The New York Police Department executed a premeditated assault on peaceful demonstrators in the South Bronx in June—a violent response that violated international human rights laws, according to one of the world’s preeminent human rights groups.
In this special bonus podcast, we speak with Ida Sawyer, acting crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization. Sawyer is the co-author of Human Rights Watch’s recently published report on the NYPD’s actions at the protest in Mott Haven on June 4 that was marred by mass arrests and dozens of injuries.
According to the report, more than 250 of the estimated 300 people who participated in the march were arrested, including legal observers that were legally present despite a controversial curfew that was imposed in response to unrest in the city.
“Just after 8 p.m. and the start of the city-wide curfew—imposed a few days earlier due to looting in other areas—the police moved in on the protesters, unprovoked and without warning, whaling their batons, beating people from car tops, shoving them down to the ground, and firing pepper spray in their faces,” writes Human Rights Watch.
The report also called into question justifications for the crackdown made by the NYPD’s top brass, including pronouncements that a gun and gasoline were discovered at the demonstration—which the HRW report refutes. Also, repeated claims of a “threat” of violence—which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently repeated during an appearance on WNYC, an NPR affiliate in New York—were also unsubstantiated, according to HRW’s investigation. (For his part, de Blasio said in the Oct. 2 interview that he hadn’t read the report and was awaiting an independent review by the city’s legal department before addressing any potential abuses on the part of the NYPD.)
“In all of our research, the interviews that we conducted, reviewing 155 videos recorded during the protest, we found no evidence of any violence, threats of violence, vandalism, carried out by the protesters or the organizers,” Sawyer tells News Beat podcast. “The police did point to some of the social media flyers and claimed that this was ‘incitement to violence’ and that they were calling in gang members. The only thing we found there were some flyers posted on social media that had a police car burning and one hand someone jumping over a police officer. But there were no explicit calls for violence. To the contrary, there was also a code of conduct for the protest that was posted online.”
The group accused the NYPD of “mass arbitrary arrests,” beating people with batons and pepper spraying others in the face. It noted that the use of a maneuver called “kettling” effectively trapped and prevented protesters from dispersing. HRW reports at least 61 people suffered various injuries including lacerations, a broken nose, a lost tooth, a sprained shoulder, black eyes and some with potential never damage because of overly tight zip ties used on those who were arrested.
The protest was one of thousands across the United States sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed by police. Protesters are demanding systemic change to not only policing, but institutions that perpetuate America’s long history of racism.
For more, listen to this special bonus episode featuring the aforementioned Ida Sawyer of Human Rights Watch. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
News Beat: What was the genesis of the June 4 protest in Mott Haven? And for context, can you tell listeners a little bit about this community and the history of policing in this area of the South Bronx?
Ida Sawyer: "The protest in Mott Haven on June 4 was known as the 'FTP 4' protest and it was organized by a coalition of grassroots groups led primarily by Black and brown women from the Bronx, and included Take Back the Bronx, Decolonize This Place, Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, and these groups have been dedicated to police and prison abolition. They fight for racial justice, decolonization, anti-gentrification, anti-capitalism. They're also very active in the community, organizing mutual aid projects to support community members and that type of thing. And they had previously organized other FTP protests specifically about over policing in New York subways. So there were three earlier ones in November of last year, and then the third in January of this year. And during those first demonstrations, protesters sometimes engaged in mass fare evasion, and that got a lot of attention and probably triggered increased NYPD scrutiny of the group's activities.
"So these are organizations that are from the community, well known, very outspoken against police brutality, against policing, against prisons. So they organized this protest as part of many other protests organized across New York, across the country following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25. And this protest happened in Mott Haven, which is itself a neighborhood that has experienced for decades some of the most damaging consequences of systemic racism and police brutality. It has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, highest homelessness rates, lowest graduation rates from high school. In the city, it was one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. And this protest, of course, occurred in June in the height of the pandemic here in New York. And it's also a neighborhood that has been aggressively over-policed for many years, and of New York City's 77 police precincts, the 40th precinct, which covers Mott Haven, has had the highest number of complaints for police use of physical force. So this really happened in a neighborhood that, in many ways, epitomized what protesters were out in the streets protesting and the damaging effects of police brutality and racism that this country has seen, and this community in particular."
