They were trying to get into Target.
The crowd pushed its way through Atlantic Terminal Mall in Brooklyn on December 8, banging on windows and ignoring the hapless security guards. Hundreds of people streamed up the escalators and stopped in front of the giant discount store, whose employees were trying to close its doors to avoid a confrontation.
But that didn’t satisfy the protesters who were trying to get in. They’d been demonstrating in retail spaces all across the city over the past week, after all: Toys “R” Us, Macy’s, Forever 21 — they’d lie down for their “die-in,” say their piece, make folks uncomfortable, then move on.
As some tried to push their way into the store, Michelina Ferrara and Cherrell Brown talked them down. “White people, check your privilege!” Brown shouted into a megaphone. “We don’t need you to provoke stuff right now.”
After a moment of tension, the group lay on the ground for a die-in before moving on. As they stood outside the mall, Ferrara thanked everyone for coming — and for not giving the media and police “a reason to vilify us.”
New York City’s streets have teemed with protesters almost nightly since November 24, when it was announced that former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for fatally shooting Michael Brown. The nightly demonstrations would grow after a similar announcement came out of Staten Island that a grand jury had decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Both cops are white. Both victims were black.
But as the demonstrations continue, some activists are noting the ironic reality of a racist culture obtaining within the protests themselves. Ferrara, a first-generation immigrant who identifies as mixed-race but concedes that “I have a lot of light-skinned privilege,” says she is seeing white protesters talking over people of color at meetings or dismissing their concerns. And on the evening of December 8, outside Atlantic Terminal — where protesters were hoping to disrupt the Brooklyn Nets game across the street at Barclays Center — she saw some white protesters interrupting people of color who were trying to lead the demonstrations.
“There was one white man in particular who made a few efforts to take the mic from Justice League organizers,” says Ferrara, a member of the Justice League NYC, which helped organize the protest. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this isn’t a place for white and light-skinned folks. I just think it’s important to constantly be examining your privilege.”
The previous night, during a protest at Union Square, a white man repeatedly antagonized police officers, calling them “scared” before another protester, Chris Makita, pulled him toward the group. “I’m a white guy — they’re not going to do anything to me!” the white protester said, laughing.
“I told him to come here [and join the group],” Makita, who is black, told the Voice. “We don’t need to do that.”
On December 6, a Voice reporter in Grand Central Terminal spotted a white man taunting a police officer, asking, “You going to shoot me?” The man also shouted, “Fuck you!” to a female officer on a scooter later that night.
“Antiracist movements become a hot-button event a lot of white people can latch onto,” says Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who studies white antiracist activism. “It’s very easy to identify the police officer or police department to rally against. These movements allow good, well-meaning white people to say, ‘I am a good person.’ It’s like a story they can tell their kids someday.”
Paris Alexandra, 28, says white people who try to be the loudest voices at demonstrations focusing on racial issues run the risk of polluting the very message they’re trying to spread.
“I think it’s great people are showing solidarity,” says Alexandra, who is black. “I think people are just passionate. But as a white person, you’ve got to recognize the space you’re taking up. Just look and see who’s the loudest one talking. White supremacy takes place even in our interactions. You know what I’m saying?”
The discussion about race at these antiracism protests isn’t exclusive to New York. In Toronto, Canada, Ferguson solidarity protesters sent out a list of suggestions for white allies that read, in part, “Refrain from speaking to the media. Black voices are crucial to this” and “Remember that you are there in support of black folks, so [you] should never be at the center of anything.”
Hughey, the University of Connecticut professor, says white people typically identify themselves as leaders and often feel compelled to take the reins of a movement when they become attached to it.
“It becomes very easy for white people to grab the bullhorns and step to the front,” he says. “It can also do a lot of damage.”
He adds that all activists should learn what kind of voices a movement needs before they get involved.
“Educate yourself about whatever movement you want to be part of, and ask how you can help,” he advises. “Don’t just join and start leading.”
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said Ferrara saw two white men trying to take the megaphone from members of her group. She later clarified her statement to the Village Voice.