Lapointe: On the sidewalks of New York, you never know what you’ll see

This was tame, for a riot; but what are we capable of?

Aug 9, 2023 at 6:00 am
click to enlarge People climb on top of a subway station roof in New York City amid a riot incited by internet influencer named Kai Cenat. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
People climb on top of a subway station roof in New York City amid a riot incited by internet influencer named Kai Cenat.

NEW YORK — As I walked up Broadway late last week toward Union Square in Lower Manhattan, a crowd of young people rushed toward me, perhaps a few dozen of them, their faces flushed with excitement but also flashing fear.

“Gunshot!” one of them shouted, and their feet picked up the pace.

I spun around and joined the surge. Funny how fast the “fight-or-flight” reflex kicks in; funny how easy it is to get swept up in the psychology of a mob.

After half a block, the stampede ended. The crowd dispersed, so I turned back around again toward the Square. Later I read that that big bang they’d heard was an M-80.

But as I approached from the southeast corner at 14th Street, I had to stop again. Crossing briskly in front of me was a large contingent of New York City cops — on foot, a couple dozen of them, men and women — marching toward the park.

There, they meshed with a swirling mass of young people surging back and forth, their voices rising in roaring waves like the ocean at Coney Island. In the middle distance, sirens grew louder and closer. Overhead, one helicopter hovered, then two.

What the heck?

As you may have heard or seen in the news coverage by now, this crowd was basically a flash mob, called together on a Friday afternoon by an internet influencer named Kai Cenat.

He is a 21-year-old from the Bronx, who promised his 6 million online followers that he would give away PlayStation 5 video-game consoles in Union Square. About 6,000 showed up, police said, and their 66 arrests included Cenat for inciting a riot.

Of course, if Cenat ever becomes President of the United States in the manner of Donald Trump, he can incite a lynch mob to murder his own vice-president and claim he is innocent and being persecuted for his First Amendment right of free speech.

But this mob didn’t have the homicidal bile of Trump’s insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. Nor was it like Detroit’s Riot / Rebellion of 1967, when 43 died and buildings burned.

Instead, the Union Square crowd reminded me more of the 1984 World Series celebration outside Tiger Stadium when fans overturned a police car and set fire to it. A similar vibe filled the air in New York last week.

Having covered sports for more than three decades, I recognized the sound of a happy crowd cheering (a lot different than an angry crowd booing), so I moved toward the sound in front of the subway station entrance. There, two young men had climbed its roof and were walking on it.

Others joined them. Each new participant drew a roar from the crowd as he reached the top. I sensed an energy in the crowd, the kind you find on college campuses after the home team wins a big football game. But I also sensed that things could get serious in a hurry.

click to enlarge Onlookers gawk at the mob that formed in New York City. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
Onlookers gawk at the mob that formed in New York City.

In other parts of the park — according to the New York Times — trash cans were toppled and debris thrown at cops. People jumped on moving cars and some fell to the pavement as the cars sped up to escape. (I saw this on local TV news.)

The Times website showed a video of cops ramming a young man’s head into the shattered glass at the back of a taxi. After recording the subway climbers, I traversed the outskirts of the Square and drifted Uptown, to 23rd Street, where cop cars blocked intersections.

There, people were gathered around, many on their cellphones.

“Turn on the TV!” one woman shouted into her phone. “Find out what is happening! Call me back.”

Unlike New Yorkers on normal days, strangers were speaking to each other and some obviously feared the worst. I joined a conversation with two women who seemed to live nearby.

“I’m sure you remember,” one said to the other, “the last time we saw people running through the streets like this.”

Her reference, of course, was to Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people.

After a few hours, the demonstration ended, but it left a lot of people wondering how vulnerable we remain. This was an accidental disturbance, a stunt that got out of control.

But what if someone planned terrorism by sending saboteurs through the subways to create chaos in a densely populated environment?

Walking back Uptown toward Central Park — among fellow pedestrians oblivious to what had happened downtown — I flashed on how riots make such great drama. Remember Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s exquisite depiction of the draft riots of 1863 during the Civil War?

Or perhaps you recall F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novella May Day, about rioting in Manhattan in 1919 when patriotic American veterans came home from fighting World War I in Europe and attacked socialists on New York streets. It was based on real events.

As is the case today, with Trump attacking his many enemies, the threat of political violence lurks beneath the thin veneer of public civility. What happens if Trump is convicted in a trial? What happens if he again wins the White House and inflicts his threatened vengeance?

The vicious political riot in May Day more than a century ago might prove prophetic.

“ . . . And over the whole swept an incoherent clamor and shouting,” Fitzgerald wrote. “. . . Immediately, the shouting became a steady yell . . . Her ears were full of shouting and trampling and hard breathing . . . Then the room was a riot . . . Anger rose astonishingly in her . . . She heard grunts, curses, the muffled impact of fists.”

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