The NYPD arrested 60 people on Wednesday night, as two groups of anti-racist protesters took to the streets of Manhattan calling for systemic change in the wake of continued election uncertainty. They were met by hundreds of heavily-armored riot cops, who swung batons and bikes at the largely peaceful demonstrators seemingly at random.
Facing backlash for the violent arrests, the NYPD said they’d recovered a police stun gun, two knives, and fireworks from the protesters. They pointed to small fires that were set during one of the marches as justification for their actions. A video posted to Twitter by a New York Post reporter showed a protester spitting in an officer's face, before he tackles and arrests her.
"Actions like this will not be tolerated,” the NYPD tweeted, sharing the video. “Agitators who commit these acts will be arrested.”
But Devina Singh, the 24-year-old in the video, told Gothamist that police instigated the ugly confrontation. She said she was walking on 7th Avenue when an officer with the Strategic Response Group rammed into her with his bike, causing her to fall to the ground. After she cursed and spit at them, she said, police broke her arm in the course of arresting her.
“He pulled me over the bike line head first. My feet were in the air, I was stuck on the bikes,” she said, adding that she landed hard on her elbows. Singh, a Bed-Stuy resident and former bartender who lost her job because of the pandemic, was taken with other demonstrators to One Police Plaza. After she complained of pain, she was transferred to a hospital, where she learned she had a broken arm and was placed in a cast.
She was then sent back to the 6th Precinct and held for several more hours, and was finally released at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. She received a desk appearance for Obstructing Governmental Administration.
Singh said she regretted that her actions were being used as “anti-BLM propaganda,” but not her harsh words for police. “I stand by calling them fascists,” she said. “It was a peaceful protest until [NYPD] people showed up.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to Singh's account. The department declined to provide a full list of charges against the protesters, but a source in City Hall said the majority were for low-level misdemeanors. The person allegedly caught with two knives was a 16-year-old girl.
The protests on Wednesday began in response to President Donald Trump's threats to block the counting of votes in a race that Vice President Joe Biden appears increasingly likely to win. Those marches were later supplanted by left-wing demonstrations, attended by many New Yorkers active in the wave of Black Lives Matter protests this past summer.
It was the latter group that faced an overwhelming show of force from NYPD officers, often without any provocation at all.
One event billed as “The People March” moved south from Midtown, making stops at the Nigerian consulate in solidarity with the country's youth-led protest movement, and holding teach-ins critical of NYPD funding.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m., officers suddenly declared the gathering unlawful, ordering marchers to leave the street or face arrest. Even as protesters obliged, they were encircled by dozens of officers, who charged them nightsticks and pushed them face-down on the ground.
A 23-year-old woman, who was returning from dinner and not part of the protest, said she was "bum-rushed" by cops as she exited a subway station near Union Square.
An organizer said that the abrupt attack was prompted by an officer and a protester, both on bikes, bumping into each other — creating a domino effect of arrests and police tackles that ensnared both demonstrators and bystanders.
The organizer, who declined to be named, said he was arrested as he attempted to coax activists onto the sidewalk. He was charged with failure to disperse and blocking traffic. Police broke his bike and left him with a strained shoulder, he said.
"They're treating us as if we’re going to riot,” said Bahlya Yansane, 29, a Bushwick resident and cyclist with Riders 4 Rights. “This is the most peaceful protest that I think I've been to, like, this whole summer season really."
The mayor’s press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, witnessed multiple arrests of non-violent demonstrators near Union Square. The spokesperson declined to comment on the record, but said his boss had been briefed.
"I'm not familiar with all the details of last night," de Blasio told Gothamist on Thursday morning. "I will be talking it through with the police department leadership later and reviewing exactly what happened, but the crucial point here is that we obviously cannot allow violence.”
Asked why the NYPD did not seem to be de-escalating protests, the mayor said he disagreed, and added: “Overwhelmingly, what we’ve seen now is peaceful protest managed peacefully by the NYPD.”
A separate march that began at Washington Square Park did turn rowdy at times, with black-clad demonstrators knocking over police barricades and setting fire to trash as they moved through the West Village.
The group was vastly outnumbered by police, including hundreds of officers with the department’s Strategic Response Group. Many wore full-body motocross armor that lacked identifying information. The officers repeatedly ordered the group to disperse, then roughly arrested those who didn’t move fast enough.
"They literally threw them to the fucking ground for nothing," said one woman, whose friend was surrounded and arrested by half a dozen officers while walking on the sidewalk.
As the group got to 5th Avenue and 8th Street, the officers deployed a tactic known as kettling, in which protesters were boxed in by officers from all sides and prevented from leaving, as cops made violent arrests. Reporters, bystanders, legal observers, and an ordained minister were also caught in the kettle.
"The NYPD is not protecting people but assaulting people,” said Shakee Merritt, a 21-year-old Rutgers student. “They're not for us. They're for their president and their other side and their agenda."
Photos show an NYPD officer near Washington Square Park with a Thin Blue Line sewn into his vest, along with a patch that reads: “Violence isn’t the only option, but it is an option.”
A police spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about the apparent patrol guide violation.
The NYPD, whose unions overwhelmingly support Trump, has faced repeated allegations of selective enforcement. During demonstrations this summer, anti-police activists were explicitly targeted, while police ignored right-wing violence. Last week, the NYPD suspended an officer who was seen on video declaring "Trump 2020" over a police loudspeaker.
And earlier this week, caravans of Trump supporters blocked traffic on multiple bridges, and assaulted counter-demonstrators activists in full view of NYPD officers. None of the Trump supporters were arrested.
As a few remaining protesters gathered on the sidewalk near the Washington Square Park arch on Wednesday night, the young activists danced to Pop Smoke and the Hokey Pokey, surrounded by a wall of police officers who threatened them with arrest for stepping out onto the street.
Retired journalist Louise Wollman looked on in horror as she walked back to her West Village apartment. She likened the militarized police response to scenes she’d witnessed in Venezuela and Turkey.
"I'm 78 years old," she said. "What's happening in this country is shocking, just shocking.”
Additional reporting by Stephen Nessen.