(Photos: Erin O’Brien)

This year’s Fourth of July celebrations brought more fireworks, picnics and Black Lives Matter protests to the city’s streets. As demonstrations against police brutality sweep the country and the coronavirus continues to claim thousands of Black and Brown lives, many people refused to take part in acts of patriotism and celebrate the United States this year.

Over the six weeks that have passed since George Floyd’s murder, demonstrations in New York City have become less issue or person-specific and have grown to encompass the overall liberation of black lives. While protests have decreased in number, those that are still being carried out are hosted by a dedicated coalition of activists and draw larger, cross-sectional crowds. 

Around 1 p.m. Saturday, a small group began to form at the intersection of Fulton Street and Marcy Avenue, right next to the freshly painted, 28-foot-tall, Black Lives Matter mural. A speaker from Divine Action– a group that promotes self-sufficiency, economic stability and education in Black communities– pointed out that people in power are working to promote the Black Lives Matter movement by painting massive murals, but cities are failing to enact structural changes that could actually prevent police killings, such as ending qualified immunity for officers.

“The NFL playing the Black National Anthem,  OK — but that’s not what we asked for,” the speaker said.

Crowds also gathered at Borough Hall and Grand Army Plaza later in the day to hold vigils, hear speeches and march throughout Brooklyn. 

UniteNYC, an umbrella organization that was formed to bring different groups of demonstrators together on Juneteenth, hosted a rally that began at Madison Square Park in Manhattan at 2 p.m. The location was chosen for its symbolic importance– James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, kept slaves in his household until his death despite being publicly anti-slavery. The rally, led by Strategy for Black Lives, Warriors in the Garden, and Freedom March NYC, focused on the hypocrisy of lauded historical figures like Madison, and the role of history in perpetuating systemic racism in the United States. 

“As we walk today, we take steps through history, through the past, making us rethink what it means to be an American,” said one organizer from Strategy for Black Lives.

A drum line played in the center of the park’s dried-out fountain, while (primarily white) picnickers looked on and the crowd, dressed in black, grew in size. Organizers emphasized the importance of white allyship in the protest movement, particularly in a system that has demonstrated its care for white bodies over Black ones. 

“Your lives matter, to them,” another organizer said, “Every ally, step up and keep stepping up.”

As the crowd continued to swell, organizers led demonstrators out of the park, and to the obelisk statue on Broadway. There, Ryann Richardson, activist and Miss Black America, spoke to the crowd about the importance of protesting a holiday like the Fourth of July. She began by quoting Frederick Douglass’ landmark speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” To that question, Douglass, speaking in 1852, answered “A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

As they marched, Richardson  asked protestors to demonstrate “real patriotism”– laborious, angry protest that held America, and the racist systems that uphold the country, to account. “Real patriotism requires fierce accountability and righteous anger,” she said, “Today can’t be about a tribute to America. It must be an indictment of America.”

From Madison Square Park, demonstrators marched down Fifth Avenue, past still-boarded-up luxury store windows, to Washington Square Park, where thousands of protesters gathered around a stage that had been set up under Washington Arch.

With statues of George Washington looming overhead, an organizer from Strategy for Black Lives  ripped out pages from an Elementary American History textbook and handed them out to the crowd. As he highlighted the ways in which American History fails to recognize the contributions and experiences of Black people, he invited protesters to read out their pages before throwing them on a fire lit in a trash can. Smoke plumed above the crowd as organizers called on demonstrators to interrogate the history they’d been taught. 

Also in Manhattan, over 15,000 bikers gathered on the Upper West Side for a mobile protest (Justice Ride) with Street Riders NYC. The group has organized five weekend bike rallies since George Floyd’s death, each growing in size. For July Fourth, they requested that all bikers wear red, because “our blood spills on the streets…we are not free, we are not independent.” The group made their way up West Side Highway into the Bronx, and looped around Yankee Stadium. Posts from the event showed thousands of bikers on the waterfront after nightfall, as fireworks lit up the sky.