Choppers overhead and a police van on fire outside my door

A 360° view of policing, looting, and "justice" from the front lines of the NYC protests.

(Words and photos by Matt Ruby.)

A few yards from my front door, flames flew out a police van and smoke filled the air.

See, I’ve got you hooked now, don’t I? Danger! Fear! I get why the media takes this approach; it’s scary, sexy, and gets clicks. (Heck, I even put it in the headline above so you’ll read this.)

And yes, I did witness a burning police van in my hood (Brooklyn’s Fort Greene), but I also spent hours at protests before and after and that’s the only time things got wild. The rest was peaceful protesting filled with expressions of grief and pleas to stop police brutality and racial injustice.

OK, snowflake

“Oh great, here you go with the virtue signaling!” Eh, I hate that crap too.

I’m no angel, I’m not better than you, I’m not a veteran protester, others have done way more than me, I’m just trying to do better and tell you what I’ve seen.

My mom traveled through the south in the 60’s alongside the Freedom Riders while my dad was a New York City prosecutor (and later a US attorney) who, when it came to matters of law and order, was only slightly to the left of Stalin; so I grew up getting all the angles. I strive to see both sides.

And to me, silence doesn’t feel like an option right now, not when a large segment of our population is crying out in pain. A NYPD Detective said he felt compelled to speak out “because I realized by saying nothing that I am indeed saying something.” If a cop feels the need to speak up, what’s my excuse?

“You’re a protest guy.” Actually, I dislike big groups of people. I don’t want to deal with the lines at music festivals, I don’t like the mindless chanting of political rallies, and I don’t think mobs make good decisions. (Here’s something you never hear: “You know who came up with this great idea? That group of 3,000 people.” Mobs are good at moshing and lynching and I’m not a fan of either.)

“Um, white guy: It’s your job to show up, listen, and support. Try deprioritizing yourself.” Okay, but this is my newsletter so I’m going to prioritize myself here because [ego emoji]. Plus, I’m on the front lines here in Brooklyn whether I want to be or not. Lately, it sounds like I live in Fallujah. There’s a helicopter circling as I write this. Last night, I was up on the roof saying, “The choppers are moving north which means the rebels are trying to take the bridge.” I’m like a goddamn military strategist now.

A nightmare opportunity

George Floyd’s murder was, in a perverse way, the perfect crime since the usual counterarguments don’t exist: It wasn’t a hair trigger decision, he wasn’t resisting arrest, and it wasn’t just one bad apple. This man was cuffed and pleading for his life and calling for his Mama while bystanders pleaded repeatedly for the officer to stop. Have you watched the entire clip? Those bystanders begging for mercy while the callous officers ignore them is revelatory; it’s merely business as usual to them.

“I agree, what those cop did was terrible. But they were charged.” It’s not just a few bad apples, it’s a whole rotten apple farm. It’s an entire policing philosophy that’s addicted to compliance over de-escalation. Do what I say and don’t talk back or else you’ll feel my wrath. Bend to my will or else. It’s a bunch of aggro bullsh*t that unnecessarily heightens conflict.

And fyi, I hate it when the left seeks compliance via speech too. Say that phrase or else. Refer to that group like this or else. But the difference between cops and woke SJWs is the use of lethal force; a Twitter chokehold is easy to escape.

Anyway, back to the protests. Personally, my favorite part is the bus drivers who cheer on the marchers and honk their horns (as do other cars). It’s fun to see people excited to be stuck in traffic. Also, I find chanting the name “George Floyd” aloud to be cathartic; it’s as if the more we shout his name, the less he died in vain.

And I like marching more than standing around because it feels helpful to reach new people – the ones in cars, the ones at home, the passersby – instead of just talking to ourselves. I aso like the mass action of taking a knee because of how it evokes Colin Kaepernick (and the lesson we learned from America’s reaction to him). Also, the kids who cheer along as marchers pass by are adorable.

