“Kettling” Protesters in the Bronx Systemic Police Brutality and Its Costs in the United States

Original post at Human Rights Watch Report 09/30/2020


On the evening of June 4, 2020, about 300 people marched peacefully through Mott Haven, a low-income neighborhood in New York City’s South Bronx, to protest police violence and systemic racism. Less than an hour into the march, and about 10 minutes before an 8 p.m. curfew went into effect, the marchers encountered scores of police officers with riot gear, including helmets, shields, and batons. Bicycle police used their bikes to form a wall and prevented the protesters from moving forward, while other officers pushed from behind – a tactic known as “kettling.” The protesters were trapped, with no way to disperse.

“We were being packed and packed like sardines,” one protester later recalled. Many started chanting, “Let Us Go!” and one person cried out, “You’re gonna kill us – I can’t breathe.”

Just after 8 p.m. and the start of the city-wide curfew – imposed a few days earlier due to looting in other areas– the police moved in on the protesters, unprovoked and without warning, whaling their batons, beating people from car tops, shoving them down to the ground, and firing pepper spray in their faces.

“Then it’s kind of all a blur,” one protester said, recounting how a police officer punched him in the face, another twisted his finger and broke it, and a third pulled off his Covid-19 face mask and doused him with pepper spray. “Then they dragged me on the ground and beat me with batons,” he said. “Somewhere in the process of being cuffed, I had a knee on my neck.”

As protesters cried out – some with blood dripping down their faces – the police began to arrest them. They forced people to sit on the street with their hands zip-tied behind their backs, at times so tight that their hands went numb. Clearly identified medics and legal observers were among those targeted, as police beat a number of them, detained them and obstructed their work.

Ambulances eventually arrived, and a medic who was zip-tied at the time said that he saw at least three people carried away on stretchers: “[They were] handcuffed to the stretchers, with head bandages, visibly bleeding from the bandage.”

The protest in Mott Haven was one of hundreds that broke out across New York City and the wider United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Floyd’s was the latest in a series of high-profile killings of unarmed Black people by police in the country. Law enforcement officers across the United States responded to many of these largely peaceful protests with violence, excessive force, and abuse. They beat up protesters, conducted mass arrests, and fired teargas, pepper spray, stun grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse and discourage protests.

This report is based on interviews or written accounts from 81 people who participated in the Mott Haven protest, interviews with 19 other community members, lawyers, activists, and city officials, and analysis of 155 videos that were recorded during the protest. Human Rights Watch also reviewed legal documents and sent questions to the New York Police Department, the NYPD, which replied in part (see Annexes). The NYPD did not reply to a Human Rights Watch request to interview senior NYPD officials.

The protest and the police response occurred in a neighborhood that has long experienced the damaging consequences of systemic racism and the government’s overreliance on criminalization and policing to address societal problems – the exact reasons people were protesting on June 4. Mott Haven is a majority Black and brown community, with some of New York City’s highest rates of poverty and homelessness, and it was among the areas hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Mott Haven has long been aggressively overpoliced for low-level crimes, and more complaints about the use of physical force by police officers have been made in Mott Haven’s 40th precinct than in any of New York City’s other 76 precincts.

Human Rights Watch found that the police response to the peaceful Mott Haven protest was intentional, planned, and unjustified. As one protester said: “What I saw that night in the Bronx was a systemic response. It was strategic. It was planned.”

The NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, was present during the action, along with at least 24 other uniformed supervisory officers – chiefs, lieutenants, captains, or inspectors in white shirts. In total, Human Rights Watch counted in the video footage well over 100 officers on the scene from multiple units, including those from local precincts in regular patrolmen gear, officers in riot gear, officers in black bicycle gear, plainclothes officers, and officers in brown vests. There were also officers from the Legal Bureau, the Technical Assistance Response Unit, and the Strategic Response Group.

An official from the Legal Bureau directed uniformed officers to arrest the legal observers – volunteers with identifiable badges and hats who document police conduct and help people who get arrested. The right of legal observers to document police conduct during protests is laid out in the NYPD Patrol Guide. Video footage captures the Legal Bureau official instructing other officers: “Legal Observers can be arrested. …They are good to go!”

In the NYPD’s response to Human Rights Watch’s questions, the department said that “the intent of this assembly was to engage in violence and inflict harm,” but it did not use this alleged intent to justify the police intervention and arrests. Instead, the letter says that “upon 8 p.m.,” the demonstration “was unlawful under the Mayor’s Executive Order establishing the curfew,” and that the detention of non-essential workers “was lawful.”

The NYPD’s use of the curfew to justify its crackdown ignores the video recordings showing that the police kettled peaceful protesters before the curfew came into effect and blocked all paths to disperse.

The department also said that “legal observers did not enjoy an exemption as essential workers,” but the Mayor’s office had stated before the protest that legal observers were exempt from the curfew.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about its use of force against protesters and observers and has not presented any evidence to suggest that protesters were assaulting the police or others or harming public property.

The NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea had previously confirmed the premeditated nature of the police operation, stating at a news conference the day after the protest: “We had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly in the Bronx.” Shea described the protest as an attempt by “outside agitators” to “cause mayhem,” “tear down society,” and “injure cops.” Specific allegations that he made, including about a firearm and gasoline recovered from protesters, were later contradicted by other NYPD officials, as well as the New York Attorney General’s office and the Bronx District Attorney’s office. The firearm Shea highlighted was recovered from an alleged gang member and his girlfriend about a half mile away from the march and over an hour before it had started. The gasoline he referenced had been found the night before.

The protest in Mott Haven was one of the many community-driven responses to the police killing of George Floyd. A collective of New York City-based grassroots groups, led primarily by Black and brown women from the Bronx and known as the “FTP Formation,” organized the protest, which they called “FTP4.” These groups are dedicated to police and prison abolition, and they fight for other causes like racial justice, decolonization, anti-gentrification, and anti-capitalism. They also organize mutual aid projects to support community members in the Bronx. For these groups, FTP has had different meanings, including “Fuck the Police,” “Feed the People,” and “Free the People.”

The coalition had organized previous “FTP” protests about over-policing in New York City subways, viewing the hiring of more transit officers and a crackdown on fare evasion as “an attack on the poor in this city.” During the first two demonstrations in November 2019 and the third in January 2020, protesters sometimes engaged in mass fare evasion that garnered significant attention and likely triggered increased NYPD scrutiny of the groups’ activities.

Some of the flyers for the FTP4 protest depicted a police car burning and a cartoon of a man jumping over a police officer. But a Code of Conduct for the protest was also posted online that denounced “goofy irresponsible adventurism” and asked protesters to “follow the lead of the people from the hood [neighborhood].” A flyer about the protest directed demonstrators not to bring weapons. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any threats or acts of violence or vandalism by the protest organizers or protesters during the FTP4 protest in Mott Haven. To the contrary, the protest was peaceful until the police responded with violence.   

In total, the authorities arrested and brought to jail at least 263 people during the protest – more than from any other protest in New York City since the killing of George Floyd. The zip-tied protesters were forced to sit in the street for up to an hour as they waited for police buses and vans to collect them. Some were eventually taken to the 40th and 41st precincts in the Bronx, but most were taken to mass arrest processing centers in Queens and Brooklyn, making it harder for lawyers and families to track them down and for protesters to return home once they were released. Most were charged with Class B misdemeanors for curfew violations or unlawful assembly, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or one year of probation, and up to $500 in fines. They were given summonses or desk appearance tickets (DATs), with court dates in early October.

Protesters said that the process took hours, from waiting for the police vans, being transported, waiting to be processed, and then being held in cramped cells. They were not offered food and were given little or no water. Many said their face masks had fallen off during arrest, and they were not given new masks, hand sanitizer, or other protections from Covid-19. They said most police officers at the jails were also not wearing masks. Some of those arrested during the protest were released late on the night of June 4 or in the early hours of June 5; others were held into the afternoon of the next day. One person was held for a full week.

The police also interfered with those providing support for arrested people, preventing them from waiting outside jails and ignoring their inquiries about those who were detained. Jail support volunteers help make sure that everyone arrested is accounted for, track them through the system, provide food and water to those being released, and assist them in returning home. They had permission from the mayor’s office to be out during the curfew.

Human Rights Watch documented at least 61 cases of protesters, legal observers, and bystanders who sustained injuries during the police crackdown in Mott Haven, including lacerations, a broken nose, lost tooth, sprained shoulder, broken finger, split lip, black eyes and bruises, difficulty breathing and seeing because of pepper spray, and potential nerve damage due to the tightness of the zip ties.

Separately, based on analysis of the video footage, Human Right Watch counted 21 incidents of police beating protesters with batons, in many cases while standing atop a parked car; 11 incidents of police officers punching or kicking protesters; 19 incidents of police slamming, tackling, or dragging protesters; 14 incidents of police firing pepper spray directly at participants’ faces; four incidents of police throwing bikes against protesters; and two incidents where police restrained participants with a knee to the face or upper neck.

Most of those injured did not receive any immediate medical care, as police arrested or obstructed volunteer “street medics” who deployed to the protest – healthcare workers dressed in scrubs with red cross insignia. Dozens of people spent hours in detention with untreated wounds and their hands bound behind their backs. They were not given water to wash off the blood. A legal observer described the injuries they observed as people arrested during the protest were released: “Several…had open gashes on their heads, most had bruises and/or cuts, and one had hands that were purple due to the tightness of the cuffs.”

Human Rights Watch is not aware of any police officer who sustained injuries during the protest, based on our interviews with those present and our review of 155 videos. The NYPD did not respond to a Human Rights Watch question about whether any police officers were injured during the protest.

