Artist Stephanie Shih Eats Between Protests

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Stephanie Shih and her hardboiled eggs. Illustration: Margalit Cutler

Over the last eight days, protests over the police killing of George Floyd have spread from Minneapolis to cities around the country and world. In New York, protesters have clashed with police, and thousands have gathered, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, to demonstrate against police brutality and systemic racism. The ceramic artist Stephanie Shih, whose work is rooted in the experiences of the Chinese diaspora, has been one of those protesters, out every night from Friday to Tuesday here in New York City. 

Friday, May 29
When I woke up on Friday, I already knew I was planning to be at Barclays at 6 p.m. I wake up kind of late, because I keep really weird raccoon hours. My friend makes these crazy art cakes, and she wanted to make me one to support, because she knew I was about to go out protesting and this was going to be a big part of my daily life.

Right around when I woke up, she dropped it off. She made it grinding her own black rice, and it had caramelized bananas, black sesame, and coconut whipped cream. I had a big slice of that for breakfast, around 3 p.m. Breakfast cake would not normally be a thing.

It was really nice that she made me a cake, and I’ve basically eaten it for breakfast and dinner every single day because I’ve been so busy and so exhausted. Coming home sore, literally limping, just emotionally exhausted — digging my fork into the cake straight out of the box without even putting it into a bowl. It felt like the easiest thing that I could do to feed myself. Because we’re not eating when we’re out on the street, really.

I started prepping. Packed up a backpack with water, and someone asked if I was going to bring milk for tear gas. I was like, “You know, I’ve never seen tear gas used in New York, so I’m not that worried. I’m not going to bring it.” I painted my sign; I turned my location services off.

When I got to Barclays, it was pretty peaceful; there were already 1,000 people there. The first hour or two of any given protest is usually pretty peaceful as the protesters and cops are trying to feel each other out. What was surprising to me was how quickly things escalated. You know, it’s not that uncommon that a protester might throw a water bottle in the direction of the cops. The cops are supposed to not overreact. But in this case it was just so clear that the cops were ready and eager to brawl. Immediately, they kind of came at us, pushing us back, pushing us back. I wasn’t even there for an hour and a half when I saw my first pepper-spray victim.I forgot the NYPD loves pepper spray. People were being pepper-sprayed left and right. The cops started tackling people. I was giving a bunch of Chinese cops a bunch of lip about what they’re doing on this police force, which has so much white supremacy interwoven in its history and on its modern-day ethos. I was standing next to this black guy giving the same to a black officer, and out of nowhere this giant beefy white cop just blindsided him. Tackled him to the ground, took him out, and arrested him. I was doing the same shit, but I’m a small Asian woman and I’m not seen as a threat. And anyone who is a black man is automatically a threat. He was just talking to a cop, maybe aggressively but certainly not violently.

I was helping pour water into people’s eyes who had been pepper-sprayed. I brought my own water; I hadn’t anticipated how pepper spray–y this event would be. It was so crazy to go from the pandemic thinking of “We cannot be near each other” to “I must help this person who is screaming in pain by pouring water into their eyes.”

I started marching north to Fort Greene. By that time, night had fallen and things got really serious. They definitely started beating a bunch of people, the pepper spray was out, and it was just a really, really rough night. Around 8 p.m., I got caught in a melee an a cop hit me in the head and shoved me hard.

I feel like if other people are putting their bodies on the line, I need to put my body on the line. Especially as an Asian-American woman who has non-black privilege, I am less likely to be tackled, I am less likely to be arrested, I am less likely to suffer at the hands of the police. If there are other people who are black and brown on the front lines, I feel like I can’t not be there, too.

When I came home at 11 p.m., I got into the shower right away. I could feel the pepper spray all over my eyes. My arms were burning and itchy; the pepper spray was basically being reactivated by the hot shower water.

I shoved a bunch of cake into my mouth, I ate a bunch of matcha Pocky that I happened to have, and luckily that night I had some leftovers from the day before from MáLà Project.  So I just shoved that into my mouth. I ate everything standing up because I was so hungry I couldn’t even think to sit down.

I wasn’t mentally prepared for how violent that night was going to be. It really blindsided me. I had a little idea because I had heard the night before in Manhattan they arrested 70 people. That number seemed too high for how small that protest was. I had friends there, and they said it wasn’t that big. I knew it was going to be bad, but it was a lot worse than I expected.

I had been letting all my muscles atrophy for two months indoors, and all of a sudden I was in the middle of protesters jostling with police. So my whole body was sore, but I knew, based on what I saw, we were going to go out again. There was no way I was going to stay in.

