“Naughty or Nice?”: The NYPD’s Treatment of SantaCon and the March of Millions

“Ho-Ho-Ho” chants, drunken frat boys, and hundreds of ‘Saint Nick’s’ roaming the streets of New York City. This is an accurate rundown of the yearly tradition dreaded by NYC residents known officially as “SantaCon,” which took place this past Saturday. SantaCon is a festivity where thousands dress up in Santa costumes to flood the New York City bar scene.

Traditionally, the SantaCon festivities kick-off early in the morning as these “Santas” meet up in Times Square. This time is essentially for the Santas to “amp-up” one another.  After the fueling of drunken egos, these revelers hit the New York street, spreading their “cheer” to various NYC bars. Also referred to as Santarchy, Santa Rampage, the Red Menace and Santapalooza, this “jolly” old time can be seen as a satirical twist on the city’s holiday-hype.. However, this holiday season, the tradition was met with some controversy, as it fell on the same day of the “March of Millions”, a protest against police violence on African Americans in lieu of the deaths of both Eric Garner, of Staten Island, and Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri. Although it was posted on the official SantaCon website that the event was arranged to scale back this year in response to the protest, the fact that it was scheduled a mere 30 blocks from the March of Millions meant that these two movements blending together was going to be unavoidable.

A "March of Millions" Protester putting their hands in the air, a symbolic gesture in response to the racial injustices.

A “March of Millions” Protester putting their hands in the air—a symbolic gesture in response to the racial injustices. Photo courtesy of Louie Dean Valencia García

I caught word of the March of Millions protest after doing my own research about the recent court rulings on the Brown and Garner cases.  I learned of events that have taken place since the grand jury decision not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of the unarmed, 18-year old Michael Brown at the end of November.  Following the decision, there has been a wave of protests, springing up in cities all around the United States in outrage over the decision. These protests started in Ferguson, and spread to approximately 30 states; some of the largest in Boston, Washington DC and New York City.  The protests were in direct response to the killing of the teenager, although they alluded to the greater issue of the racial discrimination of the nation’s justice system.

Furthermore, the media coverage on the protests, and the grander issues they stand for have been nothing short of mercurial. Since the first protest in Ferguson, the right wing media has been taking jabs at these protests, making accusations that they are unwarranted or making the claim that these protesters do not know what they are talking about. They have focused on the property damage the movements have been causing rather than analyzing the grounds that they stand upon.

Further fueling this fire was the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, a father of six.  Pantaleo killed Garner with an illegal chokehold (according to NYPD standards) after he resisted arrest.  These two tragic deaths and their controversial judicial outcomes led to a push to expose the corruption within the justice system, which spurred the March of Millions protest.

This march represented parallel social implications as the others over the past few weeks.  I felt as though I needed to attend this event and dissect it for myself to avoid being trapped into a position of bias as a result of the news media and constant barrage of opinions on  social media feeds.  Also, it just so happened that SantaCon fell on the same dates, which lead me to ponder about the outcomes of the two events.  One big postulation I had was the difference in police presence.  I wanted to see the police presence at both events, which would be indicative of who was more suspected of “getting out of hand,”, a drunken group of individuals storming around the city for purposes that are outlined in the SantaCon website: “For absolutely no reason.”  Or was the NYPD more conditioned to believe that this march would be the real cause for concern?

Because SantaCon was scheduled to begin at 10 AM on Saturday, and the March of Millions was set to step off at 2

The Santas meeting up early in the morning before "kicking off" their festivities.

The Santas meeting up early in the morning before “kicking off” their festivities.

PM, I went to observe the events at SantaCon first.  Having only heard stories about this tradition before, and never attending myself, my predisposition towards the event was formulated from the stories I’ve heard, and from what I had passively heard in the news.  Having been told that neighborhoods of the bars that generally cater to SantaCon have been vocally displeased with the Santas coming early this time of year, I was expecting one big yule-tide mess. I expected these drunken patrons to be met with strict police enforcement.  With a group as large as SantaCon, with their beards and their hats basically blocking faces, I saw justification for a watchful authoritative eye.

