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Over 100 Protesters, Legal Observers To Sue NYPD Over Violent Arrests

Above photo: A legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild is arrested in the Bronx in June. CS Muncy / Gothamist.

More than 100 protesters and legal observers trapped by police in the NYPD’s violent ambush of a peaceful march in the Bronx earlier this summer are now planning to sue the city, after Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to discipline any of the officers involved in the mass arrest.

At least 107 people have filed notices of claim with the city indicating their intent to sue over the police department’s actions in Mott Haven on June 4th, Gothamist has learned. The bulk of the notices were delivered this week, which marked 90 days since the night of the incident, the cutoff for initiating legal action.

The flood of notices outnumber all other claims filed since the start of the George Floyd protests in NYC, according to the most recent data provided by the city comptroller’s office, underscoring the extent of the brutality inflicted on protesters and bystanders in Mott Haven.

Moments before the mayor’s 8 p.m. curfew, heavily-armored officers kettled the marchers on 136th Street, heaving their bikes into the front of the group as a second line of riot cops rushed the crowd from behind without warning.

Legal observers, essential workers, and de Blasio staffers were among those trapped in the whirl of batons and pepper spray. Several protesters were seriously injured. More than 300 people received summonses for staying out past curfew, which Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark moved to dismiss this week.

According to one of the notices, an officer “held his baton high above his head and swung it down on [the protester’s] head at full speed, causing [him] to crumple to the ground.” As the protester lay on the street, bleeding from the skull and struggling to breathe, another officer blocked a medic from administering aid, the filing states.

Other notices of claim shed light on the NYPD’s effort to detain nearly every legal observer on scene, a move that civil rights attorneys described as an unprecedented act of intimidation.

Despite assurance from the mayor that they were not subject to curfew, at least 12 legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild filed notices on Tuesday stating that they were improperly detained in Mott Haven. In their written statements, legal observers alleged that cops deliberately separated them from the protesters and destroyed their notes.

“One officer punched me in the face, and then I was slammed to the concrete by several officers,” Jalen Matney, a 28-year-old CUNY law student who volunteered as a legal observer, wrote in a statement to police investigators. “Several officers sat on top of me as one officer placed my hands in zip tie cuffs. Another officer stomped on each one of my calves as I laid on the sidewalk motionless while being cuffed.”

Roxanne Zech, a 24-year-old student at CUNY Queens Law School, said that when cops moved to arrest her, she tried to show them paperwork proving she could stay out past curfew, to which an officer replied: “Good for you.”

“My left arm was being twisted and I yelled out in pain. An officer said ‘Oh, your arm is being twisted that’s why it hurts,’” Zech recalled. She then cried out for help from her fellow legal observers, only to see cops slapping plastic cuffs on them. “That is when I realized we were all being detained,” she wrote.

The crackdown on legal observers prompted outrage from attorneys, as well as a letter from the New York City Bar Association demanding a swift investigation into the use of force against observers.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to announce any discipline of officers involved in the operation, which was overseen by the department’s highest-ranking officer, Terence Monahan, as well as officers with the department’s Legal Bureau.

Addressing reporters the next morning, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea described the operation as “executed nearly flawlessly” and falsely stated that the protest was organized by “outside agitators” who sought to harm police and the community.

Shea later told Attorney General Letitia James that he was unfamiliar with the concept of legal observers, whose long-standing role in monitoring protests is enshrined in the department’s Patrol Guide.

“The police commissioner and the mayor have been allowed to totally duck what they did in the Mott Haven kettle,” said Gideon Orion Oliver, an attorney with the NYC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who is serving as co-counsel to many of the protesters who plan to sue. (Disclosure: Oliver is currently representing Gothamist/WNYC in a separate legal matter.)

“Rather than being transparent or accountable or responding in even a comprehensible way to questions about police conduct, the police department and the mayor have applauded each other,” he added. “What they’re saying is not based in reality.”

The Mayor’s Office and the NYPD did not respond to Gothamist’s requests for comment.

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