'There’s So Much Anger – and Hope': Why These N.Y.C. Jews Are Joining the George Floyd Protests

As demonstrations over the police killing turn violent, New Yorkers explain their concerns, and why some they feel the need to take to the streets. 'An injustice is an injustice,' Orthodox activist tells Haaretz

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Protesters denouncing police brutality and systemic racism are kept in place on the Manhattan Bridge by police for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City.
Protesters denouncing police brutality and systemic racism are kept in place on the Manhattan Bridge by police for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City. Credit: AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As she gathered with thousands of other demonstrators in downtown Brooklyn on Saturday to protest for racial justice, Elie Lauter felt she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“I know that because of the color of my skin, I have certain privileges that people of color don’t have and I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to stay home,” she told Haaretz on Tuesday. “I feel really responsible as a white person to be out on the streets and to be putting my body on the line.”

After days of violent demonstrations in New York City following last week’s death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed a late-night curfew on Monday. But the measure failed to prevent another night of destruction as break-ins and looting continued – including Macy’s department store on 34th Street – leading Cuomo to slam the NYPD and de Blasio’s efforts. “It was a disgrace,” he said Tuesday.

Across the city, businesses have boarded up their windows, hoping to prevent property damage. Over the weekend, neighborhoods such as Soho, known for its luxury stores, looked like a war zone with broken glass strewn on the sidewalk. Other areas in the Bronx also saw violent protests on Monday night, with an NYPD officer beaten to the ground and fires set.

“I don’t believe it’s my place to judge how an oppressed people is protesting,” said Lauter, 30, who works as the executive director of a Jewish gap-year program called Kivunim. “I personally am not a violent person, I’m not the kind of protester who’s breaking windows or starting fires. But I’m not judging anybody who is doing that.”

However, seeing how some of the demonstrations have turned violent was “really disappointing,” she said.

Police arresting a protester refusing to get off the streets during an imposed curfew in New York while marching in a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, June 2, 2020.Credit: Wong Maye-E/AP

“What I experienced was peaceful, it was very much youth-led, it was very powerful. It’s really hard to turn on the news and see how brutal things are right now, because that’s not what I personally experienced, although I know that’s what’s happening,” Lauter added.

Sophie Edelhart, who has attended a number of protests across New York in recent days, sees the violence as “a valid and legitimate form” of protest.

“I think the looting and destruction of private property that’s been happening, when done by populations experiencing the oppression, is a totally reasonable form of resistance,” she said, speaking to Haaretz as she walked to a protest in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening, while the city-imposed curfew took effect.

Edelhart, 23, who is involved with the group Jewish Voice for Peace, said she had grappled with the dangers that such mass gatherings pose in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But as she stood with the crowd, chanting through her face mask, she said she felt this was the moment to put her “body on the line,” echoing Lauter’s comment.

“I just feel like it’s my duty as a white person who believes in justice, and who believes the police are a stupid and unnecessary institution, that I be there,” she said.

On Tuesday night, Edelhart was among thousands of protesters who defied the curfew and were trapped on Manhattan Bridge as police sealed off both ends. The crowd remained on the bridge for several hours.

Protesters demonstrating along the Manhattan Bridge against the killing of George Floyd, June 2, 2020. Credit: Sophie Edelhart

“This moment is a tinderbox moment, with the pandemic and the degree of unemployment we have in this country right now – and I thought at some point this was bound to happen,” she said. “I think the murder of George Floyd was sort of the match that lit the fire.”

‘Plain hooliganism’

Around 9:30 P.M. on Monday, P., a woman in her thirties, had put her 2-year-old son to bed and was preparing to have dinner with her husband when she heard noises outside their Midtown West apartment. (P. spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.)

“We could just hear a bunch of shouting and I, of course, went to the window and took out my phone,” P. said. “My husband said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and turned off all our living room lights and put all our blinds down.”

Through the shuttered blinds, P., who immigrated to the United States from India nine years ago and has lived in the neighborhood since 2013, said she was able to look directly down onto Eighth Avenue.

