The other day, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, in the middle of the afternoon I suddenly come across an entire block closed off by kids swarming the street, blocking traffic, standing on parked cars, chanting or shouting something I couldn’t quite hear. It looks at first like a demonstration, like Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street, but it is, in fact, a fight. The kids are shouting because they are fighting, and they are standing on cars, presumably, because they want to see the fight, or because they are sensing in the vacated street the opportunity to claim any space they want.
What’s the occasion for this? The occasion is that they just got out of school. This is the first time I’ve seen it, but people are saying it happens sometimes. After they get out of school these kids, many from the nearby projects, go down the side streets, side streets with $2 million houses, side streets with coffee shops that sell $4.50 iced lattes made from something called “Intelligentsia coffee,” sidestreets with blond 2-year-olds being walked home from their music enrichment classes. (A woman I know, arriving from Latin America to this neighborhood observed, “It’s so interesting here that so many black women adopt white babies.”)
There is a rumor on the street that last week a car was damaged by so many kids jumping on it. The kids are standing on Mini Coopers, or Priuses, or Volvos or BMWs. There is now a very large crowd watching them stand on the Mini Coopers or the Priuses or the Volvos or the BMWs, and the kids are not unaware of the crowd.
There is a store around the corner that sells distressed-looking boots that cost $1,100. There is a store a couple of blocks away, on the same street as the school, called “Rolling Orange” that sells beautiful Dutch bikes for $1,800, and the windows are painted in large letters with the sign: “If you love life, why are you rushing through it?” There may be an argument to be made that some of these kids may be rushing through life, but one imagines that an exquisite $1,850 imported Dutch bicycle may not be the solution to this problem.
One of my students noticed a great sign at Occupy Wall Street saying “Big signs always catch your attention.” And it occurs to me that maybe this fight is one of those big signs that should be catching our attention.
In the meantime the crowd of spectators grows. They are angry. One woman unlocking the gate to her house says, “This is why I am going to buy on other side of Court Street.” The crowd is angry because last week when the same thing happened the police did not come quickly. They are angry because they feel they have paid enough for their houses and apartments with white marble fireplaces and wide-planked floors not to see things like this. They are angry because they are scared.
The interesting thing about the people standing around on this street being angry is that they are almost entirely liberals. (When one of the kindergartens at a neighborhood private school made buttons for the last election, they made only Obama buttons because it was felt there was no such thing as a Republican at that school.) Some of the people on this street feel they are struggling compared with other people in the city; some are so ineffably chic that they did not buy their thousand-dollar Dutch bikes at Rolling Orange; they brought them back from Holland. Some have gone to Occupy Wall Street to support the protest. These are, in short, people who would like to imagine that they stand against the rich bankers who are corrupt, and with the poor and disenfranchised, but the story on their own street is more complicated than that.
I understand why the owners of the $2 million brownstones are shaken up, and I understand why this particular expression of rage or excess energy is not communicating to its viewers as effectively or articulately as those being arrested a little distance away, in downtown Manhattan. But this is still the 99 percent saying something to the 1 percent.
There are no messages. There are no demands. There are no signs made out of pizza boxes. But there is something about our untenable situation nevertheless making itself known. If the top 1 percent in the city makes 44 percent of the city’s total income, if an average person in that top group makes more in one day than the average person in the bottom tenth makes in one year then the problem even in this neighborhood may be bigger than “rushing through life.” (If we lived in a desert state, we would be feeling the readiness in the brush, the crackling dryness, the danger of fire.) And the nice and fashionable liberals with their Dutch bikes or lattes with designs in the milk are implicated in ways they do not like to think about.
The police arrive with sirens. I count five cars. I count at least 10 policemen on the street. “Go home now,” they say. “Go on home.” The kids begin to move. The police do not need to do more than say go home, the sirens have broken the mood. One of the kids takes a doughnut out of a bag and starts to eat it. “Why are you doing this?” a tiny black woman cop says to one of the kids.
The police take some of the kids off in handcuffs. Many of the kids fighting most viciously are girls. One of the kids they take off in handcuffs is a boy with blood on his face, whose shirt has been almost entirely torn off him.
I walk home past the brownstones, flowers in ceramic pots on stoops, down one of the streets the New York Times recently said had “a pastoral, leafy feel.” This neighborhood may be more extreme than most in the conspicuousness of its inequities, in the ironic juxtapositions everywhere on display, but the various moods expressed in this episode are not in any way confined to our nine square blocks. At 3:15 on a Wednesday afternoon, the question is not why it looks like there is a revolution happening on this sleepy street, the question is why there is not.