Another day of protests over the death of George Floyd brought more examples of New York City officials downplaying or denying the police department’s rough treatment of protesters — even when it was caught on video.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday said he had personally seen “no use of force around peaceful protests” and cast doubt on people who had, belying social media posts and witness accounts of officers moving on demonstrators without provocation and bashing them with batons.
De Blasio made the comment in response to questions at his morning news briefing about teams of officers aggressively breaking up a rally in the Bronx as the city’s 8 p.m. curfew kicked in Thursday, leading to scores of arrests and cries of brutality. He said officers were using “lots of restraint” with protesters.
“What an absolute disgrace. This is just not true,” City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer tweeted afterward. “You are gaslighting an entire City.”
The department did later announce the suspensions without pay for two officers, in connection to two separate incidents from the early days of protest. In one, on May 29, a video clip showed an officer shoving a woman to the ground. In the second, on May 30, an officer was shown pulling a demonstrator’s mask down and spraying pepper spray. Both cases have been referred for disciplinary action.
Protesters marched through the city again Friday by the thousands. About three hundred people gathered in Union Square for a rally organized by medical professionals who have been battling the COVID-19 pandemic at its epicenter for the last three months. One protester held a sign that read, “You Clapped For Us, We Kneel For You,” referring to the ritual clapping New Yorkers do each night at 7 p.m. to salute health care workers.
“We want to redirect the respect that was given to us throughout the coronavirus pandemic and give that same respect to members of the community who are on the front lines fighting for social justice,” said Hillary Duenas, one of the event organizers who works at Mount Sinai.
On Friday night, some demonstrators remained on city streets into the night hours after the curfew started. Initially, at least, police presence seemed muted as crowds dwindled on their own at various locations.
Randy Williams exchanged a fist bump with police. “I get in their faces everyday not with hate, not with anger,” he said. “My delivery may be a little rough but the message is the same. I don’t dislike cops and I have been to prison. I don’t hate cops. I hate bullies. I hate oppressors and hate is a very strong word and I know exactly how I am using it.”
The violent flareups that characterized some demonstrations last weekend have almost entirely given way to peaceful affairs. Looting that occurred on Sunday and Monday also appears to have ceased.
The tension now has occurred around the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, with police at some protests using force to enforce the order barring assemblies.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said by “willfully ignoring the evidence” of bystanders, reporters, observers, and peaceful protesters being brutalized in plain sight, the mayor is emboldening the police to cause more harm.
“I guess at this point the mayor is delusional,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said officers at the Bronx rally were acting on information that some in the crowd were plotting to destroy property and attack police, citing posters he said advertised the plan. Shea said police recovered a gun, gasoline and other weapons at the event, adding that officers had done a “phenomenal job the last couple of nights.”
Police made no mention of a gun or gasoline in a Friday night news release about the clash, which said about 260 people were arrested, mostly for violating curfew. In a later update, police said that the gun arrest was about a mile from the rally and that three people at the rally site were picked up about two hours before curfew for having bottles filled with an unknown chemical agent.
Jake Offenhartz, a reporter for the news website Gothamist who was at the rally, challenged Shea’s account at Friday’s news briefing, saying what he saw firsthand “is nothing like what you’re describing.”
Videos posted on Twitter showed helmeted officers charging the vocal but non-violent crowd, pushing protesters back with bicycles and bloodying some with batons.
De Blasio was skeptical, saying unnamed observers from City Hall “saw a very different reality than what you saw.”
The mayor, though, promised that all police misconduct allegations would be investigated. He also chided officers for mistreating essential workers exempt from the curfew, such as food delivery workers and journalists.
Shea, who gave a fiery speech Thursday denouncing a wave of vicious attacks on officers, said “sometimes when you’re in the middle of something, you don’t get to see the big picture too.”
On Friday evening, the department announced an arrest of two people in connection to a June 2 incident where a police officer was hit by an oncoming car, sending him flying into the street and leaving him in serious condition.
The police department’s treatment of peaceful protesters, amid smash-and-grab sprees and sporadic unrest, has come under fire as demonstrations stretch into a second weekend, spurred by George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck.
After officers were recorded Wednesday shoving and hitting peaceful protesters as they enforced the curfew, it was Gov. Andrew Cuomo who doubted it happened, telling an Associated Press reporter that her question about the use of force was “a little offensive” and ”incendiary rhetoric.”
Cuomo backtracked after seeing the video and asked the state’s attorney general to probe that incident in her investigation into police misconduct during the protests. In a tweet, he said: “No peaceful protestor deserves to be hit with a baton and no self-respecting police officer would defend that.
Associated Press reporters Karen Matthews and Deepti Hajela in New York, and Marina Villeneuve in Albany contributed to this report.