“We literally just saw them run to the Verizon store and smash it. I saw them smashing it,” she told Haaretz on Tuesday morning.

Workers boarding up a Verizon store in Manhattan, June 2, 2020. Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

The protesters then began setting dumpster fires along the block, throwing burning trash bags into the road. It wasn’t long before another group vandalized the open 7-Eleven convenience store on the same block, P. said..

During the stay-in-place orders imposed on the city since late March, P. and her husband had been taking long walks with their son in Central Park. On Monday, however, as protests were planned across the city, they decided not to leave the home.

The protest on Manhattan Bridge, June 2, 2020.Credit: Sophie Edelhart

“We didn’t know what the scene was going to be,” P. said. “You don’t want to be caught in the middle of all this with a kid.”

“It’s actually very, very scary and it’s also very unsettling,” added P., who is currently awaiting her green card.

“I understand why there’s a protest going on,” she said. “I understand there is bottled-up frustration because people have lost their jobs; there’s a great divide in unemployment, COVID-19 frustration, people are sitting at home and there’s nothing to do. But at the same time, what is the looting and the vandalism achieving?”

In recent days, she said, she felt that the protests had become “just plain hooliganism.”

The view from P.'s apartment in Midtown West with police officers on the street below.Credit: P

“Now I’m thinking that if they can do this to closed shops, small stores, what’s going to stop them from entering a building and beating up a doorman and just going indiscriminately to houses?” she asked.

Showing solidarity

When the video surfaced online last week of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, Alexander Rapaport said he couldn’t watch it for more than a few seconds. “An injustice is an injustice,” said the Orthodox resident of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. “The attitude the police have – that whatever race the person they are interacting with is, they just feel like they can operate with impunity and nothing can stop them – that’s the bigger problem here,” he said.

On Monday night, after he had spent some 12 hours at his Masbia soup kitchen – which has provided 5,000 families with groceries and 15,000 individual ready-to-eat meals every week during the lockdown – Rapaport felt he needed to do something to show solidarity with the protesters.

He grabbed a white board and some markers, and made a small sign. The first line, in Hebrew, read: “He has mercy on all he has made.” Underneath, Rapaport wrote “Black Lives Matter.” He put the sign on the upstairs window of his soup kitchen on the corner of 47th Street and 13th Avenue.

“The point now is to show solidarity and show people that you feel their pain,” he explained. “I’m usually the person who likes to show solidarity when people are suffering, and it’s becoming really hard to do that when everybody feels under attack, when there is polarization and everybody looks inward,” he said.

A man being arrested by New York police officers after refusing to get off the streets during the hours of curfew, June 2, 2020.Credit: Wong Maye-E/AP

Rapaport said the relationship between the police and the African-American community can be “difficult to explain” to his Orthodox friends. “It just takes a lot to explain this, and in the era of Trump – when everybody is in their own echo chamber – it’s really hard to have this penetrate,” he said. “There’s nothing bringing humanity together now. It’s just scary and sad.”

With some synagogues vandalized amid the protests in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, Rapaport expressed concern that “the real important conversation is being lost.

“The fact that to some Jews some Jewish store or some synagogues being vandalized is the news of the day is sad and kind of missing the point,” he noted.

Following Monday night’s events, New York City extended its 8 P.M. curfew for the entire week and said it would prohibit many types of nighttime traffic in Manhattan. De Blasio doubled down on the citywide curfew, but rejected urging from President Donald Trump and an offer from Gov. Cuomo to bring in the National Guard to help contain the chaos.

Lauter said the values she was raised with as an American Jew “100 percent” played into her decision to attend the protests.

“It’s often taught that because you’re a Jew, you’re automatically an ally – but I don’t think that’s true. I think you still have to put in the work, you still need to show up for protests, and you still need to read and donate,” she said.

Edelhart, meanwhile, called the protests in New York City and around the country a “revolutionary” moment. “Since Trump was elected, I knew the revolution was coming – and now it feels like we’re in the middle of it,” she said. “I think the energy feels different. There’s so much pent-up anger and also hope in how this moment can change us.”

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