Husan Blue, his family, and his neighbors were having a cookout on the patio outside their apartment in Crown Heights. It was a warm summer night in Brooklyn. Little kids were running around and playing. People were talking and celebrating. Blue’s dad had just had a birthday, and a couple of the neighbors had new babies on the way. “It was a calm night,” Blue told me. “There was a lot of things to be happy about.” Around 11:30p.m., Blue made a run to the corner store. When the 30-year-old came back, a small army of police officers in riot gear were gathered outside his building. They were dressed, in Blue’s words, “for war.”
Blue asked his family and friends what was going on, and quickly learned that the police had ordered them to go inside. New York City was three days into a newly imposed curfew, the first in 75 years, announced in a joint statement by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a measure to restore order amid the protests and looting that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin. Blue had done his research, and he was fairly certain that the curfew, which was focused on public areas, did not apply to private property. Nonetheless, there was nothing to be gained in testing the New York Police Department. “Let’s clean up,” he said. “No need to get hostile.”
Blue and his father were packing up when a ranking officer in a white shirt began putting his hands on people, shoving them inside the building. “Get the fuck inside!” Blue recalled the officer shouting as he pressed forward. From his vantage point on the patio, Blue could see into the building’s lobby. He watched as the officer shoved his mother from one side of the room to the other. She fell to the ground, her spine colliding with the sharp edge of a staircase. “My instinct is to protect my mother,” Blue said. “I don’t know what else they’re capable of.” He rushed inside, hands in the air. As he reached out, an officer grabbed Blue by the arm. He was slammed to the floor a short distance from his mother, who was still struggling to get back on her feet.
The officers piled on, driving their knees into Blue’s torso. They yanked his arms behind his back and zip-tied his wrists together. Blue had shoulder surgery just four days prior, his stitches were still in. The pain was excruciating. “I’m on the floor and they’re cursing at me, calling me a nigger,” he said. Two other men Blue was arrested with also recalled police using the slur. “They don’t say it out loud, they whisper in your ear while they’ve got you on the floor,” Blue’s friend, 30-year-old Samuel Gifford, told BuzzFeed News. Pinned to the ground, Blue’s mind raced. He thought of the videos he had seen over the years. The bad ones. The ones where a young Black man dies at the end. “I’m just in shock that I’m going through something that I see on Facebook every day,” he said. He tried to hold it together, telling himself, “I’m not gonna make the situation worse. I’m not going to resist arrest.”
Video shot from inside Blue’s building shows uniformed officers in helmets swarming into his hallway, sticking their heads into individual apartments and ordering outraged residents to stay inside. A tall, white officer slapped the protective shield of his helmet over his face and gripped his nightstick with both hands as he barked orders at an elderly Black woman pushing her walker away from the scene. Approximately 20 police vehicles and a helicopter responded to the barbecue. At least one young woman was pepper-sprayed outside the property. Blue was dragged out of his building, thrown onto the hood of a car, punched in the mouth, and tossed onto the pavement — all with his hands tied behind his back. “They picked me up like I’m a bag of garbage and then slammed me in the middle of the street,” he said.
Blue and his brother, who was clubbed over the head while pleading with the visor-wearing officer to ease up, were taken to the NYPD’s 71st Precinct and then to central booking; roughly a dozen of the cookout attendees were arrested in total. They spent the night crowded into a filthy cell. Between the people peeing in the corner and spitting on the floor, Blue said, “You wouldn’t want to lay down.” When he was finally released the next morning, Blue learned that he had been charged with “obstruction of governmental administration,” an offense the NYPD often cites in protest situations when officers have no observed violation of the law to point to. To Blue, it made little sense: He and his neighbors were on their own private property, minding their own business when the NYPD came crashing in.
“Honestly,” he asked, “What law did we break?”
Miles away and hours earlier, the police were engaged in another beatdown. As the clock struck 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, marking the beginning of curfew hours, bicycle-mounted police in body armor swarmed on protesters in the Bronx in what witnesses and journalists described as a well-laid trap. “Without any warning or apparent provocation, protesters found themselves trapped in a shrinking crush of bodies, facing a whirl of batons and bikes in either direction,” Gothamist reported. “Those who attempted to flee were tackled to the ground and arrested. Others pleaded with officers to de-escalate, begging them to evacuate a pregnant woman. As protesters gasped for air, a dense fog of pepper spray descended over the crowd, launching several people into a protracted choking fit.”
