Three years ago this summer, tens of thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets on a near-daily basis to protest police violence and the killing of George Floyd. They, in turn, were greeted with violence by the NYPD. On July 19, the City settled a class action lawsuit for $13 million that will go to protesters who endured unlawful police tactics, the largest financial settlement of its kind in U.S. history. The settlement comes on the heels of two related lawsuits involving police abuses during the George Floyd protests that the City settled for millions of dollars in damages.
The Indypendent spoke with Savitri Durkee, longtime New York City activist and plaintiff to the lawsuit, about the significance of the settlement and the NYPD’s long history of violence toward protest movements. Durkee was present at a June 4, 2020 protest in Mott Haven, Bronx in which the police surrounded, attacked and arrested roughly 400 protesters, many of them young people who appeared to her to be participating in their first protest movement.
“The NYPD came there with a battle plan, and they enacted that plan,” she recalled. “I saw police pulling people’s glasses off their face and crushing them to the ground. I saw the police beating people with batons. I saw the police arresting medics who were trying to come to people’s aid. It was incredibly violent.
The Indypendent: What do you think this settlement accomplishes?
Savitri Durkee: For a lot of protesters who were out there, this financial settlement could be life-changing. You can get a car. You can go to CUNY for a couple of semesters, or move out of your friend’s basement. For other recipients, it will take the pressure off of covering monthly bills, or allow them to take a little rest.
It’s disappointing we didn’t get a real commitment from the NYPD to change their behavior, or an apology, or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. These moments are complicated. It’s not a victory, but it’s something to hold onto. The settlement doesn’t address the injustice, but it does address our right to protest the injustice. Our First Amendment rights may not be valued, but at least they are still recognized.
You worked closely with the legal team. Tell us about what went on behind the scenes that ultimately led to this settlement.
Every one of the plaintiffs was deposed by a lawyer working for the City. I spent three hours answering questions from the lawyer about what happened to me. It was rigorous and intense. They asked, “What happened? Where were you standing? What were you doing? Then what happened? Who touched you? How were you arrested? Who was your arresting officer?” Endless questions of that nature.
We had an amazing team of lawyers, many of whom have been around in New York City and working on First Amendment and civil-rights issues for decades. They deposed arresting officers and people who were involved in suppressing the protests up to a very high level in the NYPD.
There was a year of intense mediation around the case. There was a lot of talk about injunctive relief, which would involve training and procedures and things the NYPD would or wouldn’t do. Attorney General Letitia James and others are still in conversation with the NYPD about that.
But, we pulled out of that conversation when it seemed clear we would not achieve our goals with the NYPD.
Talk about how technology was used by the plaintiffs to identify the abuses that the police committed.
There was a group called SITU that analyzed a ton of video and photographs. During the month or more of the George Floyd uprising, there were often multiple protests happening on the same day at the same time. One march might intersect with another march. They were able to use geolocation and mapping to synthesize all that information, and then determine the times and places where really egregious violations were made. SITU grouped those violations into four main categories: baton strikes, pepper spray, excessive force and improper arrest.
When the final settlement was announced, a lawyer for the City insisted that there was no historical pattern of police abuse of mass protests in New York.
This just makes me laugh. We saw similar misconduct during Occupy Wall Street when more than 700 protesters were kettled and arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, or during the protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention when they illegally arrested hundreds of people and detained them for up to 72 hours in toxic holding pens at a West Side bus depot. They paid out $10 million in settlements for that. During the big Iraq War protests, they charged into terrified crowds on their horses. During the Critical Mass bike rides of the mid-2000s, I myself was run off the road by police officers in SUVs. Police attacks on First Amendment-protected protests have been a problem throughout my 25 years as an activist here in New York and probably for longer than that.
How many people will be eligible to receive money under this settlement?
We think there are at least 1,300 people who will qualify for this settlement. They are people who were arrested in certain places within certain windows of time, and experienced some of this misconduct from the NYPD. It’s an interesting moment to try and reach 1,300 people who were arrested during the George Floyd uprising, find them and say, “Hey, this is your money. Go get it. This will not endanger you. You don’t have to give a Social Security number or interact with the police to do this.” There’s a lot of work to be done reaching out to those folks and trying to find people who have moved or who didn’t have an address at the time or who might be afraid, but really need that $10,000.
What’s the path forward?
We should look to the same people. We’ve always looked to who really understand these issues: Black and Brown organizers who’ve been doing this work, you know for hundreds of years, who understand resilience, who understand how smart you have to be to outwit this system, who understand care is justice and justice is care.