Saturday, May 30
I woke up, shoved a bunch of cake in my mouth. I had some leftover Camembert and those fancy Inés Rosales tortas that are wrapped in fancy wax paper. They were in my house. It’s not like I made myself breakfast.

When I packed my bag for that day, I felt a lot more prepared. Like, “Okay, we’re gonna go out and the cops are going to be dicks.” I packed milk, I packed paper towels to dab people’s eyes (you don’t want to wipe; you want to dab). I made two boiled eggs. I felt a little bit more prepared, mentally and logistically. At that point, I was eating a bunch of cheese and cake to get calories in me.

That day, we were in Flatbush. I was with a friend, we were running late, probably caught that group after we started marching a little bit. I thought the day before was violent, but this day ended up being crazy. I truly believe there was a concrete effort by cops to turn their cars into weapons. I’m sure you’ve seen that video of the SUVs driving into protesters. I know that one video has been going around, but I saw that ten times over.

On Flatbush Avenue, we were fenced in on both sides. That was the first time I started to see the SUVs used in this really aggressive way. One started speeding down the road toward the group at 40 mph, and we all had to get out of the way. It wasn’t a game of chicken … If we didn’t get out of the way, we would’ve been run over. Another one had its doors open. It was madness. To get the SUVs to back off, people started really smashing these vans with metal chairs, doing everything they could to get them to leave us alone.

From there, we marched into Manhattan on the Manhattan Bridge. Bridge marches make me very uneasy. They tire people out. You’re not disturbing any peace, so you’re just chanting to yourself over the river, and it gives the cops an hour to assemble, so it’s very easy to be trapped.

Once we got into Manhattan, we marched peacefully for a few blocks, and we were met on the Bowery by a horde of 50 to 100 bike cops. Some tussle started there, and then out of nowhere 200 to 300 riot cops on scooters appeared. They started playing a recording saying, “This is an unlawful assembly, if you don’t disperse you’ll be arrested,” and then they charged us. We all ran down the Bowery, people were getting tackled left and right, one of my friends got arrested. I didn’t know until later. I kept running, booking it. I was scared at any moment I was going to get tackled to the ground.

I made it onto Great Jones Street and sat down on a stoop, breathing heavy. I took my mask off and was watching the cops continue to stream by. I’m texting all my friends to make sure they are good, which, of course, one was not, and then all of a sudden a man and a woman walked out of the building next to the stoop I’m sitting at. It was Peter Hoffman, the chef, and his wife Susan Rosenfeld, who I know because she’s a ceramicist, and they came out because they heard all of the commotion and they recognized me because my mask was off and I burst into tears.

After six hours of being on the street, watching people get plowed down, I saw these two people I knew and I just broke down. They asked what happened, and I couldn’t even speak, the words weren’t making sense. So they said, “Come inside, we’ll feed you.”

I had this really surreal experience where I had just run for my life, and then Peter and Susan were feeding me lamb ribs and spinach and fancy potatoes and rosé. It was very nice, but it was absolutely — if I read that in a book, I would think, This feels too unreal, it is unbelievable. Their house is so nice, the meal was so nice, and I was drinking chilled wine. The whole time through dinner, I was telling them everything that was happening, calling my friends who have connections with the DA’s office, and we were looking for my friend. It was a really weird “dinner party,” where I was, the whole time, making sure all my people were safe and getting updates from the National Lawyers Guild and stuff.

Sunday, May 31
Sunday was one of those days where I was like, “I’m definitely not going out today.” I’ve said that every day, and then I go out. I woke up at eight, because I got a text from my friend that she was out of jail and on her way home. I ate cake again, because it was the easiest thing to do, and I boiled two eggs again and put them in my backpack. My friend bought goggles for me, and I also packed a Maalox-and-water mix for pepper-spray victims.

I went to Barclays — we went over the bridge again, my least favorite thing — and eventually at some point that night, we ended up near Union Square. Did you see the video of the cop swinging his gun around? I was on 8th Street when that was on 12th Street.

They were trying to push us out of Union Square. The group was at 13th Street, the cops would charge, and everyone would scatter, and then the cops would be at 12th Street. Once the cops stopped charging, everyone would come back, and then there’d be a new confrontation, and the cops would charge to 11th Street.

At Wanamaker and Fourth Avenue, we were on our hands and knees while the cops were playing this recording over and over for six minutes saying, “This group has become violent, if you do not disperse, you are subject to arrest.” You have to believe the human beings in the cop uniforms also understand how ridiculous this is.