Referring to “the early days of the George Floyd demonstrations,” the NYPD said that “[n]early 400 NYPD personnel were injured during the protests and subsequent riots” and that “65% of our injured personnel had to be treated at a hospital.”

Protesters and observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the police response in Mott Haven was unlike anything they had seen during protests in other parts of the city. Many said they believed the police wanted to send a strong warning to the organizers – outspoken critics of police violence and racism – and to the broader South Bronx community, which has long experienced police abuses and the effects of systemic racism. One protester called it “the militarized policing of people of color,” with the police targeting “one of the poorest, most low-income communities not only in the city, but in the country” during a march in which “most of the participants…were people of color.”

Police conduct during the Mott Haven protest on June 4 amounts to serious violations of international human rights law which the federal, state, and local governments are obligated to observe. These include law enforcement’s excessive use of force, violations of the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. Legal observers and volunteers providing jail support are human rights defenders who are protected under international human rights law and should never be targeted for this work. The attacks on street medics, the obstruction of their work, and the denial of medical care to injured protesters amount to violations of the right to health.

Detaining people in cramped conditions amidst the Covid-19 pandemic posed serious risks to public health and could also be considered a right-to-health violation. While protest organizers handed out masks at the start of the march, and most protesters appear to have been wearing masks during the protest, many of the police officers were not wearing masks, and they pulled the masks off some of the protesters as they were being arrested. Human Rights Watch has urged governments around the world to reduce their jail and prison populations, given the heightened risk of Covid-19 for detainees and staff. For the same reason, authorities should only engage in custodial arrests when strictly necessary. Especially given that those arrested during the Mott Haven protest were not engaged in violence and presented no immediate threat to commit violence, there was no justification for custodial arrests.

Police conduct during the Mott Haven protest appears to also violate civil rights protections of the US Constitution and the NYPD’s own Patrol Guide.

The financial costs to the NYPD and New York City taxpayers of the police crackdown on the protest will likely reach into the millions of dollars. Initially, there are the costs to deploy two helicopters, scores of police officers and supervisors that day – including significant overtime costs – as well as the costs for arresting, transporting, processing, and potentially prosecuting the 263 people who were arrested.

The largest cost, however, will likely come from the resulting misconduct complaints, investigations, and lawsuits. With at least 98 claims filed with the Comptroller’s Office since the protest, Human Rights Watch estimates that lawsuits related to the Mott Haven protest could end up costing New York City taxpayers several million dollars.

Despite the harm caused to the protesters, and violations of international human rights law, constitutional civil rights protections, and the NYPD’s guidelines, police officers and their supervisors are unlikely to face any disciplinary or legal consequences. This is due to a deeply entrenched system that prevents meaningful scrutiny and allows officers and police departments to commit abuses with impunity. 

Existing structures in the United States to hold police officers to account for misconduct and abuses are largely ineffective. Over the years, legislators have passed laws, judges have imposed doctrines, and police departments and prosecutors have implemented policies and practices that systematically protect officers and police departments from meaningful scrutiny. The NYPD is tasked with investigating and disciplining its own employees, and the department has incentives to exonerate individual officers to shield the department from liability, to insulate their behavior from exposure to scrutiny that might limit police power, and to validate its own tactics and methods. Powerful police unions negotiate contracts that give officers protection from discipline and accountability.

In recent years, some limited and often superficial reforms have been implemented to try to address police misconduct and improve accountability within the NYPD, such as requirements around de-escalation and anti-racial profiling training, and the use of body cameras. As with similar incremental reforms in police departments across the country, however, these efforts have failed to change the culture of policing, address systemic racism, or improve accountability for police misconduct.

Instead of cracking down on peaceful protesters and stifling their fundamental freedoms and calls for change, policymakers and elected officials in New York City and across the country should listen to their demands. That requires comprehensive reforms, structural changes, and a reimagining of public safety.

State and local officials should take meaningful action to reduce the role of police in addressing societal problems, including through significant decreases to the size and budget of the police force. They should invest instead in the real needs of communities, including through support to services that directly address underlying issues such as substance use disorders, homelessness, and poverty, and that improve access to quality education, health care, and mental health support. They should empower independent accountability and oversight mechanisms to provide a genuine check on police misconduct and abuse, create a new mechanism to allow for real community engagement in the selection process of the NYPD commissioner, and work to end the detrimental role of police contracts that shield officers who violate rights.     

As one of the protesters said in a live video post at the start of the protest: “We have tons of police cars. We have all these police, waiting in all these helmets and all of that stuff, while people working in a hospital don’t even have masks. Some of those nurses and doctors are wearing garbage bags. Why are we giving $6 billion to the NYPD, really, instead of cutting down that money and bringing it to the impacted community, the underserved community?”

Local governments throughout the United States should do what it takes to end the structural racism and systemic police abuse that people in Mott Haven and communities like it have experienced for far too long.

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