Above: Activist holds up a sign reading “All Blood Is Red” in Grand Central on Martin Luther King Day. (WNV/Peter Rugh)
“We understand our strength is in numbers, that our narrative and our actions are very clear so that we cannot be misconstrued”
The New York Police Department has reportedly been giving young adults free tickets to screenings of “Selma,” and last month, on Martin Luther King Day, officers with the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood even drove a group of local teens to see the film, which depicts the historic march for voting rights. At the same time, however, the NYPD has sought to thwart, criminalize and defame the current incarnation of civil rights activism underway in New York, treating the Black Lives Matter movement as a threat on par with terrorism.
On Feb. 10, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton asked lawmakers in Albany to elevate resisting arrest from a misdemeanor to a felony. Arrestees going limp and forcing officers to carry them off to jail was a common tactic of the civil rights movement — which has continued to this day — and is considered resisting arrest by the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies. At the end of January, Bratton announced he is arming a new unit called the Strategic Response Group with machine guns that will “assist us in dealing with demonstrations.” Speaking at a breakfast organized by the Police Foundation, Bratton explained that the unit “is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”
Since grand juries in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island opted late last year not to indict police officers for killing unarmed, black civilians, Black Lives Matter demonstrators in New York have staged “die-ins” by the thousands and shut down major traffic thoroughfares such as the West Side Highway and the Holland Tunnel. As in many locations across the country, Black Lives Matter marches and rallies have been angry and participants and organizers sharply critical of police but, by and large, they have not been violent.
Bratton’s second-in-command, Chief of Department James O’Neill, later rolled back the commissioner’s remarks, saying instead that two separate units will be created; one for demonstrations and another that will focus solely on terrorism. To civil rights experts and activists, however, Bratton’s earlier conflation of the two was troubling.
“The comparison of Black Lives Matter and other large protests to violent terrorist attacks is an outrage and an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been marching across the country against racism and for police reform,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.
Sabaah Jordan, a New York-based anti-racist organizer who is also working on a documentary film about Ferguson, was worried but not too surprised by Bratton’s remarks. “The government and the media have a long history of criminalizing and vilifying black people,” she said. “The previous generation of black leaders are either in exile, locked-up as political prisoners, or they’re dead. Today, terrorism is a racialized term. It is commonly used to mean people of color threatening the safety and security of white people. We don’t recognize lynchings as terrorist acts or the Klu Klux Klan as a terrorist group. But Bratton’s comments should concern everyone. They set a precedent for the way free speech is dealt with.”
According to veteran civil rights attorney Martin Stolar, a special unit to police demonstrations is reminiscent of the Tactical Patrol Force, which — comprised largely of former marines — was the unit responsible for crowd control at protests in New York from 1959 to 1984, garnering a reputation for cracking heads. A Yahoo Group comprised of former members bears the slogan, “Our like will never be seen again.” With the establishment of this new protest unit within the NYPD, perhaps it will.
“I hope this new unit gets extensive training in civil rights,” Stolar said. The NYPD did not respond to inquiries for this article.
While it may seem bizarre that protesters and terrorists could somehow be lumped into the same category, officers whose jackets read “NYPD Counter Terrorism” are frequently sighted at demonstrations in New York. FBI documents obtained in 2012 by the Partnership for Civil Justice through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the FBI, Homeland Security, NYPD and other local law enforcement agencies monitored Occupy Wall Street activists from the movement’s inception, treating it as a terrorist threat.
On December 14, Eric Linsker, an adjunct professor with the City University of New York, was arrested at his home by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes members of the FBI, for allegedly assaulting an officer on the Brooklyn Bridge during a march that broke away from a larger, peaceful Black Lives Matter procession the day before. Linsker, and about a half dozen activists who allegedly helped de-arrest him at the December 13 demonstration, remain the only participants in the Black Lives Matter protests so far to face charges for violent crimes in New York.
Stolar, who has represented numerous activists against criminal charges stemming from protests, including Occupy participant Cecily McMillan and now Linsker, argues that the case against the adjunct professor and those accused of abetting him is being used to smear the entire movement.
“They’ve jumped on this case to say, ‘Look at this group of bad protesters,’” Stolar said. “And therefore the message is that every other protester is also tainted. They’ve used it to that extent.”
