The NYPD severely clamped down on last night's Black Lives Matter protest near Union Square, violently repelling peaceful demonstrators who had become accustomed to marching in the street, and fragmenting the thousands of people who had gathered to show their support of those protesting the death of Freddie Gray, Jr., whose spine was severed in the custody of Baltimore police.
The rally on the north side of Union Square began at 6 p.m., and the march began roughly 45 minutes later. By 9 p.m., according to the National Lawyers Guild, more than 100 people had been arrested, including at least one legal observer. Several demonstrators appeared to have been injured by the police.
An NYPD spokesman said this morning that "over 100" people had been arrested in connection to last night's demonstrations. As of 9 a.m., no information on arrest-related injuries has been made available.
This doesn't look good: pic.twitter.com/L9WO7kQBFr
— Nick Pinto (@macfathom) April 29, 2015
Unlike the numerous large protests last winter, in which thousands took to the streets to block traffic and bridges, the NYPD refused to allow protesters to enter the roadway immediately after leaving Union Square. This was a remarkable shift for a department whose highest-ranking uniformed officer told reporters in December that "we'll continue to police the events the way that we've been policing them."
"Because of what is going on across the nation right now, consciousness-building, consciousness-raising, people are changing their attitudes. So the police are changing tactics," said Randolph Carr, a member of the group Black Youth Project 100. "They came out here before the march, when we were just talking, already announcing that people were getting arrested. For what? We're talking. They're provoking."
Carr was referring to a truck-mounted LRAD device that greeted those who gathered in Union Square with constant and extremely loud robotic intonations warning that anyone who stepped into the roadway or blocked pedestrian traffic would be subject to arrest.
Between the LRAD and the low-flying police helicopters, police managed to nearly drown out the amplification system that organizers of the rally had set up to address the thousands of people assembled in the northern end of Union Square.
Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed on camera by an NYPD officer in Staten Island last summer, told the crowd she was freshly returned from the funeral of Freddie Gray, where she saw the unrest in Baltimore. “They’re burning down buildings because they’re tired,” Garner said. “I’m not saying I support them, but I understand them.”
The march had made it less than half a block when it ran headlong into ranks of helmeted police under the close direction of senior officers on 17th Street. Almost immediately, the police began making arrests, charging into the crowd and sending protesters into the pavement. Parents with young children pushed their way through a mass of bodies, trying to get away from police. At least one credentialed journalist was detained. Over 20 minutes, they pushed the crowd all the way back to the corner of Broadway and Union Square.
The marchers never entirely regrouped. Some lingered around Union Square. Some splintered off on smaller marches, heading west, south, and north. Over the course of the evening, at least half a dozen groups crisscrossed Manhattan, accompanied by substantial police escorts. At one point during the evening, police preemptively blocked access to the Holland Tunnel to prevent marchers from occupying it. Activists also briefly swarmed the West Side Highway before being arrested or dispersed by police.
— ╭╮☲☲☲╭╮ (@couchand) April 30, 2015
And then there was this gentleman:
Guy yells "White lives matter!" smashes woman's camera who tried to take a picture of him pic.twitter.com/E1Nkq3hE7K
— Christopher Robbins (@ChristRobbins) April 30, 2015
Gideon Oliver, a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild, and veteran activist Leslie Cagan, tried to help the organizers in their communications with police. “When it became clear that people wanted to march and probably were going to march no matter how people felt about it, we attempted to negotiate a lane of traffic up Sixth Avenue,” Oliver said. The cops weren’t having it.
“[The NYPD] made a tactical and a political decision not to” allow protesters to march in the street, Oliver said, “and that set a tone. Right when people exited Union Square, there was an opportunity for the police to make a game-day decision, as they frequently do, to give them a lane. But that wasn’t the plan. That’s not how they were deployed. It was a very upsetting turn, and I hope it’s not reflective of a broader policy shift.”
The Mayor's Office has not responded to a request for comment on last night's actions.
Whatever the cause, the NYPD appeared to electively turn a peaceful protest into a chaotic sequence of mass arrests. As one senior officer told a protester on video, "If we could arrest you all, we might."
Kerrien Wright and Amisha Shacole hadn't attended a demonstration before, but chose to come to Union Square last night because, as Wright put it, "For me to walk outside, we fear for our lives. This is something we all need to stand together for, that black lives matter."
Both were dismayed, but not surprised, at the NYPD's actions.
"The police officers are New Yorkers, they know we're just out here protesting," Shacole said. "No one's out here trying to get rowdy, or trying to fight, we're just trying to walk the streets and protest, and they're not even allowing that."