OPINION: Mayor de Blasio Must Hold NYPD To Account for Bronx Assault

Police abuses of Mott Haven protesters in June violated international law, says Human Rights Watch.

Mayor de Blasio with the NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea — together before COVID. File photo: NYC Mayor's Office
Mayor de Blasio with the NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea — together before COVID. File photo: NYC Mayor's Office

The New York Police Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Terence Monahan, led an operation to trap, assault and arrest more than 250 peaceful protesters in the Mott Haven neighborhood in the South Bronx in early June. In an apparent attempt to justify the police action, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea spread misinformation about the protest and its organizers — with unfounded allegations that other city officials either debunked or contradicted. 

Ida Sawyer
Ida Sawyer

When asked about this incident during Brian Lehrer’s Ask the Mayor segment on WNYC on Oct. 2, Mayor de Blasio said: “If things were done wrong, anyone who did something wrong should be held accountable in the appropriate way.”

The mayor claimed an investigation is ongoing — almost four months after the protest. Yet there is now more than enough information for him to take action. 

In Human Rights Watch’s 99-page report on the protest, published last week and based on interviews or written accounts from 81 participants and analysis of 155 videos from the protest, we found that the police action in Mott Haven was deliberate, planned, and amounted to serious violations of international human-rights law.

On the evening of June 4, minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew — imposed that week after looting elsewhere in the city — scores of police officers surrounded and trapped the protesters as they marched peacefully through Mott Haven, using a tactic known as “kettling.” Then, just after 8 p.m., the police — unprovoked and without warning — moved in on the protesters, wielding batons, beating people from car tops, shoving them to the ground, and firing pepper spray into their faces before rounding up more than 250 people for arrest.

The assault injured at least 61 people, who had lacerations, a broken nose, a lost tooth, a sprained shoulder, a broken finger, black eyes, and potential nerve damage from overly tight zip ties. We didn’t learn of any police officers being injured during the protest. 

The report.
The report.

We also found no evidence of threats or acts of violence or vandalism by the protest organizers or protesters. To the contrary, the protest was peaceful; the only violence was in the police response

Most of those injured did not receive any immediate medical care, as police arrested or obstructed volunteer medics, clearly identifiable in medical scrubs with a red cross insignia. Dozens of people spent hours in detention with untreated wounds and their hands bound behind their backs. At least 13 legal observers — who wear clearly identifiable hats and badges — were also detained, in some cases violently, before being released.

Shea confirmed the premeditated nature of the police operation, stating at a news conference the next day: “We had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly in the Bronx.” Shea wrongly described the protest as an attempt by “outside agitators” to “cause mayhem,” “tear down society,” and “injure cops.” He also claimed the police had recovered a firearm and gasoline from the protesters. It turns out the firearm was recovered from a couple about a half mile away from the march — more than an hour before it had started. The gasoline he cited had been found the night before. There was no apparent connection of either with the protest.

During his appearance on the Lehrer show, de Blasio also claimed that there was “a special circumstance” during the Mott Haven protest with “a threat of violence” and “some evidence that it was being played out,” but he failed to provide any details. 

In the police department’s response to our letter asking a series of questions about the protest and our findings, the department said that the demonstration was “unlawful” from 8 p.m., and that the detention of nonessential workers was therefore “lawful.” Yet the police did not address the fact that the mayor’s curfew order also stated that “failure to comply with this order shall result in orders to disperse,” an opportunity not provided to the protesters in Mott Haven, who were trapped before the curfew went into effect. 

“Warnings have to be given very clearly and people have to be given time to adjust to those warnings,” de Blasio said on the Lehrer show. “If that didn’t happen, then that’s going to be a real problem for the people who were in charge that were on that scene.” 

The department also claimed in its letter to Human Rights Watch that “legal observers did not enjoy an exemption as essential workers,” even though the Mayor’s Office had clarified that legal observers were indeed exempt from the curfew. When asked about this on the Lehrer show, de Blasio replied: “With all due respect to the NYPD, the NYPD is wrong on this one.”

The New York Police Department may act as if it is above the law, but de Blasio has the authority and should take action immediately to show that there are consequences for such violence and abuse and for deliberately mischaracterizing what occurred. Those consequences should include appropriate disciplinary action against, including possible dismissal of, Shea and Monahan.

If the mayor doesn’t take appropriate action, he, too, should be held to account.

Ida Sawyer (@ida_sawyer) is acting crisis and conflict director of Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, “‘Kettling’ Protesters in the Bronx: Systemic Police Brutality and Its Costs in the United States.”