NB: Before we get into exactly what occurred toward the end of this particular demonstration, can you just explain the pretense for the large police response in terms of what has the NYPD since said about that particular demonstration?
IS: "So the NYPD, already before the protests began, they issued a warning from the 40th precinct that this protest could result in violence. They spread information that this group has a history of hiding bricks and then using them to conduct violence during protests, that we did not find any evidence to back that but that claim up. Starting the day after the protest, and we started hearing more justifications from the NYPD, going up to the police ommissioner, Shea, who said at a press conference that the protesters were planning to incite violence and this was outside agitators going to tear down society and attack police officers. We, again in all of our research, the interviews that we conducted reviewing 155 videos recorded during the protest, we found no evidence of any violence, threats of violence, vandalism, carried out by the protesters or the organizers. The police did point to some of the social media flyers and claimed that this was incitement to violence and that they were calling in gang members. The only thing we found there were some flyers posted on social media that had a police car burning and one had someone jumping over a police officer. But there were no explicit calls for violence. To the contrary, there was also a code of conduct for the protest that was posted online and they called on protesters, they denounced goofy, irresponsible behaviors and to follow the lead from people from the hood who were leading the protest. And they explicitly called on people not to bring weapons to the protest. But it seems what many people who we interviewed, who participated in a protest, who were there, they really felt like the police wanted to send a message specifically to these organizers, the groups behind this protest and to this community. As I said before, these were some of the most outspoken critics of the NYPD police brutality. And they felt that that's why they wanted to send the message and then created all of these allegations, many of which were were debunked by others."
NB: Can you take us through the demonstration and also the initial escalation from the NYPD? And can you please explain to listeners this tactic that you describe that's used a lot now throughout the country, called kettling?
IS: "The protest began at what's known as The Hub on 149th and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. And people started gathering at around six. And there were stands, people were handing out masks for the participants. And some of the organizers gave speeches. And in the beginning, many people already noticed that there was a heavy police presence surrounding The Hub in the area where the the demonstration started. And several people noticed that there were police officers on the roof of the building overlooking The Hub. The police at that point didn't try to interfere or stop the protest from from happening. But there was that heavy presence from the start. And then at around 7 p.m., the demonstrators started walking and marching through the neighborhood. And from the beginning there was no interference by the police. People described it as almost an educational tour of the neighborhood. And the leaders were pointing out different landmarks. They went by La Morado, which is a neighborhood restaurant, who's the family who runs the restaurant have been very active and providing up to 1,200 free meals a day to vulnerable community members during the pandemic. They also pointed out a building where there recently been an ICE raid early in the morning and an apartment building, a place where people had been shot earlier this year. They went through a number of public housing complexes—the Patterson Houses, Millbrook Houses that are in Mott Haven, pointed those out to people and many people said that community members kind of joined in with the protest as they walked by, some people were out, sticking their heads out the windows, banging on pots and pans to show their support for the protesters. And it was no serious issues but in some ways, kind of a joyous almost atmosphere for the first part of the march.
