The NYPD's violent arrest of peaceful protesters in the South Bronx this past June violated international human rights law and will likely cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars in misconduct lawsuits, according to an investigation set to be released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
The 99-page report offers the most comprehensive look to date at the department's actions in Mott Haven, where more than 250 people were trapped and arrested by police. The protest was part of a wave of citywide demonstrations against racist police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25th.
An accompanying video, produced by Human Rights Watch and the architecture firm SITU Research, presents a visual overview of the NYPD's tactics, with previously unreleased footage from inside the kettle.
As officers on bikes blocked the group's path minutes before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 8 p.m. curfew, a second line of cops charged them from behind, "unprovoked and without warning, whaling their batons, beating people from car tops, shoving them down to the ground, and firing pepper spray in their faces," the report states.
"We're being crushed," someone shouts, as the group is squeezed from either side by baton- and bike-wielding cops. At one point, a panicked child caught in the middle can be heard shrieking for his mom, who attempts to console him while crying into a camera.
The international humanitarian group identified at least 61 people — including protesters, legal observers, and bystanders — who suffered injuries in the attack. At least three people were hospitalized. On two occasions, police were found to have restrained protesters by placing a knee on their face or neck.
Instead of being given summonses and released, investigators found, those arrested were “brought to jails all over the city and held for hours overnight and into the next day with no food and little or no water. Many are injured and get no medical help.”
A separate case study on the Mott Haven arrests released last week by the Physicians for Human Rights also found that NYPD officers interfered with injured protesters’ access to care from volunteer medics. According to Dr. Mike Pappas, a family physician who was taken into custody while volunteering at the protest, detainees were stuffed into hot and overcrowded cells by officers, almost all of them maskless, who laughed at the group when they asked for face coverings.
Pappas later learned that one of the detainees locked up with him later tested positive for coronavirus. It's unclear when the person was infected, or if it was transmitted to other protesters or police.
The Human Rights Watch investigation also expands on previous reporting by Gothamist showing the NYPD’s efforts to target legal observers, at the explicit direction of the department’s Legal Bureau. Emails show that Jenny Sobelman, the chief of staff of the Mayor’s Office of State Legislative Affairs, and Persephone Tan, from the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs, offered multiple assurances that legal observers, medics and those doing jail support would be exempt from de Blasio’s curfew.
In response to Human Rights Watch’s questions, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Ernest Hart insisted that legal observers were not exempt from the mayor’s curfew. Hart also reiterated arguments made by de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea that the demonstration was “illegal,” despite protesters being trapped prior to the 8 p.m. curfew and blocked from leaving the area.
The months-long investigation from the nonprofit concludes that the NYPD violated a host of international human rights laws, including protections against the excessive use of force, violation of the rights to peaceful assembly, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. Attacks on street medics amount to violations of the right to health, the report notes, while legal observers are human rights defenders protected under the international human rights law.
Shea has repeatedly justified the department’s actions by claiming that protesters gathering in Mott Haven intended to attack police officers. In their report, Human Rights Watch notes they found no evidence of violence, threats of violence, or vandalism carried out by protesters or organizers.
"To the contrary, the FTP4 protest was entirely peaceful until the police carried out their violent assault," it reads.
Specific allegations from the NYPD commissioner, including his claim that a firearm and gasoline were recovered at the scene, were later contradicted by prosecutors and other law enforcement officials.
The report calls for sweeping changes to the NYPD, most notably the discipline and possible termination of Commissioner Shea for misleading the public and Chief of Department Terence Monahan for leading the crackdown. “Shea, Monahan, and other top officials implicated in abuse and cover-ups should face disciplinary action including possible dismissal for their betrayal of the public’s trust and leadership in the violation of basic rights,” the report states.
It recommends that members of the community play a role in picking the next police commissioner.
The morning after the incident, Mayor de Blasio defended the NYPD’s actions, telling WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the context was too “dangerous to not address.” He promised “a full review of what happened there.”
The review still has not been released, and no one involved in the crackdown has faced discipline.
Over 100 participants in the Mott Haven protest plan to sue the city for their treatment by police. Based on an analysis of past settlements related to police behavior during the 2014 Republican National Convention, Human Rights Watch estimates the total cost to New York City taxpayers at several million dollars.
Multiple inquiries to both the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office were not returned.