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After a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the white police officer who placed 43-year-old African American Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in July, protests erupted throughout New York City against what many consider a culture of unaccountability, brutality, and racism in the New York Police Department.
After the announcement on December 3 that the grand jury would not indict Pantaleo, New Yorkers took to the streets for a long night of angry — but largely peaceful — protests and marches. They were the latest in a string of demonstrations against police impunity that have been held almost daily since November 24, after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, announced that former police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, would not face charges for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American.
But despite 25 local arrests in the wake of the Ferguson announcement and more than 80 during the protests that followed the Staten Island grand-jury decision, some observers say they’re noticing one striking fact about law enforcement at these events: The NYPD has become more tolerant and less physical with demonstrators under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton than it had been under previous mayoral administrations.
Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, says while “none of this is ever perfect, I think it’s fair to say de Blasio’s NYPD has come a long way.”
Miller has been attending the protests over the last week and says she has observed the way police have responded to the thousands of activists flooding the city’s streets. She says during the Garner protests on December 3, officers often diverted vehicular traffic so demonstrators could safely take a whole street. And during a protest the previous day when high schoolers across the city left their classes to protest the Ferguson decision, Miller was impressed with how officers cut back on their use of metal barricades. “Police were respectful of what a peaceful protest looks like,” she says, adding that the officers seem to understand that sometimes even peaceful demonstrations can go “outside the lines.”
While Miller has also criticized the force’s heavy use of police vans and tactical-response vehicles, she says her team has seen “much less escalation on the part of police. We did observing at Occupy Wall Street, where people were getting arrested for standing on the street instead of the curb.”
Since the Ferguson decision, activists have managed to disrupt traffic on three major bridges, in the Lincoln Tunnel, and on various busy Manhattan streets. Only 25 people out of more than 2,000 protesters were arrested during the first week; one additional person was given a court summons. After the Garner announcement December 3, protesters again occupied the Lincoln Tunnel, the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges, and the West Side Highway. According to the NYPD, 83 people were arrested that day and in the early morning hours of December 4.
In comparison, during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011, police serving under then-commissioner Ray Kelly and then-mayor Michael Bloomberg arrested more than 700 people for briefly occupying the roadway on the Brooklyn Bridge.
[Miller is quick to point out that most of the progress she has noticed under de Blasio and Bratton’s NYPD only applies to the way the department handles political demonstrations. While the city has curbed its controversial stop-and-frisk policy over the mayor’s first term in office, about 80 percent of people who do get stopped by police are still black or Hispanic. That number was only three percentage points higher in 2013 before de Blasio took office.
What’s more, Miller adds, “De Blasio has been quite clear that he believes in the policies of broken-windows policing, which has a disproportionate effect on communities of color.”
A de Blasio spokesman says the administration is taking a different approach to policing demonstrations than that of previous administrations. Bratton has said he’s giving people “breathing room” to protest. And last week de Blasio said the force was undergoing serious reform.
“The retraining of the police force is unprecedented,” the mayor said. “The new inspector general, the reinvigorated CCRB [Civilian Complaint Review Board] — I mean, these are the kinds of things that will lead to lasting change. In this city, we are changing the way we do things.”
Matt Hopard, an independent journalist known as @stopmotionsolo who has been livestreaming protests since 2011, says he first noticed a “more hands-off” approach from police during Flood Wall Street protests in Manhattan’s financial district this past summer. But he adds that police at the Ferguson protests over the last week have taken an even more laissez-faire approach.
One reason for this, Hopard says, is that the protesters themselves are changing strategies. Rather than clustering in one small area of the city, activists have begun fanning out, often demonstrating simultaneously in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “The mass demonstrations meant there’s a limit to how much they could police,” he says.
Another reason, Hopard suspects, is that the NYPD knows it’s being watched: “It’s entirely possible the NYPD is looking for positive PR.”
Some demonstrators who spoke with the Voice during the Garner protests agree that the department is acutely aware of the scrutiny it’s under right now, especially in the aftermath of the violence in Ferguson.
“Police would be very foolish to make a show of arresting people tonight,” said John Miller, a teacher in East New York.
“[Brutality] is what this protest is all about,” 30-year-old Prashanth Kuganathan agreed. “It would look very bad.”
Despite the relatively peaceful demonstrations of the past several days, the NYPD has its share of detractors among the activists who have taken part. Many believe the force has a long way to go if it is attempting to abandon the tactics it has employed during past demonstrations.
Natalie Saint Fleur, who’s 26, says officers were “not respectful” during the Garner protests. “Some of them were laughing,” she says. “Why would you laugh about something like this? Somebody died.”
The Voice was present on November 24 when an officer grabbed and pushed 26-year-old Noche Diaz during a protest of the Ferguson decision. When asked about the incident, Diaz told the Voice he was marching on the street in the path of police vehicles when the officer “came up in front and put his hands around my neck.” Another officer was seen pushing a woman, before being mobbed by other activists who reacted in her defense.
And on Thanksgiving Day, activists’ plans to disrupt the Macy’s parade were thwarted by police who used metal barricades as shields before arresting six and issuing a court summons to another. The next day an anonymous contingent of the activists who tried to stop the parade released an open letter accusing the NYPD of playing dirty. They wrote that some officers questioned arrestees “about their social media activity and connections to organizers” and that undercover plainclothes officers were deployed to agitate the crowd.
The NYPD wouldn’t comment on the letter or on whether they had plainclothes officers at the event. But in response to the accusation that officers questioned arrestees about their relationships with organizers, a spokesman responded, “Would it be a problem if they did?”