"And then they are going down Willis Avenue and getting towards 135th Street, they then see ahead of them a line of at least 50 police officers blocking the road in front of them. So they decide to turn around, they do not confront the police line, they just make a U-turn and then turn down 136th Street. And then as they're walking down 136th Street, they're approaching Brown Avenue, and then all of a sudden, the bike officers come to the side of the march and sort of zoom past them, and then form a line in front of the protesters blocking that and lift their bikes up and use their bikes as a shield to block people from going forward. And then right after that, a lot of police officers comes in from behind, so the protesters can't turn around to go back. And this it's a very kind of narrow, sloping road. There are parked cars on either side, and then buildings, so there's no place for people to go on the sides, and they're trapped. So this is a tactic known as 'kettling,' when police officers surround a group of people, a group of protesters, and leave them with no way to escape, no means to disperse. So that happened before 8 p.m. This is the period the curfew was in place due to looting in other parts of the city. Everyone we talked to emphasized that there hadn't been any looting in that neighborhood. But before 8 p.m. they were trapped, no means to disperse. And then just after 8 p.m., the police officers just move in on the protesters, unprovoked without warning, just start beating down on them, wailing their batons, jumping up on the tops of cars and beating down on the protesters, firing pepper spray directly into their faces and shoving people to the ground. And then they start rounding up people for arrest. And in total, at least 263 people were arrested and taken to jail when police broke up the protest in this way."
NB: Were you able to document how many people suffered injuries at the hand of the NYPD and the extent of some of those injuries?
IS: "Yeah, so based on all the interviews that we conducted, we confirm that at least 61 protesters, legal observers and bystanders sustained injuries during the crack down. And this included lacerations, broken nose, a last tooth, a sprained shoulder, broken finger, many black eyes and some with potential nerve damage because the zip ties were overly tight when they were arrested. And then separately from that, from our analysis of the video footage, we were able to count 21 incidents of police beating protesters with batons, in many cases when they were standing on top of a parked car, 11 incidents of police officers punching or kicking protesters, 19 cases of police slamming, tackling or driving protesters, 14 cases of police firing pepper spray directly at participants faces, four incidents of police throwing bikes against protesters and two cases where police restrained participants with a knee to the face or upper neck. And with all of these injuries that people sustained, what made it even worse was that the police obstructed the medics who had been deployed to the protest from providing immediate medical care to the injured support injured protesters. So a number of medics were there. They're called street medics, they're volunteer doctors and other health professionals who deploy to protests. They're wearing scrubs and have the Red Cross insignia on their scrubs. So they're clearly identifiable as medics and the police went toward them. The first several were detained and others were just blocked from getting near the protesters to provide support. So people described seeing protesters with blood dripping from their faces and these open wounds and then being held in cuffs for hours, taken to jails across the city, detained into the night, the next morning, in some cases not released until the next afternoon. And then people who are providing jail support to try to help people when they were eventually released, they said that they saw people who still had these untreated wounds, and some people had to immediately take protesters to get medical attention right after being released."
NB: I have two questions: Can you first explain the role of this curfew that the mayor had imposed and especially these accusations from some people that the curfew has been unevenly policed throughout the city and that they're alleging unfair treatment in communities of color. And then secondly, can you talk about this other issue you've reported on and that's the arrest of the legal observers? You mentioned a scenario where an officer wearing 'NYPD Legal' on his uniform, pointed to the legal observers and said, quote, 'good to go,' meaning arrest them. So how was that justified?
IS: "Yeah, so on your first question, many of the people we interviewed who participated in this protest had been in protests across the city and the days before, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and also in the days following. And they said that often the protests went on past curfew. And sometimes maybe after 10 p.m., police would come and call on people to disperse. But it definitely wasn't happening at 8 p.m., right at the curfew, and in some cases, not happening at all. So the fact that the police were so heavily deployed and making a point to try to, as the police told us in their response to Human Rights Watch, they said from 8 p.m., this protest was unlawful, all non-essential workers were therefor violating this order and it was lawful to arrest them. So people felt that the enforcement of this curfew was very uneven. And their sense was that they were being targeted because this was happening in a majority Black and brown community of the South Bronx, this wasn't Manhattan, or downtown Brooklyn. The other important point is that the curfew order was very clear that if people are out past curfew, they should be asked to disperse and to go home and be given an opportunity to do so. And that clearly did not happen in this case, since the protesters were trapped by the police and not given an opportunity to disperse. And Mayor de Blasio was on the Brian Lehrer show last Friday, during the 'Ask the Mayor' segment and he said, when asked about this particular protest and the police response, he said warnings have to be given very clearly, and people have to be given time to adjust to those warnings in reference to the curfew order. And then he went on to say that didn't happen. And that's going to be a real problem for the people who are in charge that were on that scene. It's good for him to recognize that but we're now four months on from the protest. And no one's been held to account for what happened.
