Read “This is how You Stymie a Movement” for a catalog of recent protest arrests made with excessive force.
On the evening of September 17, a group of 60 immigrant rights protesters left Foley Square in lower Manhattan heading toward the 9/11 Memorial. They were trailed closely by 50-60 police officers including 11 white shirts — lieutenants, captains and inspectors — who were ready to rumble.
When the protesters turned onto Broadway, they were chased down and tackled in the street by the police within 10 minutes of having set out. Shortly after, protesters were kettled in front of the 9/11 memorial, where additional police units showed up: 50 additional riot cops, bike cops, plain-clothed officers, detectives and a helicopter.
Tameer Peak, a Black Lives Matter organizer, was filming live on Instagram when the cops pulled him from the sidewalk into the street. He soon found himself face down on Broadway with a half dozen police officers piling on top of him as they put him under arrest.
“They kept trying to rip my fucking arm off,” Peak recalled. “One put his fucking foot in my back. It’s ridiculous to even think that you can’t walk on the sidewalk and record them.”
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Following the videotaped murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, massive Black Lives Matter protests erupted across New York City. They continued a near daily basis over the next month. The NYPD was frequently overwhelmed and, like many other embattled police departments across the country, responded to protests against police violence with more violence — shoving peaceful protesters to the ground, clubbing them with batons, driving police SUVs into crowds, kettling protesters and then arresting them en masse even when they tried to comply with police orders.
Here in New York, large Black Lives Matter protests subsided by the end of June. At about the same time City Council approved an annual budget that pretended to cut $1 billion from the annual police budget while doing no such thing. The media spotlight moved on.
Since then, protests for racial justice and other progressive causes have still been taking place in the City, usually multiple days of every week. But they are much smaller, averaging 50-200 participants, and present little to no threat to public safety. Yet, over the past four months, an Indypendent investigation has found that on at least 18 occasions peaceful protesters have been violently attacked and/or arrested by police (See sidebar). These crackdowns receive fleeting coverage at most and are invariably treated as one-off incidents — not as a part of an ongoing pattern of police repression.
These smaller protests are valuable for movements because they help build confidence and cohesion within and between groups and help prepare the soil from which larger protests and widespread grassroots organizing will spring in the future. When they are violently driven from the streets and participants are deterred from joining in future protests, the whole point of having a First Amendment right to protest is short-circuited.
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While the September 17 incident is emblematic of the violence the NYPD has directed at protesters, they have other ways to intimidate and disrupt. On a number of occasions, an overwhelming number of cops have shown up at even the smallest of protests and made them look more like crime scenes than the sight of First Amendment-protected dissent.
“This is the new status quo,” a NYPD community affairs officer told The Indypendent when 25 cops including a white-shirted commander engulfed a peaceful Nov. 13 sidewalk protest by 20 32BJ SEIU union members outside the downtown Brooklyn office of City Councilmember Stephen Levin.
The protesters, who are security workers at privately-run homeless shelters, were demanding that Levin co-sponsor bills that would bring their wages and benefits into line with what security workers receive who are under direct contract with the City.
• • •
A 2007 parade ordinance enacted in response to the Critical Mass bicycle protests makes it illegal for protesters to march in the street without a permit. But kettling protesters, telling them to clear the roadway but not giving them a chance to leave before arresting them, and using excessive force to make arrests is also illegal.
“If you’ve already been kettled, the legality of your arrest is in question. If you can’t actually leave, then you’re not ‘free to leave.’ There is a problem once people aren’t free to leave,” explains Gideon Oliver, a lawyer who has been defending protesters’ First Amendment rights in New York City since the 2004 RNC protests.
There is also a rule, CPL §150.20, enacted in January, that mandates police issue summonses and desk appearance tickets at or near the site of the offense, not by bringing the offender to a precinct. The NYPD insists that the chaotic nature of protests necessitates a temporary detention before they issue the summons appearance tickets.
“The Police Department takes protest arrestees through this large-scale arrest process that only happens for protesters,” Oliver said. “We’ve sued them over the years arguing that adding this extra time in custody, prosecutions, etc. are all taxes on First Amendment activities, the purpose of which is to really scare people away from doing it again. Which it frequently does.”
Protesters are also being surveilled, particularly those who identify as abolitionists. “They target us. It’s definitely a pinpoint to have the FBI come to my house,” said Peak. “I was at Washington Square Park one day and an officer came up to me and called me by full name. Why are you so giddy that you know my name? That’s scary.”
In June, an anti-police brutality protest in Mott Haven, Bronx was strategically kettled. The Human Rights Watch wrote a report titled “New York Police Planned Assault on Bronx Protesters.” FTP/Decolonize This Place, the organizers, have been some of the most outspoken critics of the NYPD since before the current incarnation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2019, they organized turnstile hopping protests at MTA stations after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would hire 500 new subway cops in a crack-down on fare evasion.
“What happened in Mott Haven is an example of preemptive policing,” Oliver told The Indypendent. “The police department really seems to have chosen the kettling and other violent tactics used based on the message and based on the organizers. Based on their perceptions about the participants. Not based on a real public safety threat or other factors that might justify more heavy-handed police response.”
“Policing,” Oliver observed, “is more violent, more heavy-handed, more repressive when it comes to groups that say ‘fuck the police’ or have abolitionist messages.”
