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US: New York Police Planned Assault on Bronx Protesters

Trapping, Beatings in June Crackdown Reveal Abusive, Unaccountable System

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The Trap


Protesters: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

Protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality swept the United States in late May following the death of George Floyd.

The police in New York City, as in other cities, responded to many of the peaceful protests with violence and abuse. In a few neighborhoods, some people looted, largely separate from the protests. In response, officials imposed an unprecedented city-wide curfew. 

Mayor deBlasio: The curfew is 8 p.m.

Governor Cuomo: The curfews are designed to help the police deal with the looters. The curfew is not about the protesters.

TITLE: THE TRAP presented by Situ/Human Rights Watch


TEXT ON SCREEN: This video contains violent and disturbing images and profanity. Viewer discretion is advised.

On the evening of June 4, around 300 protesters gather at what’s known as “The Hub” - the intersection of 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in Mott Haven, a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood in the South Bronx, for one of many marches happening around the city that day.

It was a peaceful protest, but this march would end with a violent police crackdown and mass arrests.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed and reviewed testimony from dozens of witnesses and analyzed over 150 videos taken by protesters and bystanders. 

We found that the New York Police Department (NYPD)used the 8 p.m. curfew to justify a plan to trap, assault and arrest the protesters.


The march was organized by a number of local activist groups. Mott Haven has some of New York City’s highest rates of poverty and homelessness and is one of its most heavily policed neighborhoods. Its residents have suffered the consequences of systemic racism for decades.

Protesters: FTP – Fuck the Police!

Andom: It was a FTP rally and FTP can mean a lot of different things – Free the People, Feed the People. Most people know it to mean “F” the Police.

Protesters: FTP – Fuck the Police!

Andom: There was a lot of energy, a lot of anger. But honestly, a lot of optimism.The march twisted and turned through Mott Haven – at one point reaching the Patterson Houses, home to thousands of residents, who were especially hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Andom: People were very, very excited as we were passing, and you could just feel the energy from people who were hearing us from their windows.

As the marchers headed down Willis Avenue, more than 50 police officers blocked the street.

Protesters: Yo, we gonna go around. The march redirected down 136th Street. And in the final minutes just before the 8 o'clock curfew, instead of allowing or even directing the marchers to disperse, the NYPD diverted its bicycle officers to block the marchers just as they reached the intersection of 136th and Brook Avenue.



Police: Mobile fence line one!. Move the crowd!

Police: Move back. Move back.”

Protester: Go that way. Go that way.

Protesters: Let us through Let us through!

And from behind the march, a line of officers blocked the protesters from turning back. 

It’s a tactic called “kettling.”

Protester: You’re corralling us. Where the fuck are we gonna go?


Protester: Where do we go?  Where do we fucking go, you’re corralling us. 


Tanya Fields (selfie):

The police have us fucking surrounded right now. Police got us trapped. They fucking out here right now on the bullhorn telling us that we can’t be here after 8. (I got your phone babe.) And we ain’t do nothin’ wrong. At about 7:45, they intentionally started cornering us, they have us pushed in, in a pen. We are trapped. We are trapped right now. Whatever narrative is spun to you later, do not believe it. They have helicopters overhead. Before 8:00 they was already out here trapping us.

Loudspeaker: Beginning at 8 pm, the city-wide curfew…

With most of the protesters trapped on 136th Street, one of the march’s organizers, Shannon Jones, had gotten cut off from the crowd.

Shannon Jones: Can y’all hear me on the other side?

Protesters:  No justice. No peace.

She becomes the focus of Chief Terrence Monahan, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the NYPD.


Police: Do you want her locked up? OK.

Police: I’m not fucking with you. Get the fuck back.

Loudsepeaker: Thank you for your cooperation.

Soon after the 8 o’clock curfew arrives, the police moved in on the crowd trapped in the kettle.

He’s a legal observer… Why is he being arrested??

On the north side of the block, without provocation, an NYPD Legal department official directs officers to arrest the legal observers, who were clearly identified and had permission to be out after curfew.

NYPD LEGAL Officer: “Legal Observers can be arrested…They’re good to go!”