"On your second question about the the legal observers. So there were at least around 20 legal observers deployed to this protest from the National Lawyers Guild and the Black Legal Observers Elective Block. And these are people, volunteers, who deploy to protest in clearly identifiable pads and wearing badges that show that they're legal observers, and they're there to document police conduct. And if people are arrested, then they take down names of people who are arrested, ensure that they have legal and other support on the other side. Legal observers have been deployed to protest for decades. Their role is recognized in the NYPD patrol guide. So they know it's a recognized role, and they're clearly allowed to be present during protest, regardless of whether the protests themselves are declared unlawful or not. So these legal observers were at the June 4 protest in Mott Haven. And when the kettling began and the police crackdown started, the legal observers were among the first to be targeted for arrest. And many of them were kind of standing to the side on the upper side of the sloping hill. And police came over to them and started rounding them up, in some cases, violently. And then they were pushing back and saying, 'We're legal observers.' They actually had documentation from the Mayor's Office clarifying that they were exempt from the curfew and allowed to be out to document or to be present during protest. And there was some, I guess talk between the officers, and then what's caught on video is a police officer with 'NYPD Legal' written on their uniform, who says, 'Legal observers can be arrested, they're good to go.' So no question that they knew that these were legal observers and that the other officers were being instructed to arrest them. So eventually 13 of them were arrested, they were cuffed, put in these zip ties and blocked from doing their work to document and take down names of what was happening to the rest of the protesters. Eventually they were then released before being taken to jails. But they clearly had been targeted. Again, on the Lehrer show, 'Ask the Mayor' segment last Friday, Mayor de Blasio did say when asked about the NYPD saying that the legal observers were not exempt from from the curfew—the NYPD actually, in their letter to us, they also doubled down on this and said very clearly legal observers did not enjoy an exemption as essential workers, despite the clarification the Mayor's Office had given earlier. And when asked about this last Friday, Mayor de Blasio said with all due respect to the NYPD, the NYPD is wrong on this one. Again, good that he's recognizing that now. But he has the authority to act if the NYPD is disobeying what's in his curfew order. And he hasn't taken any action yet.
NB: Did the NYPD behavior toward the protesters change after the legal observers were arrested?
IS: "Most of them were detained kind of right at the start. And that's when the very violent behavior by the police escalated. Some of it was happening kind of at the same time. But it definitely seemed like there was an effort to round up the legal observers first, so then they could proceed with their very violent crackdown on the rest of the protesters."
NB: This obviously occurred during the global pandemic for COVID. And you mentioned how many of those who were arrested sat there in the cell and their wounds were not treated. Did you observe or did you guys see any type of care given to the fact that this is a global pandemic, either to to help stop the spread?