Mayor de Bill Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea defended the show of force in Mott Haven by alleging that a firearm was discovered in relation to the protest. According to Jennvine Wong, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society who is defending protesters in Payne et al. v de Blasio, a case that sues the City for its handling of the George Floyd protests, the gun was not related to the march. “It sounds like a cover-up,” she told The Indy. “And from my understanding, it came out later on that that gun was actually recovered hours before and not even near the march.”
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So why is the NYPD able to get away with such an overbearing response? Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College sociology professor and author of The End of Policing, says Mayor de Blasio has decided the defund the police movement doesn’t merit being taken seriously.
“Instead of involving them in a legitimate political process, he’s turned the problem over to the police,” Vitale said.
Three of the city’s five police unions endorsed Donald Trump’s re-election while more than 70 percent of New Yorkers voted to cancel Trump’s presidency. Given that and how the police respond to those who question their authority, it’s not unreasonable to think of the NYPD as a highly armed group of counter-protesters.
“They feel like we hate them specifically on an individual level when that’s not the case, we just hate what they represent,” said Peak, who was the housing coordinator at Abolition Park, a nearly month-long protest encampment on the sidewalk outside City Hall this summer that drew hundreds of participants.
Not all protesters have been treated badly by the NYPD. Over the summer and fall, there have been various Back the Blue and pro-Trump protests, all of which have been attended by Black Lives Matter counter-protesters.
During one instance at Times Square on October 25, the NYPD urged members of a pro-Trump caravan to leave the premises after a scuffle broke out and then proceeded to arrest their leftist counterparts.
On October 13, Peak was beaten up by a group of pro-Trump protesters who had just unveiled the world’s largest known Trump flag. When he started to defend himself, the NYPD intervened only to arrest him. He was held in jail for 26 hours before being released without a charge.
“Have you ever spent time in central booking for 26 hours? Peak asked. “If you’re not strong minded, then it can break you. So people don’t want to deal with that. And people are afraid of ending up in Rikers.”
Following the presidential election, the NYPD carried out mass arrests of protesters demanding all votes be counted in key swing states. The first incident occurs at Washington Square Park on November 4 and the second on November 5 outside the Stonewall Inn. For many, it wasn’t their first arrest. Since the winding down of the mass marches in early July, many demonstrations have been frequented by the same core group of protesters. Being body slammed to the pavement or barely escaping the grasp of a cop gets old after a while.
“The suppression tactics have been working,” said Peak, who also noted the economic hardship imposed by the federal government’s stingy response to the economic crisis is sapping the movement’s energy.
“People are trying to look for jobs and go back to work,” he said.
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While the NYPD’s war on protest may be new to younger activists, it’s been a recurring feature of the department throughout its history — from crackdowns on 19th century labor strikes to movements of the unemployed during the Great Depression and again with the rise of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the late 1960s. In more recent times, the NYPD’s heavy-handed treatment of protesters can be traced back to the militarization of the department that took place after 9/11, says Jennvine Wong, lead attorney for the Cop Accountability Project of the Legal Aid Society.
The impact of that militarization would become evident in the following years when the NYPD mustered overwhelming force to suppress protests against the 2002 World Economic Forum and the 2004 Republican National Convention as well as Critical Mass, an anarchist-led initiative to make bicycling safer and more popular for New Yorkers at a time when there were no bike lanes or Citi Bikes.
During the week of RNC protests, more than 1,800 people were arrested and held in pens at a contaminated MTA bus depot including bystanders who were kettled and swept away with everyone else. The city ended up paying out millions of dollars in legal settlements to hundreds of people whose rights were violated.
Critical Mass — an unpermitted, monthly Friday evening bike ride — drew first hundreds and then thousands of participants during the runup to the RNC. Payback from the NYPD came in the form of beatings, arrests and stolen bicycles. Over the next few years, Critical Mass shrank back down to a few dozen participants who were nimble enough to be able to escape from the cops.
During the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, New York City saw a similarly brutal police response. An investigation led by NYU, Fordham, Harvard and Stanford concluded that the NYPD violated OWS protesters on numerous occasions. When then Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the NYPD “my own army” that fall, he wasn’t kidding.
It was under de Blasio and his first Police Commissioner William Bratton that the NYPD “army” developed a specialized battalion of 800 cops tasked with the dual mission of responding to terrorist attacks and handling protests.
“It’s an interesting combination of job functions for that particular group,” Wong said. “They’ve been particularly problematic because we’ve seen them in video after video in their fancy suits and their mountain bikes being really aggressive. You have to wonder why that is. Because what is their training really focused on?”
The overall level of resources the NYPD can deploy is formidable — 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees working with a $6 billion annual budget.
In 2021, New Yorkers will elect a new mayor and City Council. A number of organizers who marched for black lives in June are now running for City Council seats in their communities. If there is a sizable leftwing contingent in the next Council, it could move to slash the NYPD’s budget and redirect funds to social services that address the causes of crime. However, it’s the mayor who has the sole power to appoint the police commissioner, who in turn runs the department on a day-to-day basis. So far, the leading mayoral contenders have shown little interest in imposing deep, structural changes on the police department.
For Alex Vitale, now is the time in New York for a surge of community organizing and base building around alternatives to policing that had already been done before the George Floyd protests in places such as Minneapolis, Austin, Los Angeles and Portland, laying the groundwork for big victories that followed
“Street protest is not enough,” Vitale said. “Hopefully what we will see in the next six months is a kind of increase in that base-building, people talking to their neighbors and family members and friends about what these alternatives to policing would look like, the ways they would make communities safer than they are today and then that sets us up for a very different kind of politics where elected officials are getting pressure from their base for less policing.”
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