Responding to videos showing two police vans plowing into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn on Saturday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the demonstrators — and not police — had behaved inappropriately and bore the brunt of the blame for the incident.
The footage “is upsetting, and I wish the officers hadn’t done that,” de Blasio said during a press conference Saturday night as protests raged in New York and dozens of other cities nationwide in response to the police killing of George Floyd. “But I also understood that they didn’t start this situation. The situation was started by a group of protesters converging on a police vehicle, attacking that vehicle.”
Videos of the incident, which was shared widely on social media, show a New York City Police Department van in the middle of a road, a barricade in front of it. A crowd of demonstrators stands in front of the vehicle, some of whom appear to throw objects at it. One person is seen approaching the vehicle from behind to toss what appears to be a trash bag onto the van, while another person runs up to the driver’s side of the vehicle before dashing away.
Another NYPD van then arrives, driving past the first van straight into a group of demonstrators. The first van is seen then to suddenly accelerate, pushing the barricade into protesters.
De Blasio said it was “inappropriate for protesters to surround a police vehicle and threaten police officers. That’s wrong on its face and that hasn’t happened in the history of protest in this city.”
Videos of the incident do not show people surrounding either van.
The mayor was skewered on social media for mischaracterizing the incident.
De Blasio said he wasn’t “going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation. The folks who were converging on that police car did the wrong thing to begin with, and they created an untenable situation.”
“I wish the officers had found a different approach,” de Blasio continued, but added that “if those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) lambasted de Blasio’s remarks as “unacceptable.”
“As mayor, this police department is under your leadership. This moment demands leadership & accountability from each of us. Defending and making excuses for NYPD running SUVs into crowds was wrong,” she wrote on Twitter.
NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson also condemned the police action.
“This is outrageous. Driving police vehicles into crowds of protestors is not deescalation. Shoving and beating nonviolent people is not deescalation. If NYPD’s intent is to keep folks safe, this isn’t it,” he tweeted.
On Sunday, de Blasio elaborated on his initial comments, but continued to blame protestors for the violence on Saturday.
“I didn’t like what I saw, I don’t want to ever see it again, we need to do a full investigation,” he said. “We also need to be clear about the context, the backdrop of police officers being attacked before.”
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the U.S. on Saturday to protest Floyd’s death. He was accused by a store clerk of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, and died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes despite Floyd repeatedly telling him “I cannot breathe.”
The demonstrations, some of which turned violent, have been met with increasingly heavy-handed police crackdowns, with officers using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. At least 1,600 people have been arrested nationwide since Thursday.
In Brooklyn, HuffPost reporter Christopher Mathias, who was covering the protests there, was arrested on Saturday night despite clearly identifying himself as press.
Reporter Phoebe Leila Barghouty said she saw the NYPD “violently arresting” Mathias, “aggressively” grabbing him and turning him “over on either a car or a barricade to zip tie.” He was released early Sunday.