IS: "This was another big concern the protesters had and we had in doing this research. Most of the protesters did appear to be wearing masks during the protest, during the march. They said before they were distributing masks to anyone who didn't have one at the start. Many of the police officers, however, were not wearing masks. And then when the crackdown happened, they were scrunched together and people were literally on top of each other. People described kind of holding up someone above them and having someone below them trying not to fall down on the people and on the person lying below them. And so this was a very cramped situation when the kettling first happened. So people were being thrown together, where they're put at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 or, you know, there's greater risk of the virus spreading in such cramped conditions. And then, when the arrests started, some people said that the police officers even pulled down their masks when they were arrested. Remember one person we interviewed said he was first punched by a police officer and then another police officer came pulled down his mask, sprayed his face with pepper spray, and then arrested him. And so some police deliberately pulled down their masks others just in all of the chaos, their masks fell down, and their hands were zip tied behind their backs so they couldn't pull the mask back to cover their face. And then from there, they were held, first, again, in very close quarters, sitting on the ground with their hands zip tied waiting for the police to then move to transport and process them. Eventually they're put in crowded vans, more exposure in tight conditions. And then they're taken to jails. Many were taken to Queens, Central Booking, some were taken to Brooklyn, some were taken to precincts in the Bronx. And they were held in crowded cells, and most cases not given PPE. Some people said, hours into the detention, once they were taken first to Queens and then taken to Brooklyn, they were offered a mask. But that was after hours and hours of being exposed. In our analysis, this clearly could be considered a right to health violation. And Human Rights Watch around the world, we have urged governments to reduce their jail and prison populations, given the heightened risk of COVID-19 for detainees and staff. And so we've called on authorities to only engage in custodial arrest of bringing people into jail when it's strictly necessary. And in this case, especially given that those arrested during the protests were not engaged in violence, presented no immediate threat to commit violence, there was really no justification for custodial arrest, especially at the height of the pandemic."
NB: Your report does an incredible job also outlining some of the human rights violations. So I wonder if you could expand on on that?
IS: "It was clearly documented serious violations of international human rights law. And this includes the excessive force used against protesters. According to international human rights law, force can only be used in very limited circumstances, when it's of last resort and violence is happening, there's an immediate threat of violence, [and] that clearly was not the case. Also, how the police acted was in violations of people's right to peaceful assembly and free expression, preventing them from continuing to do that. The argument could be made that the curfew order in and of itself was overly broad and vague and an infringement on people's free assembly, free expression rights. And then the targeting of legal observers and those providing jail support was an infringement on the rights of human rights defenders, who should never be targeted for carrying out their work. And then there's also the 'right to health' violations that I mentioned earlier, with targeting the medics and then denying people access to immediate care, and also the increased exposure to COVID-19."
NB: You mentioned it, but I want to go into it a little more, and that was a Mayor de Blasio interview on WNYC on October 2. And he said that he had yet to read your report. And though he said that the characterization that Brian Lehrer proposed of an unprovoked attack on protesters was inconsistent with what he heard from the city's own civilian observers. He also said he's waiting on an independent review to be finalized and noted that there was a, quote, 'threat of violence' related to the protests. So can you just respond to the mayor's comments on the Brian Lehrer show? And then secondly, can you explain the remarks from [NYPD] Commissioner Dermot Shea shortly after the protest about a gun and gasoline being discovered during the demonstrations?
IS: "Yeah, so Mayor de Blasio unfortunately, he had not read the report. We've sent it to him, we hope that he will read it and also watch the 12-minute video that we've done. But he claimed on the Brian Lehrer Show that there was a quote, a special circumstance during the Mott Haven protest, with quote 'a threat of violence' and some evidence that it was being played out. But he failed to provide any details. And going back to what Commissioner Shea said immediately the day after the protest, he also claimed that the police have recovered a firearm and gasoline from the protesters. And he used that to sort of defend his allegation that this protest was an attempt by quote 'outside agitators' to cause mayhem, tear down society and injure cops. But it turns out as other officials later revealed, the firearm was recovered from a couple about a half mile away from the march over an hour before it started. The gasoline he said it had been found the night before. And there was no apparent connection of either with the protest. Mayor de Blasio said that he had other evidence. I don't know what that would be. In all of our research, we know we found no evidence of this violence or threat of violence being carried out during the protest. And he did say that he's waiting for this review. It's now four months on, we feel that there is now ample information available for the mayor to take action, to discipline those responsible for the serious international human rights law violations and other violence and abuse as well as in the mischaracterization that Commissioner Shea spread, and we continue to urge him to take action."