Protesters were left bleeding, and at least two were carried out on stretchers. Legal observers and medics were among the more than 250 people loaded into awaiting police vans. Devaughnta Williams, a 27-year-old janitor clocking out of work was swept up as well, despite the fact that essential workers were supposedly shielded from NYPD curfew enforcement. A week later, the lifelong Bronx resident was still in jail, leaving his wife and three young children at home without him.
The operation was “executed nearly flawlessly,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told reporters the following morning. Shea’s boss seemed to agree. Confronted with firsthand accounts of police violence, de Blasio falsely claimed that the Bronx protesters had been given an opportunity to leave before the NYPD moved in. In an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the mayor flatly denied that a mountain of video evidence showing officers using violence against protesters suggested a problem with the department. “There was explicit warning in the case of that gathering in the Bronx,” de Blasio said. “Groups organizing that event advertised their desire to do violence and create conflict.” When Lehrer pressed further, the mayor accused the veteran radio journalist of failing to maintain objectivity and spreading fake news. “I don’t know what your reporters are telling you,” de Blasio said. Later on, the mayor urged a caller to question what her eyes were telling her. “Sometimes what we see with our own eyes is the whole story and that means fast investigation and fast action,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not the whole story.”
The mayor did not mention the flurry of emails his closest aides were sending the night before, when his head of community affairs requested that a medic be sent to the scene to rescue de Blasio’s own liaisons, who were trapped “behind the line.”
The events associated with the protests in New York have their own title in the NYPD’s filing system: Civil Disorder 2020. It’s unclear how many of those events might be cases like Husan Blue’s: incidents totally unconnected to protesting, in which the curfew was used to arrest residents going about their daily lives. What is clear is that in addition to Blue’s arrest, local and federal authorities capitalized on the curfew to conduct a fishing expedition targeting individuals whose politics the Trump administration has deemed tantamount to domestic terrorism. In recent weeks, I have spoken to five individuals who were arrested by the NYPD for curfew violations, then turned over to the FBI for questioning, including a former staffer to the mayor and a local EMT. None were accused of anything remotely resembling a violent crime. All described the bureau’s intense focus on the “outside agitators” supposedly hijacking the nationwide protest movement.
In some respects, New York City’s protests followed a familiar historical script, with police and local officials gesturing at a loose network of unidentified leftists as the source of unrest, and videos of cops beating up protesters leading to more protests. There were even some familiar faces involved. In the Bronx, the white-shirted officer orchestrating operations was Deputy Chief Terence Monahan, the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed official, who days earlier was filmed taking a knee with protesters. In 2004, Monahan was the subject of a series of complaints concerning the mass arrests he oversaw during the Republican National Convention.
For the most part, the NYPD’s street-level tactics were not new, said Gideon Oliver, a New York City civil rights attorney who spent years litigating on behalf of protesters arrested in the RNC crackdown, before going on to serve as president of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. “It is a massive and sustained show of force by the police department that in many ways was consistent with crowd control protest response practices that we’ve seen in the past,” he said. Still, the 2020 uprising was distinct. The RNC protests were planned more than a year in advance, Oliver explained, and involved people driving in from all over the country. The police made more than 1,800 arrests, and the city paid more than $35 million to settle lawsuits and cover lawyers’ fees as a result. Arrest totals from the George Floyd protests, which unfolded organically with blinding speed in every state in the union, quickly sailed past those of the RNC. “Twenty-five hundred arrests is just an extraordinarily large number of arrests to occur over a week’s period of protest,” Oliver said. “It’s certainly unprecedented as far as I know.”
Another thing that was new this time around: the curfew. “The curfew provided total cover for the police department to go wild,” Oliver said. “Because it provided a total pretext for them to arrest anyone at any moment.”
When I first emailed the NYPD a list of questions for this story, the department’s press shop sent me a 23-minute audio clip from a press conference Commissioner Shea gave on June 4. The audio begins with a dramatic radio distress call reporting the stabbing of an officer in Brooklyn the night before and ends with the sound of a woman screaming in terror. At the press conference, the clip was accompanied by body camera and surveillance video from around the city. “Look at those images,” the commissioner told the assembled reporters. “Look at them. You can hear the horrific pleading in some of them.” The commissioner later acknowledged that the NYPD had no evidence linking the stabbing to the protests.
