Will NYC’s Next Mayor Use the ‘Goon Squad’ to Shut Off Parks Access? (Probably)

Police using their bicycles as weapons against protesters in Union Square last year. File photo
Police using their bicycles as weapons against protesters in Union Square last year. File photo

Will the next mayor keep allowing the NYPD to shut down precious public space on a political whim?

This week, most of the major Democratic candidates for mayor tried to distance themselves from the de Blasio administration’s new policy of enforcing a 10 p.m. weekend curfew at Washington Square Park with dozens of cops in riot gear.

On Saturday, police arrested 23 people, and members of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit that was created to fight terrorism but is now regularly deployed to police First Amendment activity, chased parkgoers through the West Village. Tompkins Square Park was also shuttered early without warning, Gothamist reported.

Brooklyn Borough President and former NYPD Captain Eric Adams is currently leading the pack in the Democratic primary in an election that has been consumed by the issue of gun violence and public safety, according to the most recent polling.

Despite being a longtime advocate for police reform and someone who testified against the NYPD’s abuse of stop-and-frisk during the Bloomberg administration, in many ways Adams has adopted a reactionary posture when it comes to how he’d handle the police department as mayor.

He doesn’t want to reallocate police resources to other areas of the city budget. He (along with Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia) want to bring back a form of the freewheeling plainclothes NYPD unit and brutality lawsuit-magnet charged with taking guns off the street. And he has refused to back down on his pledge to carry a gun while acting as mayor.

Still, on the fight over the public square in Washington Square Park, Adams insisted he’d do things differently.

“Scheduling a battle in a park at 10p every night isn’t smart,” Adams tweeted. “We can keep the peace with brains, not batons.”

Maya Wiley said she would create “a police department not focused on clearing out a park where nothing wrong is happening, but focused on how to keep illegal guns out of our community and off our streets.” 

And Dianne Morales made a reference to Mayor de Blasio’s eternal unwillingness to confront video evidence of his police department abusing their power. (Comptroller Scott Stringer hasn’t made public comments about the park’s early curfew as far as we can tell, and we’ve reached out to the campaign for comment.)

Only Kathryn Garcia, the former Sanitation Commissioner, appeared to defend the administration’s actions.

“We need to have safety across the city, but we need to make it so that cops are respectful of the folks who want to gather. But I also know some of the folks who are neighbors there who were getting woken in the middle of the night,” the candidate, who recently received a StreetsPAC endorsement, told the spot news group Scootercaster.

“I know that we’re the city that never sleeps, but sometimes we have to sleep. We need to be a livable city for everyone, and we want to make it so that people can raise their families here,” Garcia added, referring to the overwhelmingly rich, White neighborhood, where New York University owns a staggering amount of property. (The median income in Washington Square Park’s ZIP code, 10003, is $118,161, nearly double the city’s overall median income.)

Maintaining access to the most popular public park in Lower Manhattan and combating the scourge of gun violence in poorer neighborhood across the city are disparate issues. But for decades, the city’s response to both of them has been dictated almost exclusively by the NYPD, which has a track record of racially biased enforcement in public space and also shrugging off oversight under its mandate of “public safety.”

“Many of the lines we’re hearing from the candidates on policing are the same lines we heard from candidates in 2013,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, the director of Communities United for Police Reform. “The proof is in the pudding, but it’s going to be whether or not the next mayor is willing to reduce the massive bloated budget and headcount of the NYPD and in effect help to limit their outsize power.”

Kang told Streetsblog that the Washington Square Park curfew standoff is the NYPD’s way of “testing the boundaries of how far they can go.”

“We have a mayor and a City Council that’s mostly willing to let them do that right now,” Kang said.

De Blasio confirmed to reporters on Tuesday that the park’s early curfew was the NYPD’s call, not his. “That’s a decision that local police commanders have to make based on what they see,” de Blasio said. “I think that’s the smart thing to do.”

The Washington Square Park Conservancy, a nonprofit concerned with keeping the park “clean, safe, and beautiful,” told Streetsblog that amplified sound from parties and broken glass “impinged on people’s ability to safely use and enjoy the park during the hours it is open.”

But the group, which counts Bloomberg-era Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe among its board members, insisted it was not involved in setting the new curfew.

We did not ask NYC Parks or NYPD for any changes,” Deputy Director Sheryl Woodruff wrote in an email. (“I think the issue here is, the city allowed basically an anything-goes policy for the past year because of the pandemic and protests, and now they’re trying to reel it back in,” Benepe told Curbed.)

Civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver pointed out that the NYPD has unilaterally shut down or seriously limited public access to parks for decades —during Critical Mass rides after the 2004 Republican convention when Benepe was commissioner as well as during the Occupy Wall Street period after the eviction of Zuccotti Park — but said park closures are “often explicitly political.”

“In this case it’s NYU and NIMBY residents of Washington Square Park sort of calling in the goon squad, as the city is beginning to open up after the pandemic,” said Oliver, who is currently representing a group of protesters who defied Mayor de Blasio’s curfew last summer to demonstrate against racist police violence in one of five pending lawsuits against the NYPD.

In 2015, the NYPD swore it would not deploy these new armored SRG officers on mountain bikes to police protests, but quickly took to using them for that very purpose. Attorney General Letitia James singled out the SRG’s misconduct in her pending lawsuit against the NYPD’s response to last summer’s protests. Yet halfway through 2021, the unit continues to use physical violence to disperse peaceful crowds in public places.

Norman Siegel, another longtime civil rights attorney who frequently sued the Giuliani administration and every mayoral administration since, told Streetsblog that he was struck by how difficult it is for New Yorkers to access precious public space to hold large events, especially in Manhattan.

“For the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Revolution in 2019, we had to go through so many hurdles to get the permit to have access to the Great Lawn,” Siegel said. “Without lawyers and without resources, no one can actually have real access to it.”

As for what’s been going on in Washington Square Park, Siegel said, “The enforcement of a curfew should not involve violence.”

“People in local communities, they have rights also,” he added. “And people were alleging there were noise problems back when I went to NYU Law School from ’65 to ’68.”