The protesters have a lot of anger and a lot of emotion. They want to confront the subject of their anger. And I don’t necessarily mean that has to be a violent confrontation, but they want a standoff because they want to say to the cops, “We’re disgusted by the white supremacy of the police and carceral state, and we’re furious.” When the cops are violent with you and disperse you by charging you and charging you, the protesters don’t have an outlet for their energy. Everything kind of turned into chaos and unrest at this point. I think the way the cops are responding is aggravating everything.

A home, I melted some cheese on a tortilla and called it a quesadilla. I also ate a bunch of mini-cucumbers, standing up, shoving them in my mouth. And I think I had some more Pocky, just scavenging the kitchen for whatever was still there. Of course, there was still cake, so I ate cake.

Monday, June 1
I woke up again and was like, “She is not going out. There is no fucking way.” And a friend texted me and was like, “Thank you so much for being out on the front lines. What can I do for you? What errands can I run for you?” And I said, “If you’re being serious, I would love to stay home and make a nice dinner for myself. I have all these ceramic-dumpling orders I need to send out, and I don’t want to do any walking that I don’t have to. Can you mail them for me?”

So she bought me tomatoes and potatoes and kale, and we exchanged. I gave her six boxes of ceramic dumplings to mail out, and that afternoon I made a big hearty meal. Josh from Applestone Meats is a fan of my work. He sent me a bunch of meat as a gift, so I had these beautiful, fat pork chops in my freezer. So I braised one with tomato and kale and onion and anchovy. But by the time I made it, I knew I was going out again. At least I sat down to a nice meal first.

I didn’t even put the leftovers away. I left them on my stove with the cover on because I knew I’d scarf them down when I got home later.

The meal was less restorative than I expected it to be. I wanted it to be like, “Wow, look how well I’m treating myself. This is self-care.” But I think this whole week I haven’t been able to enjoy food the way I normally do because of the emotional and physical state I’ve been in.

It’s definitely harder to care about food, and something I noticed is when I’m out in the street, not only do I not think about food; I don’t even get hungry. That’s why, when I get home, I’m so ravenous. Like, at the point when I start shoveling food in my mouth, I don’t even feel hunger yet. I just start grabbing random things I see.

Normally, when I eat, I’m like, Ooh, what do I want to eat? What would I enjoy? What am I in the mood for? Now, I don’t even process the eating as consuming food. It’s just like feeding a machine. My body is just like Eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. It was a little disappointing to not be able to enjoy the big fat pork chop the way I wanted to.

Tuesday, June 2
I made mashed potatoes and folded in the leftover kale and tomato, fried an egg, and added a dollop of sour cream. It was, like, calories on calories on calories. Then I added some of the Yunhai chile crisp.

I worked jail support. That’s where you’re welcoming people who have been released. I had some Cheetos, Hi-Chews, and coconut water while I was there.

One guy told us he was trying to rush home before curfew and he was tackled by five cops. Not even that a black person needs to be doing the “right thing” to have a right to safety, but here’s a person trying to do the right thing, and also probably scared of the cops, and the cops are like, Fuck this black guy. He wasn’t even protesting.

The people who get released from jail trickle out maybe one every 20 minutes. At jail support, you know, there was just so much stuff. Boxes of pizza and doughnuts and homemade Indian food in Tupperware and cigarettes and hand sanitizer and masks. As you soon as someone crosses the barricade from cop custody, somebody else holds out a hand sanitizer and a mask, and then a legal person starts asking questions, and then it’s all the string cheese and Gatorade you can eat.

If we’re talking about the meaning of food and giving people food right now, here is a way we are using food to comfort people and to show them that we are on their side and they are not alone. One of the people had been in custody for 19 hours. He didn’t tell me if he ate anything, but at best they give you a shitty-ass baloney sandwich and you’re lucky if you get any water.

After jail support, we went only for a little protesting at Barclays. It was heading for Brooklyn Bridge, and we just had a bad feeling. When they were headed there, it was after curfew, so the three of us broke from the group, and they got trapped. There were 1,000 or 2,000 people penned in by cops on Manhattan Bridge. There’s video showing lots of prisoner buses heading to the scene, though I think they ultimately let everyone go because there were just too many people to arrest.

When I got home, I took some spare ribs that were from Applestone Meats — this is an ad now — and I made red-cooked pork braised in soy sauce. I made some of that, because it’s super-easy and a big comfort food for me. And then I ate the last crumbs of the cake.

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