In the world Shea laid out, the first weeks of June 2020 were a policing nightmare. In the face of well-coordinated groups of teenagers and young people, more than 36,000 police officers, a force larger than some national armies, had failed in one of their central missions: protecting high-end Manhattan businesses from looting and property damage. Police vehicles were torched, and there were multiple instances of protesters allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails at NYPD personnel or property. The commissioner rattled off reports of anarchists grabbing bricks from construction sites, a protester arrested “five minutes ago” carrying a loaded gun, and a car intercepted from out of state, driven by two men in possession of “gravity knives, bricks, rope, pepper spray and cans of gasoline.”
“What was their intent?” Shea asked. Relevant as the question seemed to be, he did not say.
What mattered more was the portrait Shea was painting, of a city descending into mayhem. “This is violence, pure and simple,” he said. “This is what fear feels like if we lose control.”
The unrest was rooted in a toxic mix of facts, rumor, and misinformation, driven by social and mainstream media alike, the commissioner argued. “The vitriol becomes oxygen that will fuel the fires of discord and violence,” he said. Shea identified three groups shaping conditions on the ground: “anarchists,” “looters,” and “core protesters, who are worried that violence is hijacking their message and sabotaging their cause.” The curfew was a means of isolating the problematic elements, he explained, and its enforcement was left to the discretion of officers on the ground. Where post-curfew arrests were made, the commissioner said, they were made “strategically, because of the violence, looting, intelligence that we have, or other factors.”
For all of the talk of outsiders, the most aggressive of the NYPD’s operations — the arrests in the Bronx — targeted local Black abolitionist groups and organizers from the community. Nonetheless, Shea’s dissection of who was in the streets echoed the views of his top counterterrorism and intelligence official.
Four days prior, John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told NBC New York that the department had evidence of “anarchist leaders” using encrypted communications to coordinate between “a complex network of bicycle scouts” and vandals lurking among peaceful protesters. “Before the protests began, organizers of certain anarchists groups set out to raise bail money,” Miller said. In addition, “they set out to recruit medics and medical teams” in anticipation of violent encounters with police. These individuals were “prepared to commit property damage,” the counterterrorism chief said, “and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities.”
While encrypted apps, cyclists coordinating traffic, and bail funds are all standard elements of protesting in the 21st century, the NYPD wasn’t alone in pointing the finger at outside agitators pulling the protests’ strings.
On May 31, the same day Miller spoke to NBC New York, President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. government would designate the leaderless movement against fascism known as antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. Attorney General William Barr, the most powerful law enforcement official in the country, followed the president’s tweet with a formal Justice Department statement declaring that “the voices of peaceful and legitimate protests” had been “hijacked” by “outside radicals and agitators.” All 56 of the federal government’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces were being called up to respond, the attorney general reported.
“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” Barr said, adding that the JTTFs, which partner FBI agents with state and local authorities, would be tasked with identifying “criminal organizers and instigators.” The following day, the curfew in New York City began.
With Trump beating the antifa drum, the Facebook conspiracy machine went to work, and soon small towns were arming themselves in preparation for buses of leftists to arrive. So far, none of the dozens of serious federal prosecutions associated with the recent protests have tied defendants to antifa. Federal authorities have, however, arrested multiple far-right extremists engaged in efforts to ignite a civil war through crimes ranging from the plotting of terror attacks, to the assassination of a federal court security guard and the killing of a sheriff’s deputy.
For those who would look out at the protests for racial justice and see a Trojan horse for the left-wing takeover of American society, Barr might be an attractive figure to coordinate a response. As a college student at Columbia University, he organized counterprotests and physically fought opponents of the war in Vietnam. He went on to rise through the ranks of the CIA at a time when the agency was deep in illegal domestic surveillance operations, many of them targeting leftists. During his first stint as attorney general in the ’90s, Barr coordinated the federal government’s response to the L.A. riots and built a massive drug war surveillance program that swept up billions of phone call records from the U.S. without first checking to see if it was legal.
In his second turn as the country’s top prosecutor, Barr inherited the enormous power of the post-9/11 national security state, and with Trump setting the agenda by tweet, it didn’t take long for that apparatus to make its presence known in New York City.
