The NYPD’s war against racial justice protesters

According to recently leaked documents, the New York City Police Department’s anti-terror unit trained officers to disregard the constitutional rights of demonstrators during last summer’s protests for racial justice. This unit must be disbanded and officers involved held accountable for these abuses.

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By Asha Ramachandran, Deputy Opinion Editor

Beaten with batons, assaulted with pepper spray, shoved to the ground and unlawfully arrested — these are only a few examples of the force inflicted by the New York Police Department on New Yorkers demonstrating against police violence last summer. According to newly leaked internal police documents, New York City deployed its police department’s anti-terror unit at summer demonstrations and deliberately instructed officers to violate the constitutional rights of protesters. 

Dubbed the NYPD’s “Goon Squad” by activists, the Strategic Response Group, established in 2015 by then-Commissioner Bill Bratton, was intended to be a specialized unit devoted to crime suppression, emergency response and counterterrorism activities. The SRG and the police department as a whole has conflated protest policing and counterterrorism operations, quickly becoming a regular presence at demonstrations across the city — from Abolish ICE marches to protests against police violence and the murder of George Floyd. Their presence at protests, however, has brought anything but peace or lawfulness.

The SRG’s presence during the protests has only created chaos and further escalated violence. The leaked documents have outlined the source of the illegal and violent practices of the NYPD during protests: the department’s own instruction manuals. The Civilian Complaint Review Board received 750 reports concerning officers’ brutal violence against demonstrators. These reports detail the exact tactics officers tasked with protest policing are taught. Mass arrests, encircling protesters, and the abandonment of all discretion when handling civilians can all be traced back to the SRG manual. The manual’s outlined tactics and NYPD protocol have enabled officers to assault civilians on multiple occasions with a complete lack of accountability.

Majority-Black neighborhoods have also been specific targets of the SRG’s violence and infringement of communities’ legal rights. Last June, during a protest in Mott Haven, a largely Black neighborhood in the South Bronx, the NYPD unit led a preemptive crackdown that inflicted brutality and mass arrests on entirely peaceful protesters. The officers actually blocked protesters from leaving before curfew, then used their violation of curfew as justification for beatings and detainments. These aggressive measures were orchestrated and carried out by the SRG and the department’s highest-ranking uniformed police officer. This illustrates that the abuses stem from the uppermost levels of power. 

Such actions are not isolated to this one incident in the Bronx, but rather reflective of larger patterns of violence by the SRG and the NYPD at large, specifically targeted towards protesters fighting for Black lives. The city has done little, if anything, to take accountability for police terror over the course of the summer protests, as the CCRB has been shown to be subordinate to the NYPD in practice.

Neither the SRG nor the NYPD have fulfilled their purported goal of protecting and serving civilians over the course of the summer protests. Instead, civilian lives have been put in danger and their constitutional rights have been essentially trampled. The SRG’s practices of targeting, attacking and arresting marginalized people and protesters is in contradiction of public safety, and those who have already been subjected to its violence are entitled to recompense and independent accountability proceedings. The police have not protected civilians at protests, and the size and scope of the department’s power over public safety should be called into question after hundreds of incidents of violence reported to the CCRB. Accountability for the department’s abuses must also begin with the disbanding of the SRG, which has proven itself to be a force for brutality and unlawfulness. Police units like the SRG that unlawfully terrorize protesters cannot be allowed to wage war on civilians — disbanding such forces is a first step in eliminating such violence.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Apr. 12, 2021 e-print edition. Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]