With Mayor Bill de Blasio untroubled by mounting video evidence showing his police department engaging in wanton acts of violence against peaceful protesters, journalists, medics, and essential workers over the past week, the NYPD once again took to the streets of New York City on Thursday night to viciously and arbitrarily enforce the mayor’s 8 p.m. curfew.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters marching against racist policing were roughed up and kettled in Fort Greene and Williamsburg. But it was the Bronx that saw the most aggressive show of NYPD force to date, as part of a planned mass arrest operation that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea described Friday as “executed nearly flawlessly.”
Moments before curfew struck at 8 p.m., demonstrators marching down 136th Street in Mott Haven were blocked by a wall of heavily armored police with bicycles. As those cops heaved their bikes into protesters, another group of officers emerged at the top of the street, charging down the hill and pushing protesters into the advancing throngs of bike cops.
Without any warning or apparent provocation, protesters found themselves trapped in a shrinking crush of bodies, facing a whirl of batons and bikes in either direction. Those who attempted to flee were tackled to the ground and arrested. Others pleaded with officers to de-escalate, begging them to evacuate a pregnant woman. As protesters gasped for air, a dense fog of pepper spray descended over the crowd, launching several people into a protracted choking fit.
Over the next hour, cops would handcuff roughly 100 individuals in the group — including several legal observers and medics. Two people were seen leaving the scene on a stretcher. Dozens were loaded onto a Correction Department vehicle. One of them told Gothamist he’d just left his job as a janitor at an HRA building when cops pounced on him.
Taylor Cox, 26, was detained in the melee, and first transported by police to Queens to be processed. She then spent six hours standing in the rain, only to be driven to the Brooklyn Detention Center. While everyone arrested around her was bleeding from baton wounds, she managed to evade injury during the arrest, but later smashed her shoulder against the side of the van, spraining it, according to medics she spoke to when she was eventually released from jail at 5 a.m.
“I’m white, so this has kind of illuminated, this happens to black people like all the time,” she said, adding once her shoulder healed she’d rejoin the protests. “I’m absolutely going to go back out there.”
Those who escaped arrest described feeling traumatized by what they saw.
“We’re locked in between walls of police hitting us with batons, hitting us with their bikes, and asking us not to resist,” said 21-year-old Bronx resident and college student Rolando Sanchez, his voice quivering. “The bloodlust on some of their faces, it’s like they’re enjoying the chaos.”
“They’re proving us right, again,” he added.
But several demonstrators involved in the Bronx march said the police aggression in Mott Haven was the strongest and most egregious they’d ever seen — something they attributed to NYPD animosity toward the black organizers with Bronxites for NYPD Accountability and Take Back the BX, which have been fighting police brutality in the borough for years. The protest was also promoted under the banner of #FTP, a coalition of groups that organized protests against subway policing earlier this year.
Shannon Jones, the co-founder of Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, helped lead Thursday’s event as marchers snaked through the Patterson Houses — to widespread support from NYCHA residents. She made clear that protesters should not be subservient to police, but also told people they would respect the community. On Willis Avenue, she urged the group to stop in front of La Morada and pay tribute to owner Natalia Mendez (“Mama Morada”), who distributed free meals to neighbors throughout the pandemic.
Later in the evening, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the department’s highest ranking uniformed officer — who previously kneeled with protesters in a widely-publicized gesture of solidarity — was observed directing officers to arrest Jones and other protest leaders.
Despite the NYPD’s apparent familiarity with the organizers, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said on Friday that the demonstration in Mott Haven was led by “outside agitators.” Interlopers had come to the neighborhood with guns and gasoline, he claimed, “advertising that they were going to burn things down, that they were going to injure cops, that they were going to cause mayhem.” Shea claimed that many Bronx residents thanked police for their work.
The NYPD did not immediately provide evidence of the protesters being outsiders, or further information about the gun and gasoline they said they recovered at the scene. The department also did not respond to a question about the number of total arrests. At least eight legal observers — who typically track such arrests — were detained and charged at the scene.
David Perez, a Mott Haven resident who witnessed the encounter but did not participate in the protest, was one of hundreds of local residents who gathered on Brook Avenue on Thursday night to register their disgust with the NYPD.