By the time Husan Blue’s barbecue was raided in Crown Heights, Hannah Shaw was just on her way out of NYPD custody.
Up until last fall, Shaw was a contractor in de Blasio’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Before that, she worked with the mayor’s criminal justice office. The 34-year-old and her sister were among a large group of protesters marching through downtown Brooklyn on the night of June 4. The police had been following the march for some time without incident. Just before 9:30, they moved in. “Suddenly my arms are behind my back and a baton was at my sister’s neck,” Shaw recalled. Though the crowd was large, Shaw was the only demonstrator taken into custody. She was transported to the NYPD’s 78th Precinct where she was placed in a cell with a cyclist still wearing his clip-in shoes. “He clearly hadn’t been participating in a protest,” Shaw said.
As she waited to be processed, Shaw and her cellmates were informed by NYPD officials that “the feds” wanted a word with them. Shaw was led to a hallway area, where two men in plainclothes began to ask questions. The men were chummy, though they did not mention who they worked for. “This isn’t about you,” they said. “We just want to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on at the protests.” Shaw asked if she was obligated to answer their questions and when she was told she was not, she was taken back to her cell.
Shaw had noticed that the men’s badges were not NYPD shields. One by one, the people in her cell were taken out for questioning. When the cyclist came back from his conversation, he told Shaw that men were with the FBI.
The interviews were not an isolated incident. Just hours before Shaw was arrested, The Intercept published a story recounting a similar pattern of events. The previous evening, around 11 p.m., Joel Feingold, a tenant organizer, stepped out of his Crown Heights apartment, drawn by the sound of police violently arresting a group of protesters. Feingold was tackled by a senior NYPD officer and he, too, was taken the 78th Precinct and interviewed by two men. An officer on duty that night told Feingold that one of the men was a member of the NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau. He was big, bulky, and had the bearing of a city cop. The other was an FBI agent. He was slick, Feingold said, more put-together than his NYPD counterpart. The agent handled the more political elements of the interview, telling Feingold, “We want to know who’s hijacking your movement and making it violent.”
Feingold, who declined to answer the question, was the last of the four men in his cell to be called in. The others were picked up while marching in Brooklyn. Andrew Miele, a Ph.D. student, said the FBI agent identified himself as a bureau employee and asked if Miele had witnessed any protesters instigating violence. The protest was peaceful, Miele told him, the only violence he witnessed was instigated by the police. The interview couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, Miele recalled: “I wasn’t interested in having a conversation.”
Next up was Shunt Ovanosian, an EMT whom the NYPD had tackled into a wall and thrown onto the street. This time, the agent began by explaining how there were two sets of people in the streets: the peaceful protesters, and then the rioters and the looters. He asked Ovanosian if he had come across any “outside agitators — people who are handing out bricks, people who are trying to start things.” Ovanosian had the same answer as Miele; things were peaceful until the police got involved. The conversation grew increasingly uncomfortable when the agent asked Ovanosian if he would report people getting out of line. “It felt like he was asking me to wear a wire to a protest,” Ovanosian said. “I’m not gonna do that.”
Both Ovanosian and another arrestee, Jared Day, recalled the agent’s interest in the social media accounts that led them to the protests, and whether they frequented Reddit. “The main thing they were focusing on was the organizers,” Day told me. “‘Did you know any of their names? How did you know that they were the organizers?’ Things like that.” To get at that information, the FBI agent suggested retrieving Day’s phone and going through the accounts he follows; Day declined the invitation. Day, who described being asked whether he attended protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after mentioning that he was from St. Louis, said that while his interviewers did mention white supremacists, their focus leaned left. “They were really heavily trying to put that there was outside agitators or antifa,” he said. Miele, who returned to the cell declaring “I am the king of antifa!” said that the “outside agitator” angle was clear. He pondered whether the FBI was just going through the bureaucratic motions, or if the bureau was incapable of recognizing that people might take to the street without being beckoned by shadowy left-wing forces. Either way, he said, “It was ridiculous.”
For Shaw, whose relationship to the protests was informed by her time in City Hall, where she had seen the mayor repeatedly and righteously denounce the authoritarianism of Donald Trump, the experience was surreal. “Under this administration, in this political moment, the fact that the NYPD is handing folks over for questioning by the FBI, and that’s being done under the cover of the mayor of New York City’s curfew,” she said, “it’s just kind of mind blowing.”