A grand jury has been impaneled and is exploring charges of assaulting a police officer against Linsker and those who helped him initially escape. The Brooklyn District Attorney is casting a wide net. Videographer Atiq Zabinsky was subpoenaed, though he said he was several hundred feet away when the incident involving Linsker took place. He has refused to provide footage of the protest he captured that night to the district attorney.
Another source involved in the demonstration said numerous activists who had nothing to do with the NYPD’s confrontation with Linsker have been extensively interrogated by the NYPD, though they do not currently wish to speak out for fear of retribution.
“The fact that a couple of cops were shot a week later certainly has not helped,” Stolar said in reference to the December 20 murder of two NYPD officers by a man from Baltimore, who shortly thereafter killed himself.
There is no evidence that the shooter had participated in any of the recent demonstrations against police brutality. Before traveling to the city he also shot his girlfriend in the stomach during a domestic dispute, though little mention of her was made in most media. The narrative has instead focused on the protesters.
Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, blamed the officers’ deaths on “those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what NYPD officers did every day.” Mayor Bill de Blasio too was to blame, according to Lynch, since he had allowed people to protest and even expressed sympathy for the demonstrators. “We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated,” Lynch said.
Up until that point, previous attempts by police and their supporters to roll back the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement had failed. A “Blue Lives Matter” rally on December 19 at City Hall garnered little attention. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association even declined to endorse it, fearful that it might be a hoax. But immediately following the killings, the mayor and even some leading Black Lives Matter activists called for the demonstrations to stop until the officers were buried.
Black Lives Matter activist Sabaah Jordan criticized pleas for pause, rejecting the notion that the movement was in any way responsible for the officers’ deaths. “This person was obviously unstable,” she said. “The reason there is an adversarial relationship between police and the community is not because of our rhetoric, it’s because of how they are treating people of color. We don’t want to see cops murdered. That’s actually the exact opposite of what our movement is about. We are seeking peace and an end to violence.”
Ironically, Occupy Wall Street and now Black Lives Matter have showcased that the most frequent purveyors of violence at New York demonstrations have consistently been the NYPD. At least 14 cases of police brutality were documented throughout Occupy Wall Street by researchers from New York University, Fordham, Harvard and Stanford.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken a more hands off approach than his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, famously stating that “the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic.” Yet the NYPD’s use of pepper spray has continued at protests and the threat of further force, whether via billy club or Long Range Acoustic Device, remains ever present.
Many in New York defied calls to halt the protests following the December killings, but despite large mobilizations surrounding the Martin Luther King Day holiday, the movement has not been able to recuperate its momentum. Jordan said that’s because Black Lives Matter has entered a different stage. Activists are discussing ways to forge networks and build organizations that can sustain themselves and ensure that the recent protests aren’t just flashes in a pan. Eight hundred people came together on Jan. 30 at Riverside Church for a day of strategy session and for nonviolent civil disobedience workshops.
“We understand now that we have mass power,” said Jordan, who pointed to the indictment Tuesday of Officer Peter Liang for the November shooting death of Akui Gurley in a Brooklyn housing development as an example of what Black Lives Matter has been able to accomplish since its inception. Even the NYPD’s recent promotional efforts for the film “Selma” are a testament to the power of the movement, she said. “They have to show they are not the bad guys, because they pretty much look like the bad guys.”
Still, going forward, Jordan and others are proceeding with caution.
“It is really important that we understand our strength is in numbers, that our narrative and our actions are very clear so that we cannot be misconstrued,” said Jordan. “We’re training people really heavily in militant nonviolent action and de-escalation. They are waiting for any opportunity to vilify us. But you can expect to see a stronger, more coordinated movement going forward. It’s about maximizing and taking control of the energy we have shown in the streets.”
Josmar Trujillo with New Yorkers Against Bratton, argues that copwatching, the tactic of monitoring and filming encounters with police that activists have applied in neighborhoods across New York as a form of holding officers accountable and averting abuse, is all the more necessary now. Viewing the commissioner’s recent remarks as a “public threat” toward Black Lives Matter, he contends that “sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”
“Activists need to be very vocal,” said Trujillo, “very visible in going against not only the police department’s policies but the political establishment that condones those policies, gives them money and resources — that feeds the beast, so to speak. Activists should continue to do that instead of waiting around for the police to club us, shoot us, or hit us with sound cannons.”