“I just saw a woman get her head bashed in because she walked away from an officer and didn’t walk away fast enough. I saw a man exercise his constitutional right and say two words and about 30 officers jumped on him,” he said. “Did I wake up in another fucking country?”
Asked about the incident on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio once again claimed that the NYPD had overwhelmingly respected peaceful protesters. He falsely stated that demonstrators in the Bronx were given a chance to leave before they were pinned by police.
“I believe you believe what happened,” the mayor said, in response to a follow up question from Gothamist. “We had observers for City Hall that saw a very different reality from what you saw.”
Five Mualimm-ak, a credible messenger and violence interrupter who has worked closely with City Hall, accused de Blasio of lying to New Yorkers. He’d been marching with protesters throughout the evening, he said, and saw no indication that protesters wanted to destroy their own community. When Mualimm-ak peeled off at 8 p.m., he said he was chased by dozens of officers from a bus stop and threatened with arrest.
“I would say to the mayor that you need to choose what side you’re going to be on, but I know what side he’d choose,” said Mualimm-ak. “The mayor is lying to people because he’s scared of police.”
In Brooklyn, several thousand marchers wound through Flatbush, remaining non-violent and eschewing property damage even as it blew past the 8 p.m. curfew, chanting “the blue wall has to fall!" Police avoided directly antagonizing the march, trailing them at a distance in a convoy of vans that stretched blocks. All along the route, neighbors showed their support for the protesters, dancing in front of their apartments, standing on their stoops clapping and filming, hanging out fire escapes and silhouetted over cornices banging pots and sounding airhorns.
Darkness fell. The group turned up Eastern Parkway and paused, taking a knee. What now? organizers asked. Go home, or keep it going, on to the Barclays Center. By an overwhelming majority, the crowd opted to keep going. Behind them, the police convoy was visible mostly as a long receding line of flashing lights.
As the group looped through Grand Army Plaza, though, its numbers were beginning to thin, as more protesters opted to call it a night. By 9:30, as the group approached the Barclays Center on Flatbush Avenue, it had dwindled to several hundred. Police, perhaps determining that some algorithmic threshold of ratio of cops to people multiplied by the lateness of the hour had been reached, turned up the heat, jumping out of their vans in riot helmets, batons out, and closing the distance. At the intersection of Bergen Street, protesters paused again. Police formed up in an imposing line opposite, and the protesters decided that perhaps this was a good time to disperse.
Some of them joined another march wending through the leafy brownstone blocks of Fort Greene. But police were losing their patience. “Time to go home” blared a distorted amplified voice from a police vehicle idling on a cross-street as protesters marched past. The crowd of police followed even more closely, practically stepping on protesters heels. At the corner of Washington Avenue and Gates Street, they made their move, shoving protesters and reporters to the ground and beating a man walking a bicycle with batons. The crowd panicked, running down the block, only to run into another line of police hemming them in.
Many took refuge behind the low cast-iron fences of the brownstone’s front yards, on private property. Homeowners came out and surveyed the scene. Some invited the people seeking shelters in their front courtyards into their homes and out of danger.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and City Council Member Brad Lander, who had been following the march, attempted to negotiate with police to allow the protesters to leave the block unmolested. Eventually, police relented, telling protesters they could leave, but only 20 at a time.
Protesters, frightened and exhausted, filed out of the kettle. Somewhere on the block, a saxophonist started playing.
Recounting the episode afterwards, Williams told Gothamist the suddenness and violence of the police action had at first made him think that an officer must have been injured. “We suddenly saw a mass of cops come in with forceful aggression, to the point I thought maybe an officer had got hurt, which would be terrible,” Williams said. But when Williams asked officers what had happened, he said, ”They simply said ‘It’s time to go home. It’s after curfew, they’re blocking traffic.’”
For Lander, the lessons of the march’s final half hour were obvious. “It shows just how easy it is to escalate, and how easy it is to deescalate,” Lander said. “If the NYPD wants to allow people to protest, give them a little space, and allow them to get home safely, the tactics are there."
Additional reporting by Emily Lang.