(Photos: Erin O’Brien)

Early in the evening of June 3, 2020, Mattie Barber-Bockelman marched from Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn towards Cadman Plaza, near the Brooklyn Bridge. This was Barber-Bockelman’s first protest after months of lockdown, but she knew what to do from posts on Instagram and Twitter. Barber-Bockelman is white, and positioned herself at the edge of the crowd, between Black protesters and the police. 

As the crowd approached the north side of Cadman Plaza, a line of NYPD officers in riot gear came into view at the top of the park. Paddy wagons sped, lights blaring, past the crowd and dozens of officers streamed onto the line. Barber-Bockelman was scared but held her ground. She knew the risk she faced was far less than that of the protesters of color she was trying to protect with her outstretched arms. As they neared the officers, she felt her fight or flight responses begin to kick in.

“It was just a cycle of ‘Oh, my god, I want to run away, I feel so scared,’ and ‘Oh, my god, fuck you,’” she remembers.

The crowd slowed to a stop in front of the line of officers. Barber-Bockelman stood at the front of the group, her body mere inches away from the NYPD’s riot shields and batons. A Black man knelt in front of the officers, his hands above his head. Another, who’d been on the Williamsburg Bridge when police trapped hundreds of protesters in the middle of it the night before, pleaded with the officers, asking them not to repeat the scene. There were about 20 minutes of tense standoff, with a few white men in the crowd heckling both the police and protesters. Then, the officers began descending on the crowd.

Barber-Bockelman watched an officer in a white shirt, a sergeant, hit the kneeling man across the bridge of the nose, knocking him to the ground. Barber-Bockelman screamed and lunged to help the man off the ground. An older woman with a walker was stranded, yelling desperately for her daughter as police grew closer. Officers advanced slowly, and protesters started running, tripping over each other as they raced to get out of the plaza. But at the southern edge of the square they were met with another line of officers blocking their exit, a tactic known as “kettling.” People panicked as police began arresting those at the edge of the crowd, wrestling them to the ground and handcuffing them. Barber-Bockelman kept screaming, trying to help. She was hit in the head with a baton, leaving a bruise on her ear.

Suddenly, it started to rain, and police opened their kettle to allow protesters to leave. Barber-Bockelman went slowly, trying to avoid causing panic. A police officer slammed her in the back and told her to walk faster.

“You motherfucker,” she remembers thinking, “Riling us up, then putting us in the street like that. It was obviously intentional.”

Many of the officers Barber-Bockelman and her fellow demonstrators encountered on that night were members of the Strategic Response Group, a special operations unit of the NYPD formed in 2015 to combat “citywide mobilizations, civil disorders, and major events with highly trained personnel and specialized equipment,” according to the NYPD. Since its inception, the unit has racked up at least 142 allegations of misconduct, according to a ProPublica database of NYPD disciplinary records. 

The protest at Cadman Plaza was not the only demonstration met with a violent response by the police in New York City this summer. Beginning the week after George Floyd was killed by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, the Strategic Response Group and the NYPD oversaw a violent crackdown on demonstrators that resulted in the arrests of thousands throughout the summer.

Officers with violent disciplinary records— such as Sergeant Patrick Quigley of the Strategic Response group, who has had 20 allegations levied against him, three of which have been substantiated and disciplined by the NYPD – were put on the front lines of protest response. NYPD officers used brute force, such as beating demonstrators with batons or pushing crowds with bikes, to quell demonstrations, leading to battering and injury. But these tactics were not new, nor were they limited to the response to protests this summer. The violence was the product of NYPD strategy, epitomized in the modus operandi of the SRG, honed over decades, and intended to discourage New Yorkers from protesting.

The Strategic Response Group was formed as part of a counterterrorism strategy by the NYPD and was divided into five borough-specific units. The Disorder Control Unit (DCU), which existed prior to the SRG, is the sixth unit of the group and is deployed specifically to monitor civil unrest and mass demonstrations, like this summer’s protests. When William Bratton, then the commissioner of the NYPD, announced the SRG’s formation in January 2015, he highlighted that the group would have access to tactical weaponry, advanced protective gear, machine guns, and counterterrorism training. 

Since their formations, both the DCU and the SRG have been embroiled in controversy and legal battles. In 2004, the DCU oversaw the crackdown on protesters at the Republican National Convention in New York City. Over the convention week, from August 30 to September 2, nearly 1,800 people protesting the Iraq War were arrested, mostly for minor offenses, such as disturbing the peace. On one night of the protests, August 31, 1,128 protesters were arrested in four hours. Many of these protesters were temporarily detained in a Hudson River pier in squalid conditions, some for more than two days before seeing a judge. 