NB: Your analysis documents how the NYPD's actions were pre-planned, premeditated. So No.1: What does this say about how the state views constitutional rights to free speech, freedom to assemble? And more so, with your expertise covering human rights abuses all across the globe, how does this response and others observed during this reckoning against racial injustice in this country, how does this compare to what you've observed in militant crackdowns in authoritarian and militaristic regimes across the globe?
IS: "What we documented was that this assault was was planned, premeditated. Commissioner Shea even admitted that publicly the next day, saying we had a plan which was nearly flawlessly executed in the Bronx. Terence Monahan is the chief of Department of the NYPD, he led this operation, he was present on the ground, is caught on video giving the go ahead to have Shannon Jones, one of the protest organizers, arrested. This was an operation carried out and led by the top brass of the NYPD. And it really exemplifies a broader system and broader culture that condones and encourages abuse and fuels impunity, and Monahan is there setting the example for all the police officers below him that this type of behavior is not only okay, it's what it's what's expected of them. Who can expect this type of behavior to end, to stop, when the highest levels are leading it and there aren't any consequences. In our research, we also tried to calculate the cost of this operation, beyond the significant harm to protesters, what's the financial cost to New York City taxpayers? There's the cost of deploying scores of police officers and all of their gear, the two helicopters flying overhead, the cost of arresting, transporting, processing, potentially prosecuting 263 people. But then we found that the most significant cost will likely result from all of the misconduct investigations, complaints and lawsuits that will stem from this protest. Already, at least around 100 people have filed notice of their intent to sue the city. And we compare that to similar situations and to try to estimate how much this could cost and we believe this is likely to end up costing New York City taxpayer at least several million dollars. And the most striking comparison is to the 2004 protests around the Republican National Convention. And there the NYPD used similar tactics of kettling protesters and then conducting mass arrests. And Terence Monahan was one of the key players ordering those same tactics back in 2004. And since then, that protest ended up costing the city $36 million in the payouts as well as the related legal fees. And Monahan himself has just been promoted to his position now as chief of department. So that just really exemplifies how aggressive, abusive policing is being rewarded. I think, for us, it just really brings home the critical importance of the broader issues of why the protesters were out in the street protesting and we need structural change, we need to drastically reduce the role of policing in New York City, across the country, instead, be investing in the real needs of the communities and also ensure there are credible, independent mechanisms to hold these officers to account for abuse. And getting to your other question around how does this compare to what we document around the world? And I have spent many years living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, documented a lot of brutal security force crackdowns on police, peaceful protesters, and in other contexts. I think the scale of violence and abuse can vary in different contexts. In Kinshasa, I was documenting scores of people being killed and shot dead during these protests by the security forces. So we weren't documenting that in Mott Haven. But what was strikingly similar is the complete sense of that the security forces are above the law and accountable to no one, and that they can carry out this abuse, and feel that there won't be any consequences for it. And that's something that we've documented in Congo, in Kinshasa, and many other places around the world. And now here in New York City."
NB: What's your take on how police have behaved overall in the last few months in the United States responding to these uprisings since the death of George Foley, Breonna Taylor, and so many others?
IS: "Yeah, the police response that we documented in detail in our report in Mott Haven was one of the more aggressive police responses to protest. But it was by no means the only case of police responding to these protests with violence and abuse. And there are hundreds of incidents that have been reported across New York City, across the country, where police use so called less lethal weapons, firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and in some cases directly on protesters or journalists or observers, and hovering helicopters too low above protesters, spreading the rotor wash in a way that's very dangerous and should not be conducted. So there are serious abuses that have happened across the country in response to the George Floyd protest. I think this really emphasizes not just in New York, but across the country, the the importance and the real need for structural change to finally know the system needs to change so that police don't feel like they can get away with this behavior and this sort of aggressive policing is acceptable or the norm. We need systemic changes across the country."