The protests also annoy me sometimes, though. I don’t understand who’s leading the march or the specific end goal (I’m a big fan of lists of demands, fyi here’s a good one to reference for all this). Some guy has a megaphone and we gather around him, but I wonder why? Who’s this guy? Wait, it’s not…oh gawd…a slam poet. Noooooooo! I’ve seen too many crazy dudes at open mics to just blindly respect someone because they have amplification.

"Defund the Police" signs are everywhere and, after Googling it, I get the argument but fear that phrasing will be catnip for right wingers and Limbaugh types. When your argument includes the phrase "let's make a place where people don’t need to rob banks” then boomers are gonna reply, "OK, Gen Z." Shifting resources away from violent policing to social services seems like a great idea but it needs a better phrase because defunding the police will, to most Americans, just seem like an invitation to anarchy and chaos. “Fund the Community, Not the Police” would be more constructive.

I skip some chants, like “NYPD, Suck My D*ck.” No thanks. “How do you spell racism? NYPD.” Nah. I’ll scream along with “No justice, no peace” but I omit the followup “F*ck these racist a** police.” I just see antagonism like that as fuel on the fire. (Insert the usual white privilege caveat here blah blah blah I just wanna tell you how I feel, okay?) I don’t think you ever achieve healing by telling someone to suck your d*ck. If you need to vent rage, fine. But it’s silly to then expect compromise and change from the target of your venom. Also, white people shouting at black people that they're racist (even if they're cops) just seems preposterous.

Speaking of cops and racism

To be honest, I’m actually impressed by the diversity of the NYPD. I lived for years in Chicago and you should have seen what passed for diversity there. “This is Officer Chmielewski. He’s Polish, has a mustache, but see, here’s where we mixed it up: He only weighs 240lbs instead of, y’know, diversity!” In NYC, I’ll regularly see things like a tiny Asian man patrolling with a black woman.

For most white people in NYC, the way we generally interact with the NYPD (before this week anyway) is seeing them serve as the de facto frontline of our screwed up mental health care system. Our culture doesn’t constructively deal with mental illness, homelessness, or drug addiction. Instead, we make our police incessantly deal with those who slip through the cracks. I can’t imagine the toll that must take on one’s psyche. These cops are oozing untreated PTSD which their macho culture won’t let them discuss it. Would love to dose ‘em all with a mushroom/MDMA/ayahuasca cocktail and hash it out.

When I look at the cops at these protests, I see fear. They know they’re being filmed, they know they’re hated, and they know things could break bad at any second and they’ll be a target. Plus, there are fringe element types around that definitely want to start sh*t. I imagine the bond cops have with each other usually takes precedent over the rights of civilians since their lives can depend on each other.

“They have such a tough job.” I agree! But no one is forcing them to do it. Also, that’s why we’re supposed to respect cops, because they’re successfully able to do a tough job. They get cushy pensions, they get respect, they get laid. So when we see them consistently screwing up and, say, macing innocent civilians, I think, “Well, any a**hole could do that.”

“I know a cop and he’s not racist.” I think it’s too simplistic to say “cops are racist” and that view actually lets the system off the hook. “That guy was a racist cop” deflects away from “The entire criminal justice system is racist.” And if you really want to get into it, “Our entire country is built on white supremacy and the police are just the tip of the spear that protects a predatory economic structure that gives practically all of the wealth to a sliver of the population while making the rest of us fight it out like dogs in the street!” (Well, dogs in the gig economy, but you get it). I’m always surprised by how much we focus on MLK’s pacifism but never his thoughts on how our economic system and racism are intertwined. Cornel West spitting fire on CNN gets at the real underlying conditions. So does Charlamagne going off on First Take.

It’s scary how militarized the cops are now, too. We fought pointless forever wars in the Middle East so Halliburton etc. could charge the government billions to produce weaponry and armor that was handed down to police departments across this country that now uses them to silence its own citizens. Gah.