All of the individuals I spoke to who were arrested during the curfew and subsequently interviewed by the FBI were only charged with curfew violations. Less than a week after they were released, Marty Stolar began making calls.
For the past three decades, Stolar and a small circle of colleagues have been the legal watchdogs ensuring that the NYPD is in compliance with guidelines laid out in a lawsuit known as Handschu v. Special Services Division. Born in the wake of a historic 1971 trial in which 21 Black Panthers were tried and acquitted of plotting a series of attacks in New York City, the case called into question a history of the NYPD targeting leftists — one that stretched back to the early 1900s and featured the use of specialized units with names like the Red Squad, the Anarchist Squad, and the Radical Bureau.
Litigated over nearly a decade, the suit came as Americans were learning of sweeping CIA and FBI domestic spying programs targeting the left. The bureau’s most infamous program, COINTELPRO, routinely targeted African American organizers, groups, and movements. The Handschu agreement sought to stop the NYPD from running its own COINTELPRO-style operations by prohibiting any component of the department other than its intelligence division from launching investigations into political activity and requiring that those investigations be based on hard evidence of criminal activity.
Rather than coming to a close, the suit remained open, so that Stolar and his partners could revive the litigation if the NYPD ran afoul of its rules.
As reports of joint FBI-NYPD interrogations began rolling in earlier this month, Stolar went to work. If the accounts were true, there was a strong likelihood the NYPD would be in violation of Handschu. It wouldn’t be the first time.
After September 11, the FBI gained sweeping new powers that allowed agents to open “assessments” on their targets without evidence of criminal activity. In New York City, the judge overseeing the Handschu case modified the agreement to more closely align with those post-9/11 rules. The NYPD repeatedly violated the watered-down guidelines in the years that followed, first by conducting political “debriefings” of Iraq War and RNC protesters, and later by building a regional spying operation that indiscriminately targeted Muslim communities throughout the northeast. More recently, documents have shown the NYPD and the FBI directing surveillance resources at Black Lives Matter activists both in New York City and around the country.
“We have been here before,” Stolar wrote in a June 8 letter to New York City’s law department. Stolar listed 14 questions individuals interviewed during the George Floyd protests reported being asked, including “Are you in antifa?” and “What are you protesting about?” In the experience of the Handschu attorneys, he wrote, these types of interviews usually led to the creation of files reflecting “purely political activity,” which is a violation of the agreement.
The day after Stolar sent his letter, the NYPD’s public affairs department began issuing a statement to reporters inquiring about the interviews. Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell wrote that from June 1 to June 4, the department’s intelligence and detective bureaus conducted approximately 100 interviews — out of more than 1,000 arrests — focused on “developing information on crimes that occurred around the protests including burglary and looting.” NYPD investigators focused on the “illegal activity” of “anarchist groups that have been the drivers of violence and property damage,” the statement said, and sought to determine if there was communication or coordination between the looters and the anarchists.
The statement was curious both for what it acknowledged and what it did not. For one, there was no mention of the FBI. What’s more, O’Donnell had written that the interviews “were only directed at persons arrested at night during the time when looting and vandalism was present.” The vast majority of the looting in New York City was concentrated in lower and midtown Manhattan, as well as the Bronx, on May 31 and June 1. The individuals I spoke to were arrested in Brooklyn, days later. Of the four who were arrested while protesting, none described witnessing any looting or vandalism. The marches were peaceful. Feingold wasn’t even on a march when he was taken into custody; he had simply stepped out of his apartment because he thought he heard the sound of police hurting protesters.
Recent history has shown that sometimes, when a municipal police department provides officers to federal task forces like the ones William Barr has directed at antifa, the work the officers do for the feds disappears into a transparency black hole. The secrecy of the hybrid teams is a major reason why an increasing number of cities across the country have decided to cut off the collaborations.
Were the interviews the NYPD conducted alongside the FBI separate from the ones described in O’Donnell’s statement? Was that because those officers were assigned to a federal task force engaged in the Trump administration’s hunt for antifa instigators? I put those questions to the NYPD repeatedly. The department refused to say. The FBI, meanwhile, declined to answer any questions related to the interviews in New York.
The FBI’s involvement “smells like JTTF,” Stolar told me, adding that NYPD might try to wiggle out of its decades-old Handschu agreement by hiding behind the feds. “I could see them making an argument that it’s a gray area, ‘We’re not really NYPD officers, we’re JTTF officers and so the rules don’t apply,’” Stolar said. “I don’t buy that.”
