In the midst of the recent amazing outpouring of street presence supporting black lives, on Monday night I had an opportunity to witness something a little quieter. Willing Participant, a performance group led by artists Todd Shalom, Ben Weber, and Niegel Smith of Elastic City, held a simple public action that they called “disarm.” For the event, about 35 participants turned up to be trained with the following instructions: as a pair, approach a police officer. Ask him or her, “Where can I go to find some peace and quiet around here?” Engage the officer in conversation. Take the conversation wherever you would like.
The group I chose to follow on the exercise was comprised of three participants: two young African Americans (one male, one female) and a middle-aged white woman. We walked from the training site on 49th Street and 6th Avenue into Times Square’s bright lights. The participants stopped to address two policemen outside of the NYPD station at the corner of West 43rd Street. From a small distance away, I listened to their exchange, which was surprisingly sweet: the police (two young white men) suggested visiting the main branch of the New York Public Library, and then faced off with each other about whether Shake Shack or Chop’t would be a better place to go for food.
After our interaction, which lasted about 10 minutes, we met up with the other participants and went to a local bar for a follow-up conversation. It became clear, over the course of listening to a variety of experiences, that the exercise worked not so much to disarm cops against us, but to disarm us against cops. Bess Matassa, a professor who brought her entire John Jay criminology class to participate in “disarm,” reported how the activity changed her sense of the urban environment: “Maybe my assumption is that there’s a hyperpatrolled environment. But when I actually look around — it is it that I perceive it that way when in reality I can’t find any cops?”
Michael, a young African-American man, said that the cop he spoke with had actually walked his group all the way from Times Square to Rockefeller Center. Michael shared the joy he felt in visually presenting this experience to others: “It’s a black man walking with a white cop, and I’m not getting arrested. People could see us smiling and walking together.” At worst, participants reported disinterested cops; no one came back and spoke of feeling unsafe. As one participant summed up, “The revelation is in all of us gathering and saying, ‘actually, we had a great interaction!’”
There are reasons for this: police in Times Square serve as much as tourist ambassadors as they do to protect and patrol. Willing Participant’s careful training and simple instructions also served as a kind of buffer against provocative interactions. Shalom and Weber told me that the ideal result of the work was to create “a human moment” — an important reminder as we consider the weight of individual life and how easily that value can be lost. “Disarm” was not a protest and should not be confused with one; rather, it was an opportunity to start another, perhaps simpler conversation — not a catalyst for change, but a break in this ongoing, excruciating, beautiful, and infuriating moment.
Willing Participant’s “disarm” took place on December 8 on Broadway between West 42nd and 49th Streets (Midtown, Manhattan). Upcoming events in protest of police brutality in New York City include the Millions March, beginning December 13 at 2pm in Washington Square Park. To keep up with other events and actions in the future, follow this Facebook page.