And police spokesman is a thing, right? Well, speak! What are their rules of engagement with protestors? What is their criteria for using force? What is their advice for protesting peacefully? It’s unfair to punish people for violating rules that you've never explained in the first place.

Also, these police unions are why abusive cops stay on the streets and feel untouchable. In fact, seeing how much the police get away with because of the power of their unions is the best argument in favor of labor unions I’ve seen. No wonder Amazon fears unions so much; they look at the police and see how scary it can be when one gets legit power.

If you don’t like it, vote!?

The Atlanta mayor told protestors to go home and vote. But we need to connect the dots between these protests and voter suppression. "Go home and vote in the election" only works IF YOU CAN VOTE. When you deny people representation, they will erupt. This is literally why the American Revolution happened. The mayor of the largest city in Georgia, ground zero for suppressing black people’s votes, should understand that. I give my take on that here…

But the looting!

“But what about the looting?” The protestors and looters are completely different groups. If you conflate the two, you are buying into a false narrative and you should consider who’s pushing that narrative and why. It's totally possible to dislike 1) cops who kill unarmed black people AND 2) white anarchist skateboard twerps who just wanna break stuff AND 3) looters who want to steal Nikes. They're all just different flavors of the same formula: testosterone + entitlement.

I’m tired of dialogue that purports to stand up for business owners when the effect is to obfuscate lethal injustice. What I want to say to these people: I’ll explain the looting to that business owner’s family if you explain George Floyd’s murder to his family.

I posted this on Facebook…

Those businesses have insurance.
Those protestors don’t.

…and got some blowback because of it. Look, it's a 7 word post; I was going for brevity over nuance and figured people would be able to get the gist. I'm not condoning looting or violence, and I realize some small businesses may not have insurance that covers this which sucks. My intended point: It reveals something about our culture when we're more concerned with protecting the inventories of corporations like Verizon and GameStop than we are of protecting black and brown bodies.

"The looters are just destroying their own communities." Um, the looting in NYC was in Manhattan and the stores were mostly Urban Outfitters, Verizon, Adidas, CVS, and other places most definitely not owned by locals. These aren't anyone's "community." Maybe that's part of the problem.

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t overlook the violence and the looting…” Look, I hate the people doing those things too. But I do not pay them, they do not represent me, and they are not agents of the state whose purpose is to serve and protect. Those things are the jobs of the police. The looters don’t owe me sh*t, the cops do. That’s why I focus on the loss of life instead of the loss of property. Everyone’s donating to orgs like Campaign Zero, but how ridiculous is it that we’re paying to stop the cops from murdering unarmed black people while also paying the cops!?

My fear is there’s something darker here: The people who put emphasis on the looting often seem to be donning a mask to cover up how little they care about the systemic violence against black people. My not very hot take is dead black bodies matter more than stolen leggings from Lululemon. Plus, the looting will be done soon because the powers that be will not allow it. The violent policing? The powers that be have let that go on for decades.

Common ground

The “justice system” should be applying justice (duh), cops should want justice, and those protesters keep shouting, “No justice, no peace.” Voila, our common ground! We all want justice so let’s get it for cops and civilians. There is a middle path here between murdering unarmed black people and living in anarchy. We can support peaceful protest and oppose people who loot or commit acts of violence under the guise of protest. Screw the normal left/right nonsense. No justice, no peace.

And FYI, the spot where that police van burned (photo by Frank Franklin II)

National Guard summoned to aid cities amid police clashes

…looks like this now. From the ashes…

More of my photos from the protests here.


Cop a feel

My new special “Feels Like Matt Ruby” is up on YouTube and it’s getting rave reviews. Please check it out and tell a friend! It’s also available to download/stream as an album. Here’s a clip that fits the news these days:

The End Credits


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About the author: I’m Matt Ruby (standup comedian & creator of Vooza) and this is my newsletter filled with thoughts about comedy, tech, politics, and more.