However, upon arriving at the Santa meet-up spot in Times Square, it appeared that I had largely overestimated SantaCon’s subsequent police presence.  A few cops maybe here and there served as a  force that was meant to handle these Santas in case things had gotten out of hand.  In addition, among the cops that I did see, a few of them were leaning against buildings, seemingly only keeping a passive eye upon the growing group Santas with their rallying “Ho-Ho-Ho” chants.

One of the many blocks, lined with Police Officers, adjacent to the start of the "March of Millions" in Washington Square Park.

One of the many blocks, lined with Police Officers, adjacent to the start of the “March of Millions” in Washington Square Park.

I began to question the officers’ expectations from the event. Would these handful of cops, be able to spring into action in case a large-scale Santa-on-Santa brawl erupted?—I say no.  I also think that the SantaCon crowd factored into the cops’ low state of alertness.  Most of these Santas were either college students or people in their early twenties, but largely white.  Were these cops conditioned to believe that a group of white, most likely educated, people would be incapable of creating a scene?  It could be.  However, I couldn’t further develop this postulation until I was able to juxtapose the police presence at the March of Millions.

SantaCon was held in Times Square on 42nd Street, and the March of Millions was scheduled to begin at Washington Square Park, almost 40 blocks south of Times Square, so I had a about a thirty minute walk to see a transition. As I moved south, I saw fewer Santas, and more protesters, and it was here where my initial speculations were almost immediately confirmed.  As soon as I was within five blocks of Washington Square Park, I noticed three helicopters hovering above the park.  Once within viewing range of the park, the police presence became much more evident, with squad cars lined along the streets adjacent to the park.

A Protesters at the "March of Millions" holding a poster questioning the differential treatment amongst the races.   Photo courtesy of Louie

A Protesters at the “March of Millions” holding a poster questioning the differential treatment amongst the races. Photo courtesy of Louie Dean Valencia García

I was beginning to wonder what I was walking into, because with the NYPD presence that I had seen, I was expecting utter chaos.  I moved in, and joined the outer perimeter of the protest, slowly creeping my way through.  While I must say, this protest was most definitely loud, the volume was understandable. These people were upset about the recent racial injustices, namely the deaths of Garner and Brown, and they were passionate, demanding progress.  Furthermore, upon walking through the crowd into the actual march, it was interesting that the group of marchers seemed to be cordoned off, by both guardrails and many police officers standing in a military-style “parade rest” position. However, the protest appeared to be “caged off,” making it difficult for people to move in or out of the march.

Now, I walked along with the protest until it dissolved several blocks up from Washington Square Park, and from there I thought I had seen enough to conclude the trip.  I heard that the protest went on into the night, with the police eventually having to use LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) to break apart the coagulations of protesters.

It is true that the March of Millions had many more participants than SantaCon; however, proportionally, there were more cops watching over the march.  Furthermore, from what I saw, there was an evident difference in the readiness and preparedness of the officers between the events in the case things had gotten out of hand.  Compared with the relaxation of the NYPD officers at SantaCon, those at the March of Millions seemed to be prepared for the worst.   The NYPD was conditioned to believe that this movement, which stood for equality and justice, was more likely to become violent than  a mob of drunken youths only concerned with having a good time.

This leads me to hypothesize questions about both society and the integrity of the media.  It is impossible for me to capture all of the events and factors which played into the clashing of these two groups in the Manhattan.   However, from my observations, a case could be made that the NYPD’s preparedness for the two events was indirectly influenced by the media.  It seems likely that the level of police readiness was a response to the reports following the Ferguson protests.  Moreover, why is it that the police are conditioned to believe that a group of drunken white twentysomethings are less threatening than a group advocating for equal representation for people of color in the United States? Developing social analyses such as these exposes the fact that race discrimination still exists within our culture—and sometimes it’s dressed in a red suit.



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