Some protesters described being body-slammed and pinned to the ground by police. Others say they were detained for hours in cramped holding cells, in some cases without masks, or access to food or water. All were part of the 86 people arrested while protesting in Manhattan on Saturday—the largest mass arrest of demonstrators since Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted his curfew in early June.
“Now they’re dragging my face on the floor,” 29-year-old activist Derrick West recounted at a press conference in front of One Police Plaza on Monday evening. “Now I have three officers on top of me, one has his shoulder on my head, another one on my head, another one on my leg. Another one twisting my arm like he’s about to dislocate my shoulder.”
Organizer Louis Galilei, 27, from Harlem said an officer was pressing his head to the sidewalk.
“I said I wasn't resisting,” he said. “They then proceeded to put knees on my back.”
Protester Sofia Vickerman described how women had been detained “in cells alone for hours...begging the officers walking past us without masks for water.”
The arrests Saturday in Times Square and near NYPD headquarters—for offenses like resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and walking in the roadway—were the culmination of three days of an increasingly iron-fisted police crackdown. To many protesters, it was the most consistent ramp up of aggressive NYPD tactics used since Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted a mandatory 8 p.m. curfew in early June after several nights of historic mass arrests.
While there have been occasional confrontations with the NYPD since, like when the police cleared Abolition Park of protesters camped out there in a pre-dawn raid or when officers disrupted a vigil for activist cyclist Sarah Pitts, demonstrators have been able to march in the streets mostly without incident. Some demonstrators say they feel the NYPD’s recent change in demeanor is part of a deliberate effort to deter them from protesting in the future.
Emergency demonstrations were called last Tuesday, following allegations from a whistleblower report that women in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center were given hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without their consent. Marchers returned to the plaza in subsequent days and on Wednesday, when they tried to enter the federal building to the west of Foley Square, video posted to social media showed a guard waving her gun at them.
They retreated and kept marching, but on Thursday evening when protesters again returned to Foley Square, police officers in riot gear blocked access to the federal building. The group had only marched a few blocks before they were confronted by police. Twenty-two people were arrested. They were charged with a range of low-level offenses, including having a bullhorn without a permit, obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and weapons possession (police say one person had a knife and another had a metal baton.)
The next day 16 additional demonstrators were arrested and charged with assault, spitting, disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration and weapons possession. That day, the NYPD alleges one person had a knife, a chain, and a baseball bat.
It's unclear whether the massive crackdown that followed on Saturday was in reaction to the weapons police said they found the day earlier.
A spokeswoman for the NYPD said the department supports the right to protest, but must balance that right with public safety. She blamed the Saturday crackdown on attempts to block traffic without a permit.
“For the safety of all New Yorkers, the NYPD cannot support any blocking of traffic that is not authorized by a government agency,” the spokeswoman said.
Asked about the crackdown on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he didn’t know the specifics of the Times Square arrests, adding there had been “no strategy change that has been discussed with me certainly.” The mayor added he thought police should have “clear ground rules, usable ground rules,” on when they make arrests during protests.
Gideon Oliver, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, whose members act as legal observers during protests, said it’s likely the latest arrests represent a tactical shift by the NYPD, but highly unlikely the public will learn why it was adopted.
“Unfortunately those kinds of policy choices tend to be virtually unreviewable, because there’s no access to information about the fact that they’re being made or why,” Oliver said, who has deposed high ranking NYPD members on the crowd control tactics used for the 2004 Republican National Convention and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. “What’s motivating those policy decisions, how they’re being evaluated, was this successful? Should we change something? None of those things are subject to any kind of public scrutiny.”
The NYPD is already facing hundreds of lawsuits alleging violent conduct and random arrests by NYPD officers during the first few weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And while the anti-ICE protest was met with a massive showing of police force, several other demonstrators, for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and for Climate and Racial Justice, were subsequently allowed to take streets without interference.
Andrea Acevedo, 37, said she felt like the arrests were an effort to intimidate protesters, though she added, it wouldn’t deter her.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen for now on, but we’re not gonna stop protesting. And if they’re gonna keep arresting us for jaywalking we’re gonna continue doing it,” she said. “But we just want to make sure that the people are watching—that their tax money is going to arrest peaceful protesters instead of preventing crime.”