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The NYPD Is Still Policing Protests Like It’s 2020

The NYPD’s handling of a pro-Palestinian rally in Bay Ridge Saturday would have violated the George Floyd protest settlement.

The NYPD’s Strategic Response Group in Bay Ridge October 21. (Hell Gate)

This past Saturday, during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Bay Ridge, the NYPD became increasingly more aggressive, deploying officers from its controversial Strategic Response Group, flying a helicopter low over the crowd, and pushing, trapping, punching and arresting people

As darkness fell over Brooklyn, police officers ordered protesters out of the roadway and onto the sidewalk, then pushed into crowds already on the sidewalk, compressing people already hemmed in with no place to move.. They ordered people on the sidewalk to leave, telling them, "We're locking people up." According to the NYPD press shop, 19 people in all were arrested—16 were issued summonses for disorderly conduct, and three were issued desk appearance tickets.

Much of this treatment of the New Yorkers protesting in Bay Ridge runs counter to the commitments the NYPD made to resolve a raft of lawsuits filed in response to police violence during the 2020 George Floyd protests, said Elena Cohen, a lawyer for protesters who helped negotiate that settlement. "There's a lot of different places in the settlement where you can say, if it was applied [on Saturday], you would not see them doing this," Cohen said. She pointed in particular to videos posted to social media of police surging into a crowd of people on the sidewalk and punching some of them in the head. "Once the arrests start happening, you see people being arrested very, very violently, in ways that seem extremely disproportional to the way people are behaving," Cohen said. 

But that settlement, which would commit the NYPD to graduated, proportional, and rationally justified responses to protests, and which would institute external systems of accountability and review for how it responds to demonstrations, isn't yet finalized. Although the protesters, Attorney General Letitia James, and the City of New York have all agreed to the terms and submitted the settlement to the presiding judge, police unions have objected to the agreement, and are trying to persuade the judge that they should get to sign off on any settlement themselves.

In the meantime, the NYPD isn't bound by the terms it agreed to, and if its conduct in Bay Ridge on Saturday is any indication, it intends to continue to operate according to the same heavy-handed playbook it's been using for years—a playbook that was condemned by Human Rights Watch as violating federal and international human rights law and that has cost the City hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements over recent years.

A key goal of the pending settlement is instituting protocols to ensure a proportionate police response to protests, and to prevent police from meeting constitutionally protected nonviolent protests with intimidating, overwhelming force. 

"Where a [First Amendment Activity] temporarily blocks vehicular or pedestrian traffic or otherwise obstructs public streets or sidewalks, the NYPD shall whenever possible accommodate the demonstration," the settlement reads. "When necessary, NYPD may deploy patrol officers to reroute vehicular or pedestrian traffic. These officers shall not be drawn from SRG [the Strategic Response Group] and shall not carry equipment associated exclusively with those units such as flex-cuffs. The NYPD shall dispatch no more patrol officers than necessary, in light of the conditions present at the time, to address vehicular or pedestrian traffic."

The intensity of the police response, coupled with the relative peacefulness of the march and the mildness of the charges issued to people arrested, is exactly the kind of disproportionate response the settlement seeks to put an end to, Cohen noted. "The protests in the summer of 2020 were also largely peaceful, but in that case, even if it mostly wasn't the fault of people being arrested, there were vehicles on fire and stores being looted," Cohen said. "But you look at this protest, and there isn't even that. You see peaceful protesters, and at most, you see people in the street,  but it's not on a highway, and it's not a dangerous situation. Nobody looking at these videos would think that the protesters were posing a danger, like to anyone's physical health or safety or to property at all."

Hell Gate asked the NYPD how many officers were assigned to the protest, when and why SRG units were deployed, and whether any violence or property destruction was associated with the protest. The NYPD didn't answer.

Video from Saturday's demonstration in Bay Ridge also shows an NYPD helicopter flying low over the protest, something that also happened during the 2020 protests. In the pending settlement, the NYPD commits to "not deploy helicopters with the intent of intimidation or the intent of disrupting, interfering with or dispersing a lawful [First Amendment activity]."

A hearing on the settlement is scheduled for November 20, but if the judge decides she needs evidentiary hearings to decide on the unions' arguments, or if her ruling is appealed to a circuit court, it could be many months before the settlement is formalized. 

That's a problem, Cohen said. "What happened Saturday shows the need to get this settlement agreement into practice, to get the new policies in place and get the training done," she said. "Because what we saw on Saturday night is brutal, it's unconstitutional."

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