Just before New York’s 8 p.m. curfew Thursday, heavily armored New York Police Department officers on bicycles rushed a group of protesters in the Bronx who were demonstrating against police brutality. The officers charged with their batons out, Jake Offenhartz, a Gothamist reporter, tweeted. “Multiple people hit. Someone bleeding from the head,” he reported. Offenhartz jumped over a car and was able to escape because of his press badge, he said. “This wasn’t even a confrontation it was a trap.”
The protesters who had gathered in the Bronx were not violent, multiple journalists at the scene attested. But with the 8 p.m. curfew in place, NYPD officers took it as their mandate to arrest everyone in sight, using brutal force to make sure they got the message. Even people walking through the neighborhood who were not participating in the protests found themselves trapped by NYPD officers who blocked exits on both sides of a block, New Yorker staff writer Emily Witt tweeted. “They are arresting literally everyone at this protest,” Witt reported, including medics and legal observers.
“We are peaceful,” protesters chanted at the cops. “What the fuck are you?”
At least 10 protesters were also arrested on Manhattan’s Upper East Side around 8:30 p.m., as they attempted to attend a peaceful demonstration at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).
The New York City police crackdown on largely peaceful protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was killed May 25 at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, has now entered its second week. Since his killing, law enforcement officials in New York City have arrested thousands of protesters and violently beaten many more.
Jails are one of the highest-risk environments to become infected with COVID-19 due to the lack of space to social distance and the number of people entering and leaving the holding cells each day. More than 200 demonstrators have been detained for more than 24 hours, a violation of New York state’s policy that requires arraignment within 24 hours of arrest, the New York Daily News reported.
The decision to extend New York City’s curfew, accompanied by the swift escalation in arrests and use of physical force against even peaceful protesters that the 8 p.m. hour brings, has created an acute crisis for de Blasio. The curfews are, as Rolling Stone noted, the first to be instituted in New York City since the Harlem Riot of 1943, which began after a white police officer shot a Black soldier. De Blasio has justified the curfews as necessary to curb looting and rioting, but the policy has also provided a rationale for the NYPD to violently suppress nonviolent nighttime demonstrations.
“They are arresting literally everyone at this protest.”
In addition to endangering protesters, curfews make life harder for essential workers like medical personnel, grocery store employees and food delivery workers who now have to worry about getting beaten and arrested on their way home from work. Although technically exempt from curfews, the NYPD has conducted sweeping arrests without differentiating demonstrators from passersby. On Saturday, police officers beat and kicked Rayne Valentine, a 32-year-old who was heading home from his job at a Brooklyn hospital. His hospital ID was smeared with his own blood. Officers handcuffed and arrested a food delivery worker on Thursday night, even as he pleaded for permission to show them proof he was allowed to continue working after the curfew.
When 8 p.m. struck Wednesday, NYPD officers surrounded a group of nonviolent demonstrators who continued marching after the curfew, several with their hands in the air, New York Times journalist Ali Watkins reported. If protesters had wanted to escape and head home, they wouldn’t have been able to. She witnessed riot police beat demonstrators with batons. When one protester touched the back of his head, his hand became “blood soaked,” Watkins reported. Police officers continued attacking the protesters, even the ones who were bloodied and yelling for help. The violence stopped only after it started raining. As Watkins left, she saw groups of riot police laughing together.
The next morning, de Blasio praised the NYPD for showing “a lot of restraint” in responding to protests. He praised police officers for “protecting us” and claimed falsely that “if protesters do not engage in violence, they’re given the opportunity to protest.”
“Part of what is never given its credit is that the decades of NYPD handling protests where... in many ways, the approach is to give space,” de Blasio said, apparently unaware of the NYPD’s mass arrests of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention, a civil rights abuse that resulted in the city paying nearly $18 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.
Asked to respond to the numerous widely shared videos documenting police beating protesters with batons, de Blasio claimed he had not seen them. “If there’s anything that needs to be investigated,” he assured the reporter who asked the question, “it will be.”
