Inside New York’s night of protest and looting

20 minutes ahead of the 11 p.m. curfew and unsure how the night would play out, I grabbed an aluminum bat, which I shrouded in a garbage bag so as to not intimidate police or activists.

A broken window after a night of looting in New York (photo credit: COURTESY ZACH HUFF)
A broken window after a night of looting in New York
(photo credit: COURTESY ZACH HUFF)
“My phone buzzed with a notification that there’s a vehicle fire 67 feet from me – I stepped outside, and it’s my mother’s wheelchair van!” my former boss thundered during our phone call on Monday morning.
In his brash Queens accent, he explained that vandals taking part in unrest surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd had set his maroon Astro ablaze the night prior, busting out most of the glass.
SoHo, a quintessential Manhattan neighborhood, is one of the epicenters of the looting during the protests. Aesthetically quaint with its cast-iron architecture and generally lower, five- to six-story loft residential and commercial buildings, it’s home to some of the city’s highest average rents, in part thanks to opulent brands operating loss-leading storefronts to put their merchandise in the hands of wealthy tourists. Untold millions in inventory was looted the night before. Every indication showed that tonight would be at least as intense.
The temptation to bear witness to history was too potent to remain in bucolic Princeton, where I’d holed up to finish final papers, so I caught the next train to Penn Station. Stopping by Midtown’s Bryant Park for lunch, all seemed calm until the slowly increasing numbers of police – and chants gradually cutting through loud city noise – became a stream of thousands of protesters. Under the gaze of nonchalant police, the peaceful procession passed without incident, and I headed on foot for the 44 blocks to my legal residence in SoHo. The number of boarded-up businesses multiplied as I passed closed streets packed with reserve police vehicles, all under a never-ending buzz of choppers above.
20 minutes ahead of the 11 p.m. curfew and unsure how the night would play out, I grabbed an aluminum bat, which I shrouded in a garbage bag so as to not intimidate police or activists. It’s about the best self-defense one can have in a city with a near-total gun ban. With friends, I set out first for Washington Square Park, adjacent to NYU, a popular staging ground for activists.
Underwhelmingly sleepy to the point that people were actually sleeping on blankets on the grass, we wondered where the big “show” was going to be. Several sirens sounded off toward the east, so we headed toward them. Dozens of young men on bikes were bolting away from a growing swarm of police vehicles, while others followed on foot with armfuls of athletic gear, likely from Foot Locker on Broadway. The police, hardly out of the comfort of their cars, drove in a single column, relatively easy for anyone to avoid. Initially weary of tensions, my friends and I didn’t even draw a glance from the cliques of looters. This was not a front in an incipient race war, this was a race to grab and go.
Heading up Broadway, sudden banging and crashing started inside a Bank of America right next to me. A team of raiders fiercely worked to gut the ATMs. “Good luck getting inside those!” my former boss, who builds cryptocurrency ATMs, sarcastically taunted. Mike, a bike-mounted bystander, overhead our discussion and began to parley with us about Bitcoin, the debate punctuated by someone hacking an ax against boarded windows at North Face outfitters across the street. After 15 minutes, the nearby police still had not arrived. “Does homeboy want to go explore, or what?” Mike tipsily asked. I hopped on the back of his blue Citi Bike and we rode a couple blocks down Broadway back into the heart of SoHo. Straight out of the 1980s, a line of members of the citizen patrol group Guardian Angels stood as a resolute barrier in the street, their bright red jackets and berets lit in the glow of trash fires and floating embers.
I flashed a thumbs-up and offered a “good job, guys,” and we were unimpeded by them and adjacent police, pedaling a couple more blocks until the looters had become so thick that we found ourselves suddenly crashing into a mess of people diving into a freshly breached luxury retailer. Tripping off the bicycle, I moved to the outer edge to observe.
On each end of the block, men on bikes kept lookout while others would pace the crowd, relaying updates from police scanner apps as to how long they had before police would respond. Heaving bags brimming over with Gucci backpacks and shoes, dozens of thieves would dash to waiting vehicles, toss the bags in, and return for more, before speeding off in disregard of one-way streets and red lights. When the police were able to respond, the looters had already moved to their next target – but ready to return to pick up where they left off as soon as the police had moved on.
SoHo’s characteristically narrow, poorly-lit single-lane cobblestone labyrinth offered countless dark corners for this cat and mouse game in a way that Midtown does not. The surreal, absurd pandemonium, in its own way, approached the pitch of what I’ve witnessed even in places like Iraq and Syria. One homeless woman, ensconced in a barricade of cardboard boxes, looked on, mouth agape.
Curiously, the looters left their slogans behind, only a few flashed wilted signs on the periphery, almost comically out of place. The marauders of night may very well have been largely different from the protesters at day, and the racial makeup was both different from that earlier crowd and from that of the neighborhood. The luxury getaway vehicles often has out-of-state plates. These vast stocks of exquisite items offered a lucrative incentive to exploit and destroy, a campaign unfortunately conflated with the earlier benign protest.
