A peaceful protest in Manhattan on July 28 descended into mayhem when plainclothes NYPD officers in an unmarked minivan stormed in, aggressively capturing a trans woman, and driving off without explanation. The scene was caught on video and widely shared on social media, sparking anger from New Yorkers and city leaders who swiftly demanded answers.
The arrest came less than two months after queer protesters were beaten by NYPD officers during a peaceful street protest following a demonstration at the Stonewall Inn.
The video of the incident at 25th Street and Second Avenue immediately drew millions of social media views and generated fear that law enforcement officers in New York City were copying the tactics employed by federal agents in cities like Portland, Oregon, where flailing President Donald Trump, trailing in the polls ahead of his re-election bid, deployed officers in a widely-criticized authoritarian move.
NYC is taking after Portland – a trans femme protestor was pulled into an unmarked van at the Abolition Park protest – this was at 2nd Ave and 25th Street pic.twitter.com/1PDhSYuK9h
— michelle lh࿊࿊q (@MichelleLhooq) July 28, 2020
The individual arrested was later identified as Nikki, also known as “Stickers,” an 18-year-old transgender woman who has experienced housing insecurity. As New Yorkers wondered whether the cops in question were NYPD cops or federal officers, the NYPD issued a statement saying Nikki was “wanted for damaging police cameras during 5 separate criminal incidents in & around City Hall Park.”
Without providing any evidence, the police further asserted that arresting officers were “assaulted” with rocks and bottles. That was not apparent in the video that circulated widely.
Social media posts indicated that Nikki was involved in the Occupy City Hall movement that emerged during the bruising budget battle that unfolded earlier in the summer. Advocates were trying to raise attention to the effort to reduce funding for the NYPD.
Advocates supporting Nikki gathered outside the NYPD’s first precinct, where she was held for hours after being swept up in the early evening. She was finally released around 1 a.m. on July 29, according to numerous social media posts.
Elected officials sounded alarms in the aftermath of the incident, turning to Twitter to express frustration and concern while seeking answers from Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD.
Out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson described the incident as “incredibly disturbing” and later said it was “totally unacceptable that an arrest for minor property crimes was carried out in such an aggressive and disturbing manner.” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Comptroller Scott Stringer also expressed “concern” in tweets posted the evening of July 28.
Numerous replies to Johnson’s tweets about the incident, however, criticized the speaker for approving a budget that critics felt did not adequately reduce funding of the NYPD. Some felt the tweets by city leaders like Johnson would not translate to substantive change.
Social justice advocate Robert Gangi, executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, was among those who responded to one of Johnson’s tweets.
“‘Disturbing.’ ‘Concerning.’ ‘We need answers.’ Common lame responses from pols to videos of brute police violence,” Gangi wrote. “The equivalent of ‘thoughts & prayers’ pols come up with when an American lunatic shoots up a school. No, what we need: [de Blasio] to fire ALL the guilty abusive cops.”
Councilmember Carlina Rivera of Manhattan, who represents the Manhattan district where the arrest was made, said she was “exploring legislation” in response to the incident.
“It’s clear that using an unmarked van and plainclothes officers to make an arrest for vandalism (in the middle of a peaceful protest) is a massive overstep,” Rivera wrote in a tweet.
De Blasio told reporters on the morning of July 29 that cops making the arrest were part of the NYPD’s warrant squad. He said he felt “it was the wrong time and the wrong place to effectuate that arrest,” but further pointed out that the arrest was for damaging property and stressed that “no one is allowed to damage police property.”
“My message to everyone is if you’re out there protesting, protest peacefully,” he said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo also chimed in on the incident on July 29, calling the incident “very disturbing and frightening.”
“I am surprised at this time the NYPD would take such obnoxious action,” he added.
Some city lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with what they feel is a pattern of inaction by the NYPD and de Blasio administration in response to incidents of police brutality that have been on display during protests targeting racial injustice this summer.
Out gay Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, who voted against the July 1 budget and argued that it did not go far enough in holding the NYPD accountable, criticized the mayor after his press conference on the morning after the arrest.
“Tired of watching @NYCMayor once again declare that no one will be held accountable in the face of NYPD abuse/ misconduct,” Van Bramer wrote on Twitter. “He said he will talk to @NYPDShea about this horrific video. As he did when an officer punched a homeless person. Nothing changes.”
Van Bramer said in a tweet on July 28 that de Blasio should have demanded Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s resignation after an NYPD vehicle was seen driving directly into protesters during a demonstration in late May.
Legal advocates were very vocal on social media as the video of the incident surfaced. Chase Strangio, an out trans attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who has played a leading role on behalf of LGBTQ individuals in prominent court cases, said Nikki was “shoved into an unmarked car by the city’s terroristic police force” and further warned that law enforcement would lie about the events that unfolded.
“People have been grabbed and shoved inside police cars for decades,” Strangio tweeted. “Let’s keep up the momentum of rage and resistance for the streets that are always policed like this.”
A GoFundMe page intended to raise money to secure housing for Nikki has drawn more than $25,000 from more than 900 donors.
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