Conrad Blackburn, Legal Observer: The young lady that was in the middle of the kettle tried to show documentation to the police officers that, you know, we were essential workers and we were allowed to be out past the curfew. They body-slammed the young lady to the ground and arrested her. 

Protester: Do that shit to your mother man.Around the same time, is when they started rounding up all the medical workers.

Loudspeaker:  Other than essential workers.

Protesters: These are essential workers.

Conrad Blackburn, Legal Observer
So once the legal observers and medical workers were out of the way, the police really started cracking down on the protesters with impunity.

Protesters: We are peaceful, what the fuck are you? We are peaceful, what the fuck are you?

The protesters had already been forced to break the curfew. And the police keep ratcheting up the pressure.

Protesters: You guys are on the other fucking side. You guys are on the other side, where do we go?

Police: You’re getting locked up.

Protesters: Where are we gonna go, we’re corralled.

Police: To jail.TANYA FIELDS: We are currently trapped at 136th and Brook Avenue since 7:45. They are pushing us. They are pushing us. They are pushing us.  They are pushing us.  Stay calm. Stay calm.

Police: Move. Move. Move.

Observer watching from window: What are they doing? Why are they doing this? The police officers are like grabbing people. Oh my goodness!

Protesters: You guys are pushing us from the other side.

Police: Move back. Move back. Move back.

TANYA FIELDS: It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s alright Taylor. It’s alright Taylor. It’s alright Taylor.

Police: Move back. Back off.

Woman being arrested: It’s a curfew. It’s a curfew. You’re going to kill someone.

Conrad Blackburn, Legal Observer

What I observed and what I witnessed was just a complete suppression of the protesters’ rights to peacefully assemble and the protesters’ First Amendment rights. It was a moment where the American Constitution was thrown out the window and you had, we had what seemed like vigilante justice by the police officers in the moment. It was a very tragic thing to witness.


Over the next few hours, police arrested over 250 people.

Instead of being given summonses and released, those arrested are brought to jails all over the city and held for hours, overnight and into the next day, with no food and little or no water. 

Many are injured and get no medical help.

The next day, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea attempt to justify the crackdown. 

Bill deBlasio: In terms of what happened in Mott Haven, this is something that the NYPD saw coming, an organization that  literally was  encouraging violence…

They respond to questions with an admission that the crackdown was pre-planned.

Dermot Shea, Police Commissioner:  We had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly in the Bronx. This wasn’t again about protests, this was about tearing down society. They had firearms.

NYPD told Human Rights Watch that “the intent of this assembly was to engage in violence and inflict harm.” But Human Rights Watch found no evidence of protesters using violence.

The police’s actions in Mott Haven could come with a heavy price. Human Rights Watch estimates that the crackdown may cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars. In addition to the cost of the large-scale police presence, around 100 protesters, observers and medical workers have filed notice of their intent to sue the city.Instead of cracking down on peaceful protesters and stifling their calls for change, local governments should finally do what it takes to end the structural racism and systemic police abuse that people in Mott Haven and communities like it have experienced for far too long.



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New York City police planned the assault and mass arrests of peaceful protesters in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx on June 4, 2020, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The crackdown, led by the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, was among the most aggressive police responses to protests across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and could cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars in misconduct complaints and lawsuits.

Human Rights Watch and the visual investigations firm SITU Research also released a video using three-dimensional modeling, witness interviews, and footage recorded at the protest.

The 99-page report, “‘Kettling’ Protesters in the Bronx: Systemic Police Brutality and Its Costs in the United States,” provides a detailed account of the police response to the June 4 peaceful protest in Mott Haven, a low-income, majority Black and brown community that has long experienced high levels of police brutality and systemic racism. It describes the city’s ineffectual accountability systems that protect abusive police officers, shows the shortcomings of incremental reforms, and makes the case for structural change.

About 10 minutes before an 8 p.m. curfew – imposed after looting elsewhere in the city – scores of police officers surrounded and trapped the protesters – a tactic known as “kettling” – as they marched peacefully through Mott Haven. Just after 8 p.m., the police, unprovoked and without warning, moved in on the protesters, wielding batons, beating people from car tops, shoving them to the ground, and firing pepper spray into their faces before rounding up more than 250 people for arrest

“The New York City police blocked people from leaving before the curfew and then used the curfew as an excuse to beat, abuse, and arrest people who were protesting peacefully,” said Ida Sawyer, acting crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It was a planned operation with no justification that could cost New York taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed or reviewed written accounts from 81 people who participated in the protest and 19 other community members, lawyers, activists, and city officials, and analyzed 155 videos recorded during the protest. The New York Police Department (NYPD) replied in part to Human Rights Watch’s questions about the protest but did not respond to a request to interview senior police officials.

