaps down on their heads.”
(Lullaby of Broadway, 2020 version)
NEW YORK — We marched Saturday night despite the tragedy of Hamal and Jaheed. The two Yemeni brothers’ grocery store was on the corner of my street, and we’d had a standing joke about how they could sell bacon without going to hell and how their bagels were almost Jewish. The night after the death of George Floyd, a group of marchers had come to our neighborhood and hammered the window glass of their shop and taken the food and cash registers. They were left with nothing, and the next morning, they were sobbing on the stoop of their shattered store.
Seven days later, we still had to march. The looting had lessened, the tens of thousands were more diverse, poster signs had graduated from “Black Lives Matter” to “Reparations for Slavery” to the most poignant and most improbable: “Defund the Police.” In fact, this whole week had been one of stupidities and heroism, of brutality and inanity, of ego, eccentricity and the horror of innocent people’s livelihood lost.
We had to go, ready for the 6:30pm gathering, a few blocks from our East Village apartments to Washington Square Park. Even without knowing where it was, it was easy to find. “Just follow the cop-cars,” I told a visitor. And indeed, armadas of police vehicles were coming from all directions, aiming for the historic Square.
What the police were doing was never established. They encircled the Park, but never took a step inside. Which was wise. For while we few thousand looked rather weird with our masks – “Like an Inner City cut-rate Kabuki show,” said a friend – we had a levity that belied the murder of George Floyd a week before.
In a way, it was a typical Washington Square weekend show. Guitar-players abounded. Virtually everybody had a sign or two. Here was a Haitian immigrant, there a crowd of families. Black and yellow and white together — hardly unusual for New York City. Songs and speeches. Laughter and purpose. And when we all came together for the march up Fifth Avenue in the direction of 42nd Street. The out-of-control New York Police Department and the vagrant gangs of looters were forgotten.
I knew what they didn’t. That we were standing atop an 18th Century graveyard, the original Potters Field where 20,000 poor New Yorkers had died of that century’s pandemic, Yellow Flu. But why tell them? Let the celebrations commence!
It was now 7:30 pm — and the curfew was just 30 minutes away. What would happen now? What happened was that patrols of police were on each side of us as we walked the avenue. On the broad roadway of 14th Street, the squad cars – many dozens either parked or following us – were like ghosts, spirits lurking.
They menaced, but they didn’t see us. They looked in the distance. And I had the chutzpah to speak to one of them. “What happens at 8 o’clock? Will we be arrested?”
“That,” he said, because he had nothing else to say, “depends.” And he walked away.
Nobody was arrested, the curfew came and we marched, and we remembered, and we knew that this time supposedly, America’s 500-year tapestry of hatred and contempt, slavery and lynching, bad jokes and bigotry, and stupid assumptions, and even stupider actions, might be changing.
Would it though? I saw the eyes of the policemen. Not friendly or unfriendly, not filled with hatred or love, simply the coldness of a man doing his onerous duty.
“That,” he had said, unaware of the manifold dizzying druther and decisions for America’s future, “depends.”