The City of New York later settled lawsuits with many of those detained and paid a total of over $34 million in payouts and legal fees for the incident. Court documents from cases dating as recently as 2014 reveal that the violence and tactics used by officers in 2004 closely mirror those used at protests this summer, including “kettling” protesters, arresting those at the edges of crowds, and sparking chaos among demonstrators by containing them in confined areas before cracking down and making arrests. 

The first major protest this summer where these tactics could be observed was, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on May 29, four days after George Floyd was killed. Demonstrators met at the venue, which would become a gathering place for the summer’s movement, around 7 p.m. that Friday. Protests had flared across the country in the days since George Floyd’s death the previous Monday, Memorial Day, and the streets of New York were beginning to seethe. But that night at Barclays Center— and the police crackdowns that it sparked— marked the beginning of the summer’s movement for many activists that would take to the streets for months.

Clive Destiny finished his 12-hour shift at Home Depot that evening and got on the subway towards his home in Brooklyn, four blocks from the Barclays Center. He had been carrying the grief of George Floyd’s killing for days but didn’t know how to cope with it. “I was still just confused, like, ‘Why am I feeling like this?’ This happens all the time. This is nothing new. You know, this is the ordinary day of a Black man in America. Or a Black person in America, I should say,” he said. 

He didn’t plan to protest, but when he came out of the subway at Barclays, he was overwhelmed with emotion. After months of isolation and quarantine, hundreds of people were packed shoulder to shoulder, wearing masks and holding signs. Destiny couldn’t move, but he didn’t want to. He stood in the crowd and let the emotions of the past week wash over him.

“I felt angry. And I felt sad. I felt confused and shocked. I’ve lived in the city my whole life. And I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. 

The protest remained largely peaceful. But as the sun began to set, Destiny noticed the police moving in on the crowd and dividing demonstrators into smaller and smaller groups. The Strategic Response Group patrolled the perimeter of the group, and NYPD officers on bikes created a barrier at the edge of the crowd on Flatbush Avenue. Destiny began to feel hemmed in. Then he started to feel the pepper spray.

Chi Ossé hadn’t been to a protest until the night at Barclays Center, either. On May 29, he saw an Instagram post advertising the demonstration, and as it began to get dark he was in the same crowd as Destiny. Flashes of the video of George Floyd’s death kept popping into his head. As he stood shoulder to shoulder with other demonstrators, he was angry.

Both Destiny and Ossé felt the menace of the police from the moment they joined the protest.

“We hear about this rhetoric about rioting. You have to question who looks like they’re dressed for a riot at hese protests,” Ossé said.

Near 8 p.m., NYPD officers, many wearing Strategic Response Group shirts, descended on the crowd. A woman emerged from the fray shirtless, mace and milk running in rivulets down her face and chest. An officer in a white shirt, mask pulled below his chin, held a man that had defecated in front of him by the teeshirt. As police closed in, protesters were jostled and pressed together. Some fell to the ground. Many scattered. Demonstrators were detained by the NYPD, their bodies pressed to the ground under the weight of officers, wrists restrained with zip ties. That night, over 200 people were arrested.

“You could see with how they held their batons how eager they were to beat people. How quick they were to bash barricades on people. How quick they were to pepper spray people. You know, it was really a mess,” said Ossé.

After that, Ossé and Destiny went to protests every night. Night after night, the police would crackdown, and both began to notice a pattern. NYPD officers would begin at the edges of the crowd, then slowly press inwards. They would begin to arrest or detain people, prompting reactions from other demonstrators. As police pushed further into the crowd, using increasingly violent tactics, protesters would begin to divide and scatter, as they had at Barclays. Once the crowd was broken up, officers would descend on smaller groups, then begin to disperse and arrest people.

“They always started in the back. They would ambush or mace somebody in the back and would try and make an arrest immediately,” Destiny recalled. “Then that, in turn, causes the crowd to begin running or picking up the pace. Then they would come from sides, or just lock up the front. They would try to guide you and steer you to where the biggest mass of police officers were.”

This pattern was not a coincidence, nor was it limited to the demonstrations this summer. It is part of a “Rapid Response” strategy by the NYPD, designed to control civil disorder. The strategy is designed to “contain, isolate, disperse, and demoralize” groups of protesters. In the handbook outlining “Disorder Control Guidelines,” officers are instructed to act quickly and immediately work to contain demonstrations so the “smallest possible geographical area” and isolate participants from the public. 

Then, the police must disperse and demoralize the isolated group. The acting commander is instructed to “rapidly deploy forces and quickly demonstrate the Department’s unwavering determination to restore order.” Police are encouraged to arrest demonstrators that defy police orders, and to repeatedly disperse demonstrators until there is a “return to normalcy.”