About midnight on Friday morning, de Blasio conceded that the NYPD had at times overstepped. After watching the “troubling video” of the food delivery worker being arrested while doing his job, de Blasio spoke with Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, the mayor tweeted. “This is NOT acceptable and must stop. Food delivery is essential work and is EXEMPTED from the curfew,” he continued.
“Same goes for journalists covering protests and out doing their jobs. They are essential workers, too. We WILL protect their rights. The public depends on the information they provide. Will get NYPD to fix this immediately,” de Blasio said in a separate tweet. The mayor did not mention the nonviolent demonstrators who have been beaten by police officers.
During a Thursday press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) vehemently denied that NYPD officers had engaged in the conduct recorded on video. “If somebody’s standing there and they just walked up and hit somebody with a baton, that’s wrong. But I don’t believe that’s what happened,” Cuomo said. “Police bludgeon peaceful protesters with batons for no reason? That’s not a fact. They don’t do that. Anyone who did do that would be obviously reprehensible if not criminal.”
Hours later in Buffalo, New York, a man calmly approached police officers in riot gear, who shoved the man to the ground, WBFO journalist Mike Desmond reported. The man audibly hit his head on the concrete and was recorded lying motionless on his back with blood coming out of his ear. A Buffalo Police Department spokesperson said in a statement that “one person was injured when he tripped & fell” during a “skirmish” involving other protesters, a claim clearly contradicted by the recording. Later, however, city officials announced the officers involved in the attack had been suspended without pay.
De Blasio’s adamant defense of the city’s police force is a stark reminder of the enduring power of the NYPD across Republican and Democratic administrations alike. In 2013, he catapulted to the top of a crowded Democratic primary by differentiating himself as the staunchest critic of what liberal New Yorkers saw as the twin legacies of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and conservative Mayor Michael Bloomberg: crushing inequality and unchecked police brutality. A vocal opponent of stop-and-frisk policing, de Blasio promised to end racial profiling and increase police oversight.
His campaign also leaned heavily on his racially diverse family, featuring his mixed-race teenage son Dante in ads that touted de Blasio as the “only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.” In November of that year, he won in a landslide, defeating his Republican opponent by almost 50 percentage points and, with his family by his side, gave a crowd-pleasing victory speech in which he called for a safer city where “police and residents work hand-in-hand.”
On Thursday, at a memorial for George Floyd in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza, de Blasio once again framed himself alongside his family, appearing after remarks by his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is Black. This time, however, while McCray spoke mostly uninterrupted, her introduction to her husband was met with jeers, which continued unabated throughout his 90-second remarks. The crowd turned their backs on the mayor, while chants of “I can’t breathe” and calls for his resignation nearly drowned out his words.
The incident underlined what is undoubtedly the lowest point of de Blasio’s tenure yet. One former aide told The New York Times that “the most charitable assessment is that his mayoralty is currently on life support.”
On Wednesday, a group of more than 400 former and current de Blasio staffers published a scathing open letter criticizing his record on policing. Signatories across multiple departments lamented that their time in his administration “showed us that the change we had hoped for, and fought for, might never come.” They pointed to de Blasio’s years-long refusal to fire the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, the continuation of “broken windows” policing and the refusal to end solitary confinement as examples.
The letter also notes that annual funding for the NYPD is $1 billion greater than when de Blasio took office. In April, his administration put forward a budget proposal with cuts across the board in anticipation of dips in tax revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. But, as Gothamist observed, while the city’s education budget is five times larger than the NYPD budget, it was subject to cuts 27 times larger.
Even protesters at demonstrations unmarked by police violence have been critical of de Blasio. At a pre-curfew rally in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park that ended without any altercations, one protester, Naomi O, told HuffPost that the NYPD is “escalating the situation on peaceful protesters just because they’re breaking curfew” and that the mayor is “siding with the NYPD.”
Another, John K, summed up the mayor’s predicament:
“The protesters hate him. His constituents hate him. The people that voted for him hate him. And the police hate him,” he said. “So, where does that leave him? He’s a terrible leader right now. He dropped the ball as hard as he could possibly drop it.”
As the NYPD processed arrestees Thursday night, Offenhartz, the Gothamist reporter, asked an officer what the point was. “He shook his head and said ‘Eight o’clock.’”