Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday again invoked what’s been his mantra for months: He expects cops to use “the lightest touch possible” as demonstrators take to the streets amid post-Election Day uncertainty.
But some New Yorkers who have been participating in anti-racism and anti-brutality marches since the spring say that after recent weeks of relative calm cops are back to heavy-handed, sometimes brutal tactics.
“Over the last couple of weeks, they really amped up,” said Roque Rodriguez, 37, of Sunnyside, Queens, who has been helping to organize rallies, demonstrations and mutual aid efforts for the last six months.
Since an eruption of protests in late May and June following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Minnesota and Kentucky, many New Yorkers have criticized the NYPD for using unnecessarily violent tactics in dealing with demonstrators.
People who have attended protests regularly say that while brutality and mass arrests abated from a peak in early June, officers are again employing the kinds of methods Human Rights Watch recently decried as human rights abuses.
‘Burning My Mind’
On Wednesday night, Rodriguez arrived at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue for a march to Union Square. “It was a call to organize, regardless of the election outcome,” he said.
With NYPD officers present, the demonstrators made their way without incident down Fifth Avenue. But once protesters approached Union Square, Rodriguez said, the tide turned.
Rodriguez said officers moved in toward the demonstrators in large numbers. He said he started to back up, until he saw cops rip a young woman from her bicycle and beat her with nightsticks.
“It was really upsetting for me,” he said, “so as I was retreating, I kind of just got stopped.”
Next thing he knew, he was on the ground. Rodriguez said he can’t recall exactly how he got taken down, but he remembers being pinned to the ground with a knee on his neck and punches from officers.
“There was one police officer in particular, whose face I’m never going to forget,” Rodriguez told THE CITY. “It’s like burning my mind, who was punching her and then punching me.”
‘Even More Brazen’
Some demonstration organizers blame de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea for not coming down harder on cops who stepped over the line months ago.
“Since the summer, the NYPD has become even more brazen in using a spectrum of violence against New Yorkers because from the commissioner to cops on the street, they know that Mayor de Blasio will not fire, defund or hold them accountable,” said Kesi Foster, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of nonprofits and neighborhood groups, said in a statement to THE CITY.
Police begin to mass arrest kettled group at 5th and 8th St.— PROTEST_NYC (@protest_nyc) November 5, 2020
Protestors, packed like sardines, are beaten and arrested while onlooking officers laugh. pic.twitter.com/TCwVzFiRed
In June, Shea publicized the suspension of four officers and the sidelining of a fifth for misconduct during the protests. But officials have not publicly identified any other personnel for potential discipline since.
In July, while the mayor was touting the restraint of the NYPD, The New York Times published a story with more than 60 videos showing use of force by police during protests.
De Blasio then promised a video-by-video tally of which cops were disciplined. But when asked about it on Wednesday, he said the effort to publicize those decisions was delayed because of an ongoing lawsuit filed by police unions seeking to block the city from releasing police disciplinary records.
A state law that had kept those records from public view, known as 50-a, was repealed in June.
On Friday, de Blasio said during his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment on WNYC radio that “I expect police to respect peaceful protesters to use the lightest touch possible.”
He told a caller that outside agitators, which he also blamed in May, represented “a new element” that was stirring trouble on city streets.
The mayor contended Wednesday night’s march was peaceful until the NYPD saw “another group coming in that had some other intentions.”
At a news conference Thursday evening, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counterterrorism John Miller blamed “an evolution of protester tactics” — including charts made by protesters “from Hong Kong” that were used to instigate police reaction and film “propaganda.”
Detective Sophia Mason, NYPD spokesperson, told THE CITY Friday 25 arrests and 32 summonses were issued during the protests, and that in the East Village two individuals with a stun gun and two knives were also arrested.
Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, said the DA’s office is looking at “social media and other sources to identify investigative leads into claims of police violence and misconduct.” He directed people to report allegations to Vance’s Police Violence and Misconduct site.
‘The Point Is to Brutalize Us’
New Yorkers on the ground say the reality is far different from the NYPD and the mayor’s descriptions.
Grace Nam, 30, a lawyer from Queens, charged officers punched and kicked her as she lay on the ground during Wednesday night’s protests. But she was not arrested.
“I couldn’t even stand up right away because my legs and my lower part of my body had been hit a lot,” said Nam, who has been attending demonstrations for weeks.
A block away from the WSQ park anti Trump rally/club night, dozens of cops on bikes wheeling around pic.twitter.com/lRjBNrqNUm— Christine Chung (@chrisychung) November 7, 2020
“I think the point is to brutalize us,” she said, noting that protester groups have developed their own methods for handling traffic safely on protest routes as well as dealing with agitators in their ranks.
“We’ve been out there five months, we don’t get paid to do de-escalation training, but I feel like we’re so much better at de-escalating situations than the police,” Nam said.
Rodriguez was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and released on Wednesday night.
The next day, the yoga instructor went to a CityMD near his home, unable to move his head or neck, he said.
Rodriguez said X-rays showed that he should recover physically. But he worries that not enough attention is being paid to the mental anguish suffered by brutality victims.
“That is the most egregious thing,” he said. “We should not feel like it’s okay for one human to traumatize another human like that. And that shouldn’t be dependent on how bad the physical injury is.”