Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The past weeks have seen the largest number of Americans taking to the streets since the Occupy and Iraq War protests. But what really sets these ongoing actions apart is that they are in so many cities—and spread out across them.
Demonstrators took to New York streets for a second night of protests this past Thursday after a grand jury decided that Wednesday not to indict a New York Police Department officer for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
The protests weren't isolated to New York alone. Just as protesters took to major highways across America late in November following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, thousands of people once again shut down roads in Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston. The demonstrations reached smaller cities, too, including Albany, Savannah, Indianapolis, Wilmington, Asheville, and many more.
After two nights of actions that followed a week of dedicated protests in the wake of the Ferguson grand-jury decision (and months of scattered protests since the August shooting of Michael Brown), it's plain that the protests are the broadest in terms of scope since the Occupy protests in 2011. They could even be the largest since the Iraq War demonstrations in 2003. Ultimately, it may be impossible to measure the scale of the current protests with respect to the protests in the U.S. of the last decade.
Protesters seemed to assemble in every part of New York, from the West Side Highway to the Brooklyn Bridge, shutting down streets and infrastructure, including the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.
Thousands of protesters gathered in Times Square and Union Square. Social media showed people chanting a chorus of "No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police" throughout Manhattan.
Police and demonstrators, perhaps thousands of them, clashed at the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, where the protesters attempted to take the ferry to Staten Island, where Garner was killed. Protesters were numerous in that borough, too.
Decentralized demonstrations mark a difference between protests today and protests from major moments of civic unrest in the recent past. Like the Occupy protests, the ongoing actions are widespread across the nation. But unlike those actions, the current ones are not clustered around any single focal points (such as Zuccotti Park). An estimated 10,000 protesters assembled in Foley Square Thursday night, a larger gathering than almost any Occupy Wall Street action, and that was just one of the localized demonstrations in New York.
Like in New York, widespread protests in Boston had no center. People gathered on the Charlestown Bridge, in Boston Common, and at an entrance to Logan Airport, among other places. The strength of these demonstrations comes not in proof of numbers but in their geographic scope.
There were considerable demonstration in 2003 against the Iraq War, especially in major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Some of the largest marches and actions took place in Washington, D.C., against the symbolic backdrop of the National Mall.
The protests now are different. While Rev. Al Sharpton plans to lead a National March Against Police Violence in D.C. on December 13, demonstrators are not waiting on official organization structures to mount significant actions. A march in D.C. won't reflect any sort of official count for these demonstrations. They are underway, and continuing, in places like Detroit:
And dozens of other towns and cities—*protests kept up throughout this weekend, with clashes in Berkeley and Seattle—with no immediate end in sight.
*This post has been updated with photos and information about the Berkeley protests.