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The NYPD’s Escalating Crackdown on Pro-Palestine Protests Falls ‘Outside the Bounds of the Constitution’

"They’re just like reaching so hard for any reason now to violently suppress people."

Members of the NYPD arrest pro-Palestinian protesters near Columbia University, February 2, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Less than a week after the NYPD finalized a settlement to overhaul its violent policing of protests, hundreds of officers descended on a pro-Palestine rally outside the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. Chaos ensued. In videos from the demonstration, officers are seen hemming protesters into the sidewalk and forcefully wrestling several to the ground. One woman was carried away by four cops face-down, each holding one of her limbs. Local reporter Reed Dunlea, his City-issued press pass and audio equipment prominently displayed, was slammed to the pavement and dragged across the street. "What are you doing?" he asked the officers arresting him.

"I can’t tell you what happened exactly, I was just being tackled," Dunlea told Hell Gate. At the time, he said, he was behaving exactly as any other journalist would, filming the arrests happening around him. "They’re just like reaching so hard for any reason now to violently suppress people."

Members of the NYPD arrest Reed Dunlea at the Within Our Lifetime protest outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

The events of last Saturday are part of the NYPD's widening crackdown against New Yorkers protesting Israel’s bloody bombing of Gaza, now in its fourth month, with the death toll over 28,000. Whereas pro-Palestine demonstrations last October and November saw relatively little confrontation with the police, almost every rally of the new year has ended with protesters picketing outside the police precinct at 1 Police Plaza, waiting for their fellow demonstrators to be released after arrest. Hell Gate counted over 45 arrests across five different actions since last month (this excludes the high-profile shutdown of Lower Manhattan on January 8). Over the past few weeks, NYPD officers have punched protesters, ripped signs out of peoples' hands, and lashed out after seemingly minor infractions, such as protesters shaking a barricade. 

Members of the NYPD arrest pro-Palestinian protesters at the Within Our Lifetime protest outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

"Something changed," said Dan Cione, a lawyer and an organizer with the local pro-Palestine group Within Our Lifetime, who was arrested at a protest several weeks ago for creating "unreasonable" noise. "Now it’s broken windows policing, where using a megaphone or stepping on the roadway can get you violently arrested by the Strategic Response Group."

Members of the NYPD arrest pro-Palestinian protesters at the Within Our Lifetime protest outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)
A member of the NYPD SRG arrests a pro-Palestinian protester at the Within Our Lifetime protest group outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

The SRG's signature helmets and riot gear have become a fixture at rallies for Palestine. Created in the wake of the Ferguson uprisings of 2015 for the purpose of counter-terrorism, the NYPD later pledged that the unit would not police large protests. Yet the SRG became notorious during the George Floyd uprising in 2020, when SRG officers used choke holds, rammed into protesters with their bikes, and beat people with batons indiscriminately. According to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, SRG officers receive a high number of misconduct complaints compared to other units. Advocates say this is because the unit is trained to treat protesters like enemy combatants, including among its list of "violent" crowds BLM and Anti-Trump protesters (meanwhile, the unit was notably hands off when the Proud Boys came to town). 

"The SRG’s involvement in policing protests, as we have seen, seems to be more about suppressing speech and assembly, and less about keeping everyone safe," said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in a statement last March, noting that the unit recruits on a volunteer basis officers looking for "more action."

Members of the NYPD arrest pro-Palestinian protesters at the Within Our Lifetime protest outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

All the violence that the NYPD showed protesters in 2020 led to a raft of class action lawsuits against the agency which concluded in a settlement last Tuesday. In it, the NYPD agreed to a slate of reforms which include a multi-tiered response structure to protests in which officers behave "proportionally" rather than showing up in the hundreds decked out in riot gear. Under the settlement, officers must get permission from high-ups before arresting people and helicopters can’t be deployed "with the intent of intimidation." 

If the events of the past few weeks are any indication, the NYPD is uninterested in heeding the specifications of the agreement until it absolutely has to (per the terms, the agency should start re-training officers imminently, but oversight of its conduct during protests won't begin for months at least, and after four years the settlement lapses, with no legal scaffolding to prevent the department from backsliding). Helicopters and drones are common sights at the city’s pro-Palestine demonstrations, and protesters are being held in custody for more than the 24 hour legal limit. Officers are violently tackling protesters for standing in the street, a response that attorney Elena Cohen, who worked on the NYPD settlement, told Hell Gate is a clear violation of New Yorkers' First Amendment rights. 

"If you’re looking at someone where the crime is allegedly a traffic ticket for being in a roadway, where there is no danger to the officer and no danger to the public, there is extremely little force that would be reasonable," she said. "What you’re seeing is so far outside the bounds of the Constitution. It’s completely unacceptable."

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment in time for the publication of this story.

Members of the NYPD arrest pro-Palestinian protesters near Columbia University on February 2, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Beyond making conditions less safe for protesters, organizers and lawyers say the NYPD’s behavior doesn’t make any sense. When officers kick people out of the roadway and smush them onto the sidewalk, protests end up blocking pedestrian crossings for at least twice as long as they would a lane of traffic. At a demonstration near Columbia University several weeks ago, cops plucked people out of the crowd even as they moved onto the sidewalk and handcuffed them seemingly at random. The reasons for the arrests are also bizarre, protesters pointed out. The use of megaphones, hardly the loudest noise on the streets of New York, has been effectively banned for the past month, with one person even getting arrested at the Brooklyn Museum demonstration for using an air horn.

"This is not a parade float," said Nerdeen Kiswani, one of the founders of Within Our Lifetime. "We’re using normal levels of sound that people use every day, walking with their boomboxes. When it’s about Palestine, it becomes a problem."

A pro-Palestine demonstrator near Columbia University on February 2, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Jac Quiles, an attorney representing some of the arrestees pro-bono, told Hell Gate that some of his clients had been charged with assaulting an officer when footage of their arrest clearly showed that it was them, not the officer, who got roughed up. He said the dynamic is reminiscent of the George Floyd protests in which advocates accused the NYPD of using trumped-up charges to bully protesters off the streets. Like many others interviewed for this story, Quiles pointed out that while the protests are diverse, people of color are usually the ones targeted for arrest, a claim that tracks with the SRG’s track record of racial bias. An analysis by NYCLU found that between 2015 and 2020, 91 percent of the misconduct complaints against an officer in the unit involved the targeting of a person of color.

"The people that are getting charged with felonies are Black and Brown people," Quiles said. “I have a couple of those cases right now and they're still open."

Organizers and lawyers said the violence in the streets, widening surveillance, and prolonged time behind bars are all part of the agency’s tired playbook for quelling popular uprisings. The protesters say it's not working.

Protesters at the Within Our Lifetime protest outside of the Brooklyn Museum on February 10, 2024 (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

"We want it to be known that no amount of policing is going to intimidate us," said Miriam Osman, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement who was arrested last month for using a megaphone. Osman said they planned to keep mobilizing even beyond a ceasefire agreement, until elected officials stop sending military aid to Israel and the siege on Gaza is lifted. "We have a fundamental right to protest. We have a right to be in the street. We’re going to be having consistent mobilizations every week, and we’re not going to back down."

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