“The arrest of violators and the repeated dispersal of unlawful groups will demoralize the crowd’s will to resist lawful police orders,” the handbook states.

Daniel Lambright is a staff lawyer at the New York Civil Liberties Union who works on criminal justice, including police violence. He worked on a case brought by the NYCLU, Payne et al. V De Blasio et al, that claimed “the mayor and city instituted a de facto policy allowing individual officers to violently target protesters by repeatedly approving forceful deployments and refusing discipline or repercussions for blatant officer misconduct.”

“There was a pattern and practice of activity, of police misconduct,” said Lambright, “This wasn’t a ‘bad apple’ case, where you have one cop going off and doing bad activities. This was caused by the policymakers.”

Filings by the NYCLU and the Legal Aid Society on behalf of 11 plaintiffs claim that protesters, like Ossé, Barber-Bockelman, and Destiny, were targeted by the NYPD this summer for their anti-police message, and were subjected to indiscriminate violence, including being beaten by batons, being pepper-sprayed, being handcuffed with zip ties, and being kettled. As in 2004, the case also claims that protesters were “arrested and jailed without adequate food, water, medical supervision, or protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

“The officers were retaliating against people,” Lambright said, “They were using such full force against protesters because of the message that they were conveying. The ‘Defund the police’ message, or the Black Lives Matter message.”

The NYCLU case, which is currently filed with the Southern District of New York with Colleen McMahon as presiding judge,  combined with the history of SRG and NYPD responses to protests, indicates that when police descended on Barber-Bockelman, Ossé, and Destiny, they were not only drawing on a week of protest response but on systematic tactics implemented by the NYPD to quell protests and discourage demonstrations. The pressure they felt, the pressure that leads protesters to panic and run, was NYPD strategy. The chaos that ensued was not incidental but an intended effect, meant to separate and discourage protestors in the hopes of dispersing the crowd. And when protesters sprinted away from the violence, breaking into smaller and smaller groups that were apprehended throughout downtown Brooklyn on both nights, the “Rapid Response” strategy succeeded.

This summer, Barber-Bockelman and many other protesters participated in an Attorney General investigation into police violence, in which demonstrators outlined violent, systemic tactics the Strategic Response Group and NYPD officers used against protesters. At her testimony, Barber-Bockelman recalled the police advancing and how she was hit in the head. This came after the crackdowns at Barclays, Cadman, and Mott Haven, among others, were widely shared on social media, and the city was forced to condemn the violence. In early June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an investigation into police misconduct after two officers were filmed driving into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn. De Blasio also called for a broader investigation into police response to the protests after George Floyd’s death, which was codified into Executive Order 58 on June 20, 2020. The investigation was concluded in early December, and findings released on December 18thound that police officers engaged in “excessive enforcement that contributed to heightened tensions” with protesters. The report also suggested that the NYPD disband the SRG to avoid similarly violent responses in the future. 

After months of defending the actions of police, Mayor Bill De Blasio issued a rare apology in a video recorded in response to the report. He said he was “filled with remorse” over the report’s findings.

“We’ve got to do something different,” he said, “We’ve got to do something better.”

Along with the release of the report, demonstrator’s actions and demands  achieved change in NYPD policing practices, such as the repeal of 50-a, guarding NYPD disciplinary records. A  Human Rights Watch report released in September concluded that when the 40th precinct “kettled” a “F*** the Police” Rally on June 4, the day after the incidents at Cadman Plaza, and arrested over 263 people, they had planned the crackdown on demonstrators and had allowed officers with violent disciplinary records to lead the assault on protesters. The incident and the report, they said, “describes the city’s ineffectual accountability systems that protect abusive police officers, shows the shortcomings of incremental reforms, and makes the case for structural change.”

Despite these developments, as the momentum from the protests began to wane this fall, the SRG and its protest response tactics re-emerged. Roughly 300 protesters gathered on September 19  in Times Square to call for an end to hysterectomies in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities and were met with an outsized police presence. Once protesters took to the street, according to onlookers, police began kettling the crowd from all sides. Police began picking off and arresting demonstrators at the edges of the group for “unlawfully [being] in the roadway and obstructing vehicular traffic.” At least 86 people were arrested.

According to Lambright, the only way to break these cycles of violence is to rethink policing and reduce civilian contact with police. 

“We’re just going to, realistically, have to think about lessening our reliance on police and lessening the contact that individuals have with police,” he said. “You will have these kinds of situations, especially with vulnerable groups, where they are brutalized by police. That’s just been shown throughout history, especially in this city.”