Yet neither were they agitators pursuing direct confrontation with the police; they generally did not bother to chant, obstruct, or directly engage in coordinated violence. The New York Post suggested this was actually organized crime, which makes sense, why there was neither confrontation nor discernible political agenda. Nobody dared touch the six-floor Nike outlet with a ring of private security. Conspicuously, the police had not drawn their weapons, and demurred on using their billy clubs for anything beyond intimidation. The looters wielded only a few light tools hardly up to the task of breaching the increasingly-fortified storefronts, though potentially lethal up close. Some of the explosions going on weren’t fireworks, after all, but gunshots. The surprisingly calm competition between looters became deadly at times.
Meandering about the scurrying crowd, I made a beeline back toward Mike after spotting him in conversation with a few people under the marquee of a next-door residential building. One young man was dazed, bemoaning the fact that he was late to the scene after having been trampled, concussed, and with his iPhone long gone. He wasn’t particularly thrilled with his only consolation prize, an abandoned $610 pair of gaudy, pretentious tricolor patterned loafers, eying them as if he’d received socks and underwear for Christmas. Nate, a middle-aged construction worker of British extraction, still donned his hard hat and a respirator around his neck hours after the end of his shift — yet both seemed like a good idea to have.
With footwear apparently the low-hanging fruit of the night, the Ugg store was cleaned out, and we’d made it in time to see the police nab around a dozen robbers of the shattered Spanish luxury Balenciaga shoe store. An intoxicated bystander having an erotic video call expressed unprovoked agitation with us, and to avoid confrontation, we eased out of the scene.
Back over near the burned-out Astro van, Asian shopkeepers of the corner bodega stood guard to dissuade assailants seeking refreshments after their hard work – though Fiji Water and fruit are comparatively low-value items. Yet they hardly evoked the images of the “roof Koreans” who fired their assault rifles at “anything and anybody” to protect their shops in Los Angeles’s Koreatown during the 1992 Rodney King riots. Although this was only a microcosm of a city of a nation, rewatching President Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” ads of civil unrest didn’t quite fit the vibe in SoHo, which, like the rest of Manhattan, doesn’t hold the same patina of seedy endearment that it once did. Senior officers and longtime residents observed that the magnitude of looting was far greater than the 1970s or 1992, but there was not a real feeling of imminent danger – though this could change at any moment.
Enervated, our motley crew that had gathered to wander the streets was replenished with cold beer – from where, I did not ask. Congregating around the van, we had a lively exchange as bandits ran back and forth down the sidewalk, police in pursuit. Occasionally, some of the youth would pause in empathetic dismay to let us know how “messed up” it was for the van to have been targeted, and passing cops offered similar sentiments. At one point half a dozen police paused for extended chit-chat. The officers, working 12 hour shifts every day, were grateful for any reason to take a break.
My bag-occluded ball bat, leaning against the van toppled, making a distinct ping, which one of the officers thought was thrown by a passing car. I sighed relief as they commented how smart it was to have it on hand. Eying a “white shirt” supervisor down the block, the cops stiffened and made more lively, authoritative gestures to appear busy as they continued talking until a genuine call came over the radio. They said apps like Citizen — which had first alerted my former boss of the engulfed van — are a more reliable source of quick information than their own dispatch.
While the curfew served as the go-ahead signal, by 2 a.m., the frenzy subsided about as suddenly as it had begun. As the impotent law enforcement finally began to tamp down movement in the street grid, only a few frustrated stragglers picked around for valuable remnants, the organized throngs seemingly gone.
All but one of our friends had bounced and I grew antsy about what to do next. I glanced at the van, snagged the key from my boss, and brushed glass off the seats. After cranking a few seconds, the old Chevy coughed to life. We set up a folding chair in the back for a friend, and set off into the wild streets, the rear license plate and turn signals completely melted. As I whipped the top-heavy, extended-roof boxy beast around tight corners, a noxious cocktail of water and soot from the previous night’s fire sloshed from the door pockets and cup holders onto my clothes.
Our survey of the city up through 66th Street between 6th and Lexington avenues was mostly dodging checkpoints of police largely uninterested in our rolling eyesore, to preoccupied to enforce traffic laws. Still, it felt like joyriding the worst wheels in Grand Theft Auto. Our improvised excuse, if anyone was to ask, was that we were going to file a police report at NYPD’s First Precinct for the vehicle arson, no matter that it is on the opposite end of the borough, our last stop before home. One bemused undercover cop furrowed his brow as he rolled down his window to get a better look at our war-torn van, simply imploring us to drive safely. Officers down at the precinct were exhausted, pestered with incessant calls from average citizens about the first curfew in 75 years, which, as one cop described, “is only for these looting motherf***ers.”
At dawn I tried to drift asleep to wailing sirens, and awoke a few hours later to the incessant whirring of choppers and circular saws of shop owners reinforcing for the day ahead. It was a day as nice as Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, all beginning anew.
Stepping out the door to meet my ride back to Penn Station, I caught Nate, the construction worker, loading the last of his tools in the back of his SUV. “It’s not going to get any more fun than last night, I’m outta here,” he chuckled. The first thing my driver said was that I was his last pickup, that I should feel lucky to have gotten a ride. This time, the police seized an hours-long head start on shutting down SoHo ahead of the new 8 p.m. curfew, ready for what the night would bring, as throngs of protesters marched uptown.
Zach D. Huff is a graduate student in Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, and has reported extensively from the Kurdistan regions of Iraq, Syria, and Iran.