New York police deliberately assaulted dozens of peaceful protesters, medics, and legal observers in one of this summer’s most violently repressed protests, trapping people in the streets past a city-imposed curfew before beating and arresting them in what Police Commissioner Dermot Shea described as “a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly.”
At least 236 people were arrested at the June 4 protest in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, and at least 61 were injured by police, with some left with broken noses and fingers, lost teeth, and potential nerve damage, according to a detailed report released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. “The police response to the peaceful Mott Haven protest was intentional, planned, and unjustified,” the report concluded. “The protest was peaceful until the police responded with violence.”
More than 100 protesters have filed notice of their intent to sue the city over police actions that day, which are likely to cost the city millions in misconduct settlements and legal fees. The protest, one of hundreds that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, came after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared an 8 p.m. curfew following looting in other parts of the city. Most people arrested in the Bronx were charged with curfew violations or unlawful assembly. Many were held overnight with no food, including several who were injured and received no medical attention. The majority of the charges have since been dismissed.
Human Rights Watch’s reconstruction of the events, based on about 100 interviews and the review of 155 videos by participants and bystanders, reveals that about 10 minutes before curfew, police deliberately corralled protesters using a controversial law enforcement tactic known as “kettling,” preventing people from dispersing. When the curfew kicked in, police moved into the trapped crowd, shoving people to the ground, pepper-spraying them, beating them with batons from the top of parked cars, and violently arresting dozens of them.
“When the police began moving through the kettle, they started pushing us from the front and the back so we ended up essentially trampling over each other, trying to escape the violence of the police.”
Police also detained several medics and legal observers, despite them having been declared exempt from the curfew by the mayor’s office. Police on the scene were supervised by two-dozen senior officers in white shirts, including the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the department, Chief of Police Terence Monahan, who can be seen in one video confronting one of the protest’s organizers. Monahan also played a key role in the police repression of a 2004 protest at the Republican National Convention, during which police similarly kettled and assaulted protesters, ultimately costing the city $36 million in misconduct settlements.
“This was just a completely unjustified, unnecessary, excessive use of force and brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters,” Ida Sawyer, acting crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report, told The Intercept. Monahan’s presence, she said, “really showed how the violence and abuse is encouraged and condoned by the NYPD and how the system really fuels impunity.”
“If the top brass is leading this, then what message does that send to all of the officers below him?” she added. “It really just epitomizes how police officers are rewarded for abuse.”
“They were basically doing collective punishment on us,” Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a protester and former congressional candidate, told The Intercept. “And they were doing it in a way that really didn’t give anyone the opportunity to escape it even if they happened to not be part of the protest.”
“We were kettled before 8 p.m. and they intentionally held us so that we were outside after curfew,” added Ghebreghiorgis, who was detained for nearly 24 hours following the protest. “When the police began moving through the kettle, they started pushing us from the front and the back so we ended up essentially trampling over each other, trying to escape the violence of the police on the front line and on the back line. … It was really scary; you just heard screaming and crying throughout the entire ordeal.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to a list of questions from The Intercept. The NYPD did not answer questions but referred The Intercept to previously released statements by senior department officials in which Shea and de Blasio defended the police’s conduct in a press conference the day after the protest. “This is something that the NYPD saw coming,” the mayor said, arguing that police were responding to “an organization that literally was encouraging violence.” The NYPD did not address Human Rights Watch’s questions about violence by officers or its use of kettling to force protesters to violate the curfew, but claimed that the detention of nonessential workers was “lawful.”
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, Ernest F. Hart, argued that the protest’s intent was to “direct violence at a class of individuals based on their profession.” The protest was promoted on social media by an abolitionist coalition known as the “FTP Formation” — an acronym for “Fuck the Police” but also “Free the People” — and some fliers advertising the protest depicted a police car burning, though organizers specifically denounced “irresponsible adventurism” and called on participants not to bring weapons.
In a review of video evidence, Human Rights Watch counted dozens of incidents of police beating protesters with batons, punching, kicking, tackling, or dragging protesters, and firing pepper spray directly at people’s faces. The group documented four instances of officers throwing bikes against protesters and two incidents in which police restrained participants with a knee to the face or neck. No officers were injured, and the department did not discipline any of the officers involved in the crackdown. The police response to the Mott Haven and other protests is currently under investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office.
Trapped by Police
The Mott Haven protest was one of several that took place in New York City that day. About 300 people had gathered in the neighborhood, which is home to mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers, including many who are without housing, and is one of the poorest and most heavily policed in the city, as well as one of the most devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The neighborhood is a perfect symbol for protesters’ demands for police divestment and reinvestment in services. “You have this neighborhood where the city has very intentionally concentrated poverty, homeless shelters, public housing, drug treatment centers,” a protester told Human Rights Watch. “And then there’s a hyper police presence on top of that. Literally stepping out of the subway in the area — you can see what the protesters are pushing for, investing in communities and the root causes so the police aren’t needed, and people are safer and healthier.”
Shea later described the protest as an attempt by “outside agitators” to “cause mayhem,” “tear down society,” and “injure cops.” After the protest, police shared images of items they claimed to have confiscated that day during a car stop, including a sledgehammer, a wrench, and a bottle of lighter fluid. But they provided no evidence that those items had been confiscated from protesters. They also did not provide evidence that a gun they claimed to have recovered from an alleged gang member prior to the rally was connected to the protest. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of violent conduct by protesters and argued instead that police acted with particular impunity that day because of the demographics of the neighborhood and the protesters.
