(New York, September 30, 2020) – 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.
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.