On the Saturday before the curfew ended, hundreds of young people filled the steps of the Old New York County Courthouse in lower Manhattan demanding that funds for the NYPD be redirected into youth education programs. A short walk down Chambers Street, beneath a covered archway that leads to police headquarters, a trio of city lawmakers huddled for a strategy session. Summoned by concerned public defenders and activists, public advocate Jumaane Williams, along with City Council members Brad Lander and Keith Powers, planned to invoke a city charter that empowered them to inspect city jails at will.
In a city under curfew, where a deadly and highly contagious virus was still raging, the police had arrested thousands of people, and the system for finding them was breaking down.
As the demonstrators up the street chanted and cheered, Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, laid out what defense attorneys were up against. Normally, people arrested in a major protesting event were taken to a dedicated center at NYPD headquarters. That wasn’t happening, Wong told the lawmakers. Following the curfew arrests in the Bronx, for example, some protesters were taken to a local processing center, while others were moved to a precinct in Queens. Since most protesters were receiving a summons or a desk appearance ticket, they weren’t getting an arrest number that would help a defense attorney locate them — and even for those who did, Wong added, the NYPD wasn’t logging those numbers right away. People were disappearing for 24 hours or more.
Wong herself had tried to run down a list of 10 recently arrested protesters by calling NYPD headquarters. “I got hung up on about a dozen times,” she said. “I could not get through to anyone to tell me where anybody was. I could not get a fax number or an email address at all, because they told me they didn’t have one, which I know is patently false.”
Protesters who emerged from custody described poor conditions on the inside, including a lack of medical attention, masks confiscated by the police, and inconsistent access to water. Between the coronavirus, the curfew, and the crackdown, the public defenders were stretched thin. “There’s little fires everywhere,” Wong told me. “It’s frustrating sometimes on a normal day but when you have mass arrests like this — it was just tenfold.” Unable to participate in the demonstrations, Wong had joined others across the city who were standing outside their apartment each night at 8 p.m., when the curfew officially began, to hold signs in protest. “We’re not getting stopped by the police,” she noted. “It’s very clear that the police are using the curfew for selective enforcement, as an excuse to crack down extra hard on protesters or people who they believe are undesirable.”
While the curfew itself was new, the phenomenon of the NYPD selectively enforcing the law was not. For the better part of the past two decades, the police department embraced a quota-driven policing strategy that resulted in millions of street-level stops that overwhelmingly targeted Black and brown men and boys who had committed no crime. The social cost was profound, with an entire generation of New Yorkers coming of age in a city where their skin color all but guaranteed unsettling, if not violent or traumatic, encounters with the police.
In 2013, a federal judge found that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional. Officer Pedro Serrano was a key witness in the case, having secretly recorded his supervisors ordering him to indiscriminately stop Black teens and young men in the Bronx in order to meet department quotas; we met while I was covering the trial.
Though the protests had not yet come to his corner of New York, Serrano, a 16-year veteran of the force, felt their impact whenever he stepped outside in uniform. He saw it in the faces of people he passed on the street, he said, and in the way they clenched their fists. A feeling of vulnerability was coursing through the men and women on patrol. “Oh, it’s real,” Serrano told me. “It’s real and it’s dangerous for any cop who’s out there who has to walk through a crowd of people, especially if they’re Black and brown. They’re not liked right now.”
The collective anxiety and tension rose with the demonstrations, pushing uniformed cops into an exhausting state of hyper-awareness, he said. As for their purpose, Serrano was of two minds. Born in Puerto Rico, Serrano relocated to the Bronx with his family when he was a year old. Racism, including racist policing, was a fact of life, and something he’s tried to push back against now that he wears the uniform. “As a citizen, I say without a doubt, keep protesting, you gotta keep the pressure on,” Serrano said. As a cop, however, he could not tolerate the violence. Protest policing is a grind, he explained, and some officers are better at managing stress than others. “There’s a lot of angry people out there,” he said, including “a lot of angry cops.”
