In a show of solidarity with protesters in Baltimore, hundreds of people defied police Wednesday night and began marching through the streets of Manhattan to honor Freddie Gray, who died after his spine was severed while in Baltimore police custody.
The crowd that had gathered for an evening protest in Union Square quickly swelled from a few dozen to several hundred as the 6 p.m. demonstration got underway. Later, demonstrators headed out of the square and swarmed across crowded streets and major intersections as lines of police warned that they could be arrested for blocking traffic.
As in previous protests here, the original crowd splintered into several smaller groups that headed for different strategic locations, from the Holland Tunnel entrance in lower Manhattan to Herald Square in midtown, a major tourist and shopping hub.
In Herald Square, about 200 marchers lay down in the middle of the intersection for a few minutes, blocking traffic and drawing stares from passersby, before heading north to Times Square.
The crowd was peaceful but boisterous, chanting, "All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray," and "Fight back." Many carried placards, one reading, "New York stands with Baltimore."
Police said more than 60 protesters were arrested, but it was unclear what charges they might face. Arrests in previous marches have been mainly for obstructing traffic or disorderly conduct.
This protest, the first major one in New York since the Dec. 20 assassination of two police officers, was a test of officers’ restraint in the wake of those killings, which were committed by a gunman who had posted anti-cop rants online.
The December slayings ended what had been almost nightly demonstrations demanding changes in police tactics. Police union leaders laid the blame for the killings on the mayor’s tolerance of protests, saying the constant drumbeat of marches had created a hostile climate that encouraged attacks on officers.
Past marches have lasted well into the night, with demonstrators taking over Broadway and police steering the city’s notoriously heavy traffic onto side streets.
This time, police warned that they would not permit people to block traffic, and the first arrests came shortly after protesters left Union Square chanting “Our streets” and “Shut it down.” Each time someone was put in a police van, the crowd yelled, “Shame!”
Taisha Herrera, 37, of the Bronx brought her two children, Tyreen Smith, 11, and Molly Smith, 9, to the square. "As children of color, I want them to know the truth about police brutality," Herrera said.
Some protesters chanted, "No justice, no peace!" and carried banners reading, "Black lives matter."
Umaara Elliott, an organizer working with the activist group Millions March NYC, was one of those to arrive early for the protest.
“It’s important to show we are in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Baltimore," Elliott said as demonstrators mingled in the square among shoppers in a farmers market, tourists and street performers. "We are showing unity and that we can work together and stand together with one another."
Jenny Heinz, 70, of Manhattan's Upper West Side, said she came out to demand change.
"It is absolutely essential that everyone stand up and say that what is being done to people of color can't be tolerated and must be stopped," she said.
Neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor police officials said they were concerned that the city would see the kind of violence that erupted in Baltimore this week or in Ferguson, Mo., last year amid public rage over deaths of black men after altercations with police.
“The vast majority of people who are trying to work on the relationship between police and community do it in a peaceful manner,” De Blasio told reporters Wednesday. Asked what advice he would give protesters, De Blasio said, “Well, I’d say if you want to make change, keep things peaceful.”
De Blasio noted that Baltimore, where a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew is in effect, avoided a repeat of looting overnight in part because protesters there isolated troublemakers from the larger crowds of nonviolent demonstrators.
“Anyone who means to do violence, anyone who means to assault police officers or assault property should be isolated from the rest, and the protesters should work with the police to deal with them. I think that’s my central message,” he said.
Before the protest began, police erected barricades around the perimeter of Union Square. Dozens of officers patrolled the plaza. Two police helicopters hovered overhead, and police vans and patrol cars were parked around the park.
In a statement, police said they respected marchers’ right to protest.
“We deal with planned and unplanned demonstrations on a regular basis and support the right for people to demonstrate and voice their First Amendment rights as long as they are peaceful and lawful,” the statement said. “We encourage organizers and the community to work with the NYPD to ensure the safety of all those involved. “
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