Trump imposes unprecedented double lockdown on New York City

Trump imposes unprecedented double lockdown on New York City
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For the first time since the Second World War, during the Harlem race riots of 1943, New York City was put under curfew. Walking home after reporting on a peaceful Black Lives Matter sit-in in Brooklyn, I could have heard a pin drop as the 11pm deadline hit.

New York is still under a full coronavirus shutdown, too, let’s not forget. There is no precedent in history for a double lockdown such as the one currently imposed on America’s most populous city.

With Uber prices surging and rental Citibikes across the borough locked, the best option for me was to walk the two miles back to my house. After witnessing the often brutal tactics of the NYPD, few others appeared to want to take their chances out on the streets, in Brooklyn at least.

It was a tale of two cities on Monday. In Manhattan, looters took no heed. They counted down to 11 o’clock as if it was New Year’s Eve. Manhattan saw the worst, most widespread destruction and looting of the week-long protests. Dozens of shops down Fifth Avenue were ransacked.

The 8,000 officers were no match for the organised hordes, who had come with duffel bags and getaway cars. This was not exactly the New York I had expected to be covering. I had moved here three weeks before the city went into lockdown on March 22 – just enough time to find an apartment, but little else.

I arrived hot on the heels of a four-year posting in Beirut. I had covered attempted coups, revolutions, wars and the rise and fall of the Islamic State. From October to when I left in late February, I had been reporting on protests taking place in Lebanon that were not too dissimilar to those I am seeing now in the U.S.

NYPD officers block the exit of the Manhattan Bridge as hundreds protesting police brutality and systemic racism attempt to cross into the borough of Manhattan from Brooklyn hours after a citywide curfew went into effect in New York City. Scott Heins/Getty Images

New York, which shut down too late to stop the spread of the virus, began recording hundreds of deaths a day. It took on the dubious title of the Covid capital of the world. I was again back to reporting from hospitals and speaking to loved ones of the dead.

My journalist friends have messaged, telling me how lucky I am to be here to witness it all. My non-journalist friends have sent commiserations that my new beat was quickly turning out to be a lot like the old one.

I was anxious because I know how this goes. There are many comparisons to be made between Trump and authoritarian leaders across the Arab world and beyond.

Step one in the dictator’s handbook: label protesters terrorists, giving yourself greater powers to crack down on perceived insurrection. In the case of the US president it was Antifa, the amorphous anti-fascist movement, for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad it was al-Qaeda.

When Trump stood in front of the church, I was reminded of the times Assad would turn up for photo opportunities in houses of worship after decisive battles, presenting himself as a protector of Christians and other religious minorities.

Step two: demonise media that opposes you. People like to credit Trump with the phrase “fake news”, but the Syrian regime has been using it for years. They first deployed it when describing foreign coverage of massacres carried out by the “Shabiha”, or regime-aligned thugs, in the rebellious city of Homs in the earliest days of the uprising in 2011.

NYPD officers detain protesters for violating curfew during demonstrations in reaction to the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 2, 2020. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

As I packed up my kit to go and report on the curfew, I was filled with dread. I wore a warm jumper though it was a balmy evening, just in case I ended up spending the night in jail.

A British colleague, photographer Adam Gray, had been arrested while out covering the demonstrations over the weekend and so the prospect was not so distant.

Some 100 journalists across the States have been beaten, harassed, arrested and injured doing their jobs this past week.

While I often feared for my safety reporting in the Middle East, I had never been concerned about being arrested simply for interviewing protesters at a public rally.

Walter Shaub, the former head of the US Office of Government Ethics, recommended this week that American journalists start covering what was happening in the US “like you’re a foreign correspondent in a collapsing republic”.

Middle East reporters are surely ready to offer tips.

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