In Serrano’s view, the NYPD underestimated the scale of the protests early on, then embraced an arrest-driven approach that made things worse. The way he saw it, the department had two choices when the protests kicked off: protect people and property, or make arrests. It couldn’t do both simultaneously. “You can’t play offense and defense,” he said. “Once you start arresting one person, it agitates other people and escalates things.” Given the size of the recent demonstrations, the department was pulling administrative officers with no protest experience off of regular duty and sending them into the streets. Add to that mix a curfew that officers would be called upon to enforce, and you had a recipe for disaster. “You start arresting people for that, it’s just gonna make things worse,” he said. “As time went on, they made adjustments and it got better, but there are a lot of police officers that are not happy about what’s happening.”
The fundamental problem, Serrano said, is the same one that created the stop-and-frisk era: a rot at the top of police headquarters. It was true that the department had introduced some new training since it was hauled into court — some of it was quite good, he said — but none of that mattered if your precinct’s priorities remained the same. Seven years after he took to the witness stand, Serrano said the pressure to make stops is still there. “They’re still asking for numbers, just a lot less and it’s not so overt,” he said. “It’s more under the table.”
“The way the department works is they just change names,” he explained. Take the NYPD’s recent decision to disband its notorious “anti-crime” units. “They’re going to take these people, recycle them, they’re going to do the same work under a different name,” Serrano said. “That’s it.” The aggressive plainclothes units were merely the latest face of a toxic “hunter” mentality that NYPD leadership has embraced for decades, he said, and unless that culture is rooted out, nothing will change. “They’re doing more and more things, but it never gets to the core. They never punish the people, the bosses, that are in charge of everything.”
“There’s no white shirt that goes to jail or loses his job or gets punished,” Serrano said. The leadership of the NYPD, the so-called super chiefs, are part of an invitation-only club. The members of that club, along with the leadership of the department’s right-wing unions, are almost all white men who became cops 20 or 30 years ago. “You remember what the thinking was back then,” Serrano said. “You don’t get rid of it overnight.” That entrenched power is now running up against communities that “have been messed with for so long, picked on and abused for so long that they’re finally standing up and doing something,” he said. “The last time I remember that was in the books, it took a civil war to make change.”
“Obviously we’re not at that point that we were back then, but it’s still out there,” Serrano said. “Black and brown bodies are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts, and it’s alarming to see it.”
It’s not just the police shootings. In New York City, Black and Latino residents have died from the coronavirus at twice the rate of their white and Asian counterparts. The Bronx, a hyper-policed borough where the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed official directed the department’s most violent protest suppression, has been the hardest hit.
While the official line from the NYPD when asked about the protests often centered on public safety and officer safety, the department’s response to the crisis that preceded the uprisings calls those commitments into question. “They handled the Covid horribly,” Serrano said. The potential for problems was obvious from the start. “The police officers responding to your home, they will catch it from you, and then go to the next job to give it to the next person, and the next person, and the next person,” he said. “We started to infect each other, and we got one mask, and then we got three masks, and then finally they kicked in and started sanitizing or whatever, but this was a month or two after.”
“I was exposed. I got it, and I wasn’t allowed to be tested,” Serrano said. He brought the disease home, and soon his family fell ill as well. He wasn’t the only one. More than 40 members of the NYPD have died of Covid-19, while thousands of others have tested positive for the virus. “A lot of police officers got sick,” Serrano said. “Cop safety didn’t even exist.”
“If this was a zombie virus, we all would have been zombies, all the cops,” he said.
The situation was particularly bad among patrol, the officers providing most of the muscle for the NYPD’s protest policing — very few of them wearing masks — who spend their days in the communities most susceptible to the virus. There were no guidelines or directives telling officers not to go into people’s homes, or to encourage community members to speak to them outside. “Nothing changed,” Serrano said. Particularly in public housing, the mission was the same one it has always been: “Go into the building, knock on the door, handle the job, and go to the next one, the next one, the next one.” The department has a better handle on the situation now, Serrano said, but he believes a slow response was harmful. “A lot of damage happens in a month,” he said. “We just made it worse.”
On June 7, de Blasio announced that he was lifting New York City’s curfew a day early. The following day, New York City entered phase one of relaxing its coronavirus quarantine measures. Protests in the city continue.
