Worse than war: My night besieged by looters and thugs in NYC
As every parent knows, children can sleep through anything when they’re tired enough. So it was with our two kids Monday night. They snored away, oblivious to the buzz of helicopters overhead, the constant wail of sirens — and the distinct crack of gunshots that rang out at around 10:40 somewhere in Midtown East, where we live. Their parents, on the other hand, were bundles of racked nerves.
I went downstairs to see for myself. In the four hours that followed, I felt the insecurity of lawlessness and disorder more acutely than I ever had before — and I’ve filed datelines all over the Middle East, including from the front line of the Iraqi Kurdish war against the Islamic State.
But I wasn’t the hero of these four hours. That role belonged to our two doormen, whom I will call Alfonso and Johnny — unarmed, upright, working-class people of color who were all that stood between the families in our building and the savagery of a depraved mob below.
I’d ventured out earlier, before the 11 p.m. curfew, which we’d soon learn was a toothless fiction. At the corner of Lex and 55th, a few neighbors and I watched young men and a few women heading somewhere, typically in packs of four or five. A Cohen’s Optical and a Verizon store were already smashed in, and some of the, er, protesters would walk through the broken glass and loot whatever struck their fancy; we avoided eye contact.
The NYPD had a presence at that corner, mind you: A regular squad car had blocked off 55th westbound, and we saw police vans going about this way and that. At one point, riot cops even got out of two of their vehicles and geared up, but then they got right back in and drove away. Not one officer confronted the ongoing looting, either because they feared being overwhelmed, I suppose, or because they had bigger fish to fry elsewhere.
They won’t come to our block, I thought. We have no sexy stores to loot.
My optimism was misplaced. When I went downstairs that second time, Alfonso looked alarmed: “Unless you absolutely have to go out,” he said, “please stay inside.” He needn’t have said anything: Instantly, I spotted more of those roving packs walking, sometimes running down our block, some heading west, some east — and some staying put and observing us through our glass entrance before moving on.
As I arrived, Alfonso’s shift was about to end and Johnny’s was about to begin. Johnny, it seemed, had no idea what was awaiting him. An agreement was reached: Alfonso would stay for an extra hour, partly to buck up and prep Johnny, partly because he wasn’t sure it was safe for him to go home (in a different borough). I decided to stay, too.
“Can we lock the doors?” I asked.
“Well, sure,” replied Alfonso. “But if they wanted, you know they can just break the glass and walk in, right?”
Ah, quite. Meanwhile, more roving gangs. Alfonso tensed up each time one went by; Johnny still hadn’t quite wised up to the gravity of the situation.
“Listen to me,” Alfonso told him, speaking loudly and slowly. “It’s very dangerous outside. Stay inside. Do not go out. Don’t jump or make sudden moves if you spot ’em. Don’t ever look ’em in the eyes. Guys like you and me have to be smart. You can’t be like, ‘I’m not involved.’ They don’t care. They make you involved.” Alfonso and I also blessedly managed to convince Johnny not to wear his building-issue hat, which made him look decidedly cop-like.
“I’m scared,” Johnny said.
“I’m scared, too. But tonight is not the night to wear that hat. Tonight is not the night to look pretty.”
At midnight, a neighbor came downstairs and handed Alfonso a canister. Pepper spray? No, it was a can of metal cleaner, mostly useless as a self-defense weapon. But, she reassured him, it could have “a powerful effect if you point it at them.” Alfonso smiled and thanked her.
I went upstairs for an hour or so; the kids had woken up; my wife needed a hand. When I returned to the lobby, Alfonso was gone, and Johnny was left alone. He was visibly shaking. So was I. Every minute brought some new shock and a fresh surge of adrenaline: more and more of those roving gangs, some sticking around for minutes. Squad cars racing down in convoy, sirens blaring. The smashing of windows (a hair salon on the block, I learned in the morning, had been smashed in). The screeching of tires. The shouting of men: “Stop, you motherf–ker!”
Why won’t the men in blue stay in front of our house?
At two in the morning, it couldn’t be denied that one particular roving gang was roving no more; its members were obviously staking out our building. Now cackling, now going ominously silent. Should I race upstairs and bring a kitchen knife? How would this scenario play out? Would they just smash our lobby and leave? What could stop them if they wanted to take the elevators up to our homes?
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus —
Johnny was frozen to his chair. I could feel him holding his breath. Then, after a beat, one of the youths waved his hand contemptuously at our lobby, as if to say, This isn’t worth it. And then he said out loud: “Nah, f–k this place.” They moved on. I could feel Johnny breathing out, as if for the first time in a decade.
At three in the morning, a newscaster on Johnny’s iPhone app said, “Protests continue tonight throughout New York… ” Johnny and I burst out laughing at that word. “Protests.” What happened that night was many things, but a protest it wasn’t. It was the night human savagery smashed the Big Apple.
Sohrab Ahmari is The Post’s op-ed editor.
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