When several thousand protesters gathered in Union Square on April 29 for the biggest local demonstration against police killings of Black people since the massive “Millions March NYC” on Dec. 13, many immediately recognized something had changed.
“This is the New York City Police Department,” a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) mounted on a police truck at the edge of the square blared into the crowd.
“Please be advised that pedestrians are not permitted to walk in the street or roadway,” it warned. “Pedestrians are also prohibited from obstructing sidewalks.”
“If you unlawfully obstruct pedestrian traffic or walk in the street or roadway, you may be placed under arrest and charged with disorderly conduct, a violation of New York State penal law.”
As the looped message continued, Community Affairs officers in distinctive blue jackets offered fliers with a similar warning to protesters near the edge of the rally.
At those demonstrations, the NYPD had maintained a cautious distance from the crowd, largely avoiding contact with it unless officers spotted an opportunity for a major arrest.
But at the first gathering in response to the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, after he sustained a lethal spinal injury while in Baltimore police custody a week earlier, the NYPD seemed eager for a fight.
“The most brutality I’ve seen”
It came as soon as demonstrators pushed into a street by the park, as the full extent of the NYPD’s operational shift became apparent.
Police leapt into action, quickly establishing a line to prevent marchers from proceeding further.
As demonstrators retreated, massing by the square before pushing a different direction, more police lines sprang up, dividing the crowd.
Officers then tried to push the split crowd onto sidewalks. When protesters were slow to move, police responded forcefully: shoving a woman with a club, slamming a man’s head into the hood of a car before arresting him.
After an uneasy cat-and-mouse game continued into the early hours of the morning of April 30, police said they had arrested 143 demonstrators across the city, with most receiving the promised charge of disorderly conduct.
“I’ve come to all these protests since Ferguson,” Isaiah Brown, a protester from Brooklyn, told MintPress News. “But this is the most brutality I’ve seen, even compared to my neighborhood.”
“It seems that the NYPD is escalating their intensity during protests,” Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, New York City organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told MintPress. “This has included more arrests, physical confrontations, also an added emphasis on steering the direction of marches.”
“The authorities are not happy”
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton did not deny his department’s shift in tactics
“I didn’t see much different last night from what I saw in December,” Bratton told reporters on April 30. “But we are going to be much more assertive dealing with efforts to close down tunnels, close down bridges, and will be much faster to make arrests if in fact they attempt to move in that direction.”
Over the past week, protest organizers and participants have discussed possible reasons for the change.
Some have seen reflections of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rumored aspirations to higher political office, or his acquiescence to the anger of NYPD officers after injuries to three officers, during two separate altercations with protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on Dec. 13 and April 14, as well as the shooting deaths of two others on Dec. 20.
De Blasio seemed to suggest as much last week, when he acknowledged at a separate press conference that the NYPD had made “tactical adjustments” in response to the injuries.
Many suspect a reaction to unrest elsewhere in the country, coupled with desperation to avert it locally.
The shift happened “because of Baltimore,” Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with the Coalition to End Broken Windows, told MintPress. “De Blasio gave word to Bratton that he and his footsoldiers were unshackled, lest an uprising in New York City begin to take place.”
Along with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Coalition to End Broken Windows is a participant in the Safety Beyond Policing campaign, which has organized a series of “No New NYPD” protests against the hiring of 1,000 further officers.
“Perhaps this the community policing or rebranded Broken Windows policing in practice,” Ndugga-Kabuye said. “This community policing has coincided with the criminalization of protests and rhetoric that creates an overlap between terrorism and protest.”
Others suspect the crackdown on protests has more to do with their perseverance.
“Mayor DeBlasio and other ‘leaders’ called on people to stop protesting at the end of December using arrests, threats, lies and distortions to try and kill this movement,” Travis Morales told MintPress about a request by de Blasio for the “suspension” of protests after the two officers were shot and killed on Dec. 20.
Morales is a member of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network NYC steering committee, which organized the first major protests in the city since the deaths, on April 14.
“They tend to peter out on their own”
Estimated by organizers to include 1,500 participants, the April 14 demonstration was not only the largest demonstration against police brutality since December, but also withstood a high level of arrests, with 42 taken into custody.
Demonstrations earlier in December had seen hundreds of arrests, but many were intentional acts of civil disobedience made as other activists blocked the city’s street grid.
Shifts in the NYPD’s approach to protesters have been hard to miss, Morales said. “Unlike last year, their response to blocking the Brooklyn Bridge on April 14 was knocking a man unconscious, throwing a woman on a short metal tree fence, beating people, drawing a gun on teenage protesters, pulling leaders out of the crowd to arrest them, and mass arresting people.”
Despite these clashes, Trujillo said the change had come later. “April 14th protesters were still generally allowed to take the streets.”
Few deny that the NYPD’s forceful response is a reversion to the department’s longstanding norm, rather than a new innovation.
“The NYPD was always brutal and arbitrary with their policing of demonstrations,” Trujillo said. “Their more hands off approach during last winter’s demos was the exception, not the rule.”
The change boils down to the protests’ longevity, Morales said. “The authorities did not like the fact that on April 14, after several months of no mass protests, we re-seized the political initiative, bringing people back out into the streets across the country to shut it down.”
Bratton might have indicated the same on Dec. 5, when he told the Observer his strategy: “The history of these things is that they don’t go on forever, they tend to peter out on their own.”
With protests returning en masse to the streets after a winter lull, the flaws in this earlier approach may, from Bratton and de Blasio’s perspectives, have now become obvious.
“You might see things more like Baltimore and Ferguson”
“Future protests will have to be more creative,” Ndugga-Kabuye said. “Police are aggressively steering marches and finding ways to dampen dissent. Activists have to tap into new forms of registering demands.”
Trujillo shared his hopes.
“It’ll hopefully force protesters to be more creative and focus more on tactics than mass numbers,” he said. “But it’s also possible that [some] demonstrators will want to listen to daddy de Blasio and work more with cops–which will piss off a lot of people.”
By cracking down on protests, police may push them toward further militancy, others say.
“Until now, we’ve kind of had an understanding with the cops,” Tania Cruz, a protester from Manhattan, told MintPress.
“We’re disruptive, but disciplined, and they keep to themselves. But if they’re going to start attacking and arresting everyone, you might see things more like Ferguson and Baltimore here.”
Morales hopes that public violence by the police can attract greater support. “This brutal repression is because the system has no other answer to the righteous demand for justice and that the police stop murdering our people,” he said.
“This repression is unjust and illegitimate,” Morales continued. “We may be able to draw even more people into the movement to stop murder by police, mass incarceration and all the horrors coming down on black and Latino people.”