ON THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON of 13 December, two large public events jostled for space in Manhattan. One was the Millions March, a peaceful demonstration of outrage at police violence against “people of colour”—most notably the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, in a suburb of St Louis in August, and the choking and subsequent death by heart attack of a 43-year-old black man, Eric Garner, in the New York borough of Staten Island in July. In both cases, the civilians were unarmed. Grand juries in Missouri and New York had recently refused to indict the white officers involved in their killings. Chanting “Black lives matter!,” the marchers wound through downtown streets to Foley Square, near City Hall.
Close by, revellers in Santa Claus suits and skimpy elf costumes stormed through the streets as part of SantaCon, an annual Christmas-time bacchanal. SantaCon began in the mid 1990s as a whimsical art stunt, but it has since swollen into a frenzy of drunkenness, part pub-crawl and part Mongol invasion. Inevitably, the protest and the party bumped together. Santas cut through the march; gnomes and elves searched for alternative routes to the next bar. Police officers flanking the demonstration looked on with amusement. But what could have passed as a brief comic respite became a point of friction. One white man in full red-and-white regalia berated a black female protester, telling her to “go get a job.” That jibe, overlaid with age-old racist and classist disdain, sparked great anger. Dozens of demonstrators started chanting not against the excesses of the police or the failures of the justice system, but against SantaCon.
It was a collision of words, and of worlds. The tottering merrymakers were mostly white and middle-class; the Millions March, while very diverse, was composed in significant part of black New Yorkers. During recent months of discontent in New York, the gulfs of race and class between these two groups yawned wide. The top one percent of the city’s earners, the majority of whom are white, account for 44 percent of its total income; meanwhile, a fifth of all New Yorkers—a disproportionate number of them people of colour—live in poverty. A 2012 study showed Manhattan to be more socially unequal than Apartheid-era South Africa. The police play a prominent and divisive role on the front lines of inequality, and, with their conduct now under massive public scrutiny, tensions between the force, the city administration and minority communities are coming to a head.