“Literally stepping out of the subway in the area — you can see what the protesters are pushing for, investing in communities and the root causes so the police aren’t needed, and people are safer and healthier.”
“There seemed to be a real deliberate attempt by the NYPD to target this particular group of protesters in this particular neighborhood, in Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, a protest that was led by outspoken community activists who have been demanding police accountability and speaking out about police abuses,” Sawyer told The Intercept. “The fact that this operation was so well planned, it seems that they really wanted to send a message to them and send a message to the broader community there.”
The FTP coalition, in particular, had been behind a number of protests and direct actions in the city, including in opposition to a recent spike in the number of officers assigned to patrol the subway. “FTP directly challenges policing and the authority that policing has throughout the city, which many of us see as a direct threat to our communities,” said Ghebreghiorgis. “So [police] had a preconceived notion about what FTP is, who the protesters were, and that’s why they had this plan.”
“Anyone who experienced it knows that the only thing that was executed flawlessly was police brutality and abuse of peaceful protesters,” he added, referring to Shea’s comment. “We came there to protest police brutality, and we all became victims of police brutality.”
Gideon Oliver, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild’s New York chapter, whose legal observers have monitored protests for decades, called police actions in the Bronx “incredibly heavy-handed and disproportionate.”
“People are allowed to say, ’Fuck the police,’ that’s constitutionally protected,” he said.
“Although that’s the police department’s m.o. in terms of responding to protests, to be heavy-handed, this was on a different order,” Oliver added. “After they kettled people, they could have said, ’You’re all under arrest, now we’re just processing you one by one so please, comply.’ Nobody ever did that. They just started going in and wailing on people.”
A video reconstruction of the protest released along Human Rights Watch’s report shows an energetic but peaceful march moving through the Bronx and crossing a public housing complex, where residents are seen cheering on the crowd from their windows. As marchers walk down a main thoroughfare, they are blocked by about 50 officers in riot gear and on bikes, the video shows. The march then redirects through a different street, but just a few minutes before the curfew, officers on bikes move to block that exit as well, before pushing into the crowd using their bikes as shields. As tension and panic rise, the crowd starts yelling, “Let us through,” while a different group of officers prevents people from turning around, effectively sealing off all available exits.
“Police got us trapped,” a protester narrates in the video. “They fucking out here right now on the bullhorn telling us we can’t be here after 8. And we ain’t do nothing wrong. At about 7:45, they intentionally started cornering us. They have us pushed in, in a pen. … Whatever narrative is spun to you later, do not believe it.”
“Where do we go?” kettled protesters can be heard asking officers later on. “Where are we going to go, we’re corralled?”
“You are getting locked up,” an officer responds. “To jail.”
Police’s response to the Mott Haven protest violated both the U.S. Constitution and international human rights law, as well as the NYPD’s own Patrol Guide, Human Rights Watch charged. The Patrol Guide, in particular, explicitly permits clearly identified legal observers “free access through police lines at the scene of any demonstration … subject only to restrictions necessitated by personal factors.”
But at least 13 legal observers, posing no threat to police, were detained in Mott Haven. In the video reconstruction, an officer wearing an “NYPD LEGAL” jacket is seen directing other officers to arrest legal observers clearly identified by their NLG neon green hats.
“Legal observers can be arrested, they are good go,” the officer is heard saying, before other officers shove a woman to the ground who was showing them documentation proving her role as a legal observer.
In his letter to Human Rights Watch, Hart, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, argued that “legal observers did not enjoy an exemption as essential workers,” that they should be working “remotely,” and that “there cannot be a legal observer of a protest that itself is illegal.” But that claim contradicted both the Patrol Guide and instructions by the mayor’s office. “I checked with the Mayor’s counsel who confirmed: yes, those lawyers are essential and can show up in person if they can’t do their work remotely,” Persephone Tan, a senior legislative representative in the mayor’s office wrote in an email to the National Lawyers’ Guild. “Protecting one’s liberty is about as essential as it gets.”
“Several people from the mayor’s office gave confirmation to city and state lawmakers that legal observers and jail support and medical support for protesters were exempt from the curfew,” said Oliver. “What you see in those emails is the opposite of what the police department says.”
Oliver noted that De Blasio’s executive order indicates that once the curfew is in place police have to give a dispersal order and that people who refuse to comply with that order can be subject to arrest. But in Mott Haven, protesters were physically prevented — by police themselves — from complying with the order. “People didn’t have any opportunities to comply,” he said, arguing that the police actions raise questions about the validity of all of the arrests made that day.
In fact, legal observers weren’t the only essentially targeted by police that day. In the video, officers can be seen arresting medics in scrubs and with Red Cross insignia, while protesters yell, “These are essential workers.”
“As they came towards us, I told them, ’Hey, we’re health care workers acting as medics, you guys trapped us in here, and if you let us go, we’ll go on the outside of this and continue acting as medics,” Mike Pappas, a medic interviewed by Human Rights Watch, said he told police. Pappas was arrested anyway, along with at least five other medics. And medics who were not arrested were prevented by officers from tending to injured protesters, despite several people crying out for help. In one incident, officers blocked a medic from assisting a protester who was lying in the street, bleeding from the head and struggling to breathe, after an officer had hit him with a baton. A different report on the protest, published by Physicians for Human Rights, concluded that “police violated the principle of noninterference with medical services.”
Conrad Blackburn, a legal observer at the protests, described officers’ conduct as “vigilante justice.”
“Once the medical professionals and the legal observers are out of the way, the police really, really just started cracking down on the protesters with impunity,” he said. “It was a very, very tragic thing to witness.”