Husan Blue was still in physical pain when the mayor’s decision came down. Speaking was difficult, a fact he attributed to the time he spent with the officers’ weight on his throat. His forearm was in a cast. A doctor had observed signs of nerve damage up to his shoulder. “Right now, I’m still trying to process everything,” he said. “I can’t believe that it happened to me.” It would have been no thing for the police to observe that he and his neighbors were having a peaceful cookout, politely ask them to pack it up, and give them time to do so, he told me. Instead, they attacked. “The trauma for me is that I could have been a hashtag,” Blue said. “My mother could’ve been a hashtag. And for what? A curfew that is over today.”
Two weeks later, the sense of disbelief had not lifted. Standing outside of the building where he was raised, the only home he was ever known, Blue stretched out his arm. The discomfort from the police zip ties was still there. A music producer by trade, Blue had recently begun giving piano lessons to kids to make a little extra money. He didn’t know how long it would be before he could do that again.
Blue led the way into the lobby where his mother was pushed to the floor and he was placed under arrest. The window on the front door was cracked, a result of the police pushing their way inside, Blue said. Tenants came and went as Blue walked me through his arrest; he opened the door for each of them, and they exchanged neighborly hellos.
“This is a family-oriented building,” Blue’s father, Gregory, explained, when he joined us in the lobby. Like his son, Gregory, who has lived in the building since 1977, was still trying to make sense of what happened that night. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people on the patio when the police rolled up, he told me, and most were on their way out anyway. Gregory had tried to get to his wife and son when the melee unfolded in the lobby, but he found himself blocked by an impenetrable police line. “I said, ‘Yo, look. That’s my family in there. I’m a veteran,’” he recalled telling an officer, who then replied, “Thank you for your service.” As a grown man and a father, Gregory said the experience made him feel like he was nothing. “I was so distraught that night,” he said. “So messed up.”
According to the NYPD, the events surrounding Blue’s arrest are under internal review. The department would not say why officers came to the building in the first place. Blue’s lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, told me that he has yet to see evidence of an emergency call that would have summoned the NYPD. In the wake of Blue’s arrest, a neighbor, Jessica Kaufman, wrote a letter to de Blasio expressing her “outrage and disappointment” at the police response. Kaufman explained that around 11:30 p.m., she had heard the sound of a loud firework, which was immediately followed by the NYPD’s raid on the barbecue. “My neighbors weren’t causing any sort of violence or trouble,” Kaufman wrote, adding that the police turned her neighborhood into a “war zone.”
Blue told me he had heard the fireworks too that night; they had been building for days. “Fourth of July is coming up, so you hear fireworks going off,” he said. “We had nothing to do with the fireworks going off, but we hear it.” Facing an influx of complaints over the explosions, the de Blasio administration recently announced that the same NYPD intelligence bureau that was questioning protesters about antifa earlier this month will now be running an interstate crackdown targeting individuals who buy, sell, or possess illegal fireworks. Even before the announcement, reports emerged of the NYPD using riot suppression tactics not unlike those deployed against Blue’s barbecue to target Brooklyn community members suspected of setting off fireworks.
Where and how the police devote their time is an issue Blue has been forced to deal with since he was a kid. He was 13 years old when stop-and-frisk became a part of everyday life. At the time, the NYPD’s 71st Precinct was stopping around 4,400 people in Crown Heights a year. By the time Blue was 20, that number would soar to more than 7,200. Because the vast majority of the NYPD’s stops were baseless and didn’t result in an arrest, it was irrelevant that Blue had no criminal history. For a police department built on quotas, Blue and his friends were numbers, plain and simple. Plainclothes police would follow them into their building, asking where they were going. The harassment became so routine that they knew which days of the week the police would most likely be looking to make their numbers. “It was Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Blue said. They called them “Task Force Tuesdays.”
As he and his friends were being questioned week after week, year after year, Blue saw other issues on his block go unaddressed. “I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen people get into fights where the police never show up. I’ve seen people get shot,” he said. “Everything happens right after the police leave or when they’re sitting like two blocks down, watching somebody that probably ran a red light. I get that you’re doing your job, but you’re not stopping the things that are really causing chaos.” In the wake of the barbecue raid, Blue said his mother had largely stopped going outside except to go to work. An image of the senior officer who oversaw the operation lingers in his mind. “I can’t forget his look,” Blue said. “His eyes. The way he was looking at everybody, like he was disgusted and hated everybody.” It seemed that no matter what you do, Blue said, “they’re going to treat you like an enemy.”
“I really don’t get it,” he said. “I still don’t get it.”