Police push a woman in a green hat against a car and handcuff her

As Chantel Johnson made her way through her South Bronx neighborhood to meet up with protesters, one thought kept nagging her: Why the heavy police presence?


One protester described how an officer punched him in the face while another twisted his finger and broke it. “Then another cop sprayed me in the face with mace,” he said. “Then they dragged me on the ground and beat me with batons. Somewhere in the process of being cuffed, I had a knee on my neck.”

Human Rights Watch documented at least 61 cases of protesters, legal observers, and bystanders who sustained injuries during the crackdown, including lacerations, a broken nose, lost tooth, sprained shoulder, broken finger, black eyes, and potential nerve damage due to overly tight zip ties. 

Most of those injured did not receive any immediate medical care, as police arrested or obstructed volunteer medics in medical scrubs with red cross insignia. Dozens of people spent hours in detention with untreated wounds and their hands bound behind their backs.

At least 13 legal observers – who wear clearly identifiable hats and badges – were also detained, in some cases violently, before being released. Video footage captures an official from the NYPD’s Legal Bureau instructing other officers: “Legal Observers can be arrested.… They are good to go!”

The NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, was present during the action, along with at least 24 other uniformed supervisory officers – chiefs, lieutenants, captains, or inspectors in white shirts.

Police arrested and took to jail at least 263 people, more than at any other protest in New York since Floyd’s killing. Some were released later that night; others the next afternoon. One was held for a week. Most were charged with Class B misdemeanors for curfew violations or unlawful assembly. They were given summonses or desk appearance tickets with court dates in early October. On September 3, the Bronx District Attorney filed to dismiss the summonses, and on September 25 the Bronx District Attorney’s office informed Human Rights Watch that the desk appearance tickets will also be dismissed.

New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea confirmed the premeditated nature of the operation, stating at a news conference the next day: “We had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly in the Bronx.” Shea described the protest as an attempt by “outside agitators” to “cause mayhem,” “tear down society,” and “injure cops.” Human Rights Watch found that the protest, organized by activists from the Bronx, was peaceful until the police responded with violence.

New York City police officers trapped, assaulted, and arrested over 250 people during a peaceful protest in Mott Haven on June 4, 2020. © 2020 C.S. Muncy

In the police department’s response to Human Rights Watch’s questions, the department said that, “upon 8 p.m.,” the demonstration “was unlawful under the Mayor’s Executive Order establishing the curfew,” and that the detention of nonessential workers “was lawful.” The department also said that “legal observers did not enjoy an exemption as essential workers,” even though the Mayor’s office had clarified that legal observers were exempt from the curfew. The NYPD did not respond to questions about the violence it inflicted on protesters and observers or address why officers trapped the protesters before the curfew, blocking all paths to disperse.

The police conduct during the Mott Haven protest amounts to serious violations of international human rights law, and it also appears to violate civil rights protections of the US Constitution and the police department’s Patrol Guide.

About 100 protesters and observers have filed notice of their intent to sue the city. The city paid out $36 million for civil rights violations and related legal fees after police kettled and mass-arrested protesters in a similar manner in 2004. Current Chief of Department Terence Monahan was also a key player during those operations.

New York state and city officials should make structural changes to reduce the police role in addressing societal problems, including through significant decreases to the police force size and budget, Human Rights Watch said. The government should instead invest in real community needs, including through support to services that directly address underlying issues such as homelessness and poverty and that improve access to quality education and health care. They should also empower independent accountability systems to provide a genuine check on police misconduct.

“Instead of cracking down on peaceful protesters and stifling their calls for change, policymakers in New York City and across the country should listen to their demands,” Sawyer said. “Local governments should finally do what it takes to end the structural racism and systemic police abuse that people in Mott Haven and communities like it have long experienced.”

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