“Even in a health pandemic, this system––under the illusion of a progressive mayor, Bill De Blasio, and the nation’s new voice against Trump, Gov. Andrew Cuomo––still finds a way to brutalize the most vulnerable,” charged Tyrik Washington, the award winning filmmaker and activist. “Videos of cops punching, kicking and tackling Black youth are deplorable, beastly, and demonic. This further drives a wedge between an already fractured community relationship.”
A recent incident caught on cellphone video involving an NYPD officer physically assaulting an unarmed Black civilian continues raising serious questions about blatantly uneven social distancing enforcement.
For the last two months, New Yorkers have been ordered at the city and state level to keep at least six feet of distance between each other in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Recent incidents have caused Mayor Bill de Blasio to call on the NYPD to enforce the orders. But the disproportionate response has raised questions and ire.
Mayor Bill De Blasio ran for office in 2013 on a platform of destroying racial divisions and “take dead aim” at New York City’s “tale of two cities.”
“A tale of two cities has never been more prevalent at a time when America’s biggest city and the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic should be united,” said Council Member Farah N. Louis. “As we cope with our new reality, Black and Brown communities have been outspoken and outraged by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and our City’s response to this pandemic.
“While white New Yorkers gathered en masse this weekend in Hudson River Park could be issued a summons or even a mask, a Black bystander near a deli was assaulted. It is unacceptable for NYPD officers to enforce the rules––however they deem fit––in different zip codes. All New Yorkers deserve courtesy, respect, professionalism when interacting with officers sworn to protect and serve.”
“If you have a large gathering, hundreds of people, thousands of people than we’re not even going to have a discussion,” de Blasio said on April 29. “It’s just we’re going immediately to summons. And if we have to use the arrest, we’ll use arrests.”
De Blasio made that statement following a massive gathering in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where reports said up to 2,500 members of the Hasidic Jewish community gathered for a rabbi’s funeral. There were no arrests and an alleged 12 tickets were issued. Last month 60 Black youths were given summonses at a gathering in Canarsie.
Then on Saturday, May 2, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, NYPD officers apparently assaulted three people while trying to enforce the 6 foot distance rule.
Officer Francisco X. Garcia is being accused of using excessive force against 33-year-old Donni Wright during NYPD enforcement of the social distancing mandate at the intersection of 9th St. and Avenue D.
Cellphone video shows three plainclothes NYPD officers forcibly detaining a man and a woman before Wright is slammed to the ground.
While one officer is putting handcuffs on the man, Garcia is seen using his knee to pin him down.
Prior to the encounter, the man and the woman were on the street and appeared to not be doing anything before police approached them and first detained the woman.
Bystanders are seen rushing to see what’s going on and told to stand back. Garcia then gets up with his Taser in hand and addresses bystander Wight behind him.
“Get back,” Garcia says while activating the taser. “Move the f–k back right now. Move the f–k back! Move the f–k! What are you flexin’ for? Don’t flex!”
Garcia then charges Wright, punching and then slapping him in the face; and punches him in the side and slaps him again. Wright is then dragged to the ground and detained by Garcia and another officer.
Garcia is then telling those watching to “clear the f—in street” before several uniformed officers arrive on the scene.
“The disparity is blatant,” slammed Andre T. Mitchell, founder/executive director of Man Up! Inc. “If there was anyone looking for evidence of this in the past it stands out like a sore thumb now than ever before. How they [NYPD] police in Williamsburg and the East Village is totally different than how they police in Brownsville, ENY, Fort Greene, South Jamaica, Central Harlem and the South Bronx. It’s as if they have received totally different trainings on social distancing orders. This has to Stop and End yesterday––before it gets any worse. The overwhelming amount of grief and pain we as the Black and Brown communities have been dealing with before and after COVID-19––compounded by NYPD’s extreme aggressive police harassment and violent tactics by certain ‘stuck in the past’ ‘punk’ members of the department––can and will only cause a wave of justifiable backlash against the police that none of us in this city want to witness.”
Council Member Louis declared, “I am calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to hold ALL officers involved in egregious and inhumane treatment of Donni Wright accountable and assure that our communities will be treated fairly.”
Activist Washington stated, “The NYPD has now found yet, another way to turn the health pandemic of COVID-19 into another way of criminalizing Black and Brown people; as if you can police your way into better health. This toxic logic shines in deep contrast in which some fellow white New Yorkers are accommodated by the police with a mask and a smile, as they too, dismiss the social distancing guidelines. This unbalanced police enforcement is not coincidental, nor happen-stance, but reminds us all too often of the very sick nature of policing in Black and Brown communities. It has been reported that over 1,000 New York police officers were dispatched over the weekend to enforce social distancing rules. Yet, photos of the NYPD obliging mostly white park attendees who were tanning, soaking up the sun’s rays, laying out on the greenery, and more than likely spreading COVID-19, were not met with the same brutal force.”
While former cop Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the mayor, and Cuomo did not respond to the Amsterdam News office about this issue of perceived racism and bias in this time of COVID, the NYPD did.
Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell, DCPI spokesperson sent the statements made by Police Commissioner Dermot Shea at Monday’s media availability with Mayor De Blasio:
Asked specifically about the issue Commissioner Shea said, “Yeah, we’ve gotten this question a couple of times in different forms. We are absolutely committed to being as transparent as possible. I would anticipate releasing quite a bit of information detailed down to the precinct level, possibly as even as different parks. We’re just working through the requests that we have received as well as, you know, working it through legal. But for the reporters that are on the call listening, I would absolutely anticipate that information being released. Sorry, it’s taken so long.”
Washington suggested, “While there may be some Black leadership that feels the need to be passive and calculated in responding to this blatant act of racism, that submissive weakness only adds fuel to an already brewing powder keg that is ready to explode.”
Louis said, “The social distancing rules apply to all New York City residents without exemption, but recent incidents of noncompliance and inconsistent NYPD enforcement have proven otherwise. This is a dangerous precedent that further strains community-police relations in Black and Brown communities who for generations have been beaten, brutalized, and villainized because of their skin color. We cannot continue to bear the mental, emotional and physical scars inflicted by NYPD officers who demonstrate a blatant disregard for their own internal protocols.”
Assembly Member Charles Barron, Council Member Inez Barron, Community Board 5 Chair Andre T. Mitchell and other community leaders are demanding that Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez investigate and prosecute what they are calling, “Racist pandemic police brutality.”
Barron told the Amsterdam News that after viewing videos of police brutality in the 73rd and 75th precincts in Brownsville and East New York and across the city in Black communities, “the officers are guilty of excessive use of force in dealing with social distancing in the Black community.” The Brooklyn Assemblyman, who is still in recovery from his coronavirus diagnosis continued, “Some members of the Jewish community can gather in the thousands and not be brutalized or even given a summons, but a few members of the Black community gather and we’re brutalized, arrested and given summons regarding social distancing.
“This racist madness must stop! D.A. Gonzalez your silence is deafening. Do the right thing, investigate and arrest those officers that are obviously guilty. These officers should be fired and sent to jail. We demand Justice!”
In response to an Amsterdam News inquiry, Oren Yaniv, Brooklyn DA Gonzales’ director of communications offered, “I can tell you that Antonio Rivera [from the 75th precinct incident] was arraigned and released without bail and we declined prosecution of all the others who were arrested in the two incidents you mentioned. I would refer questions about police enforcement policies to the Police Department.”
Louis continued, “Racial bias has no place in community policing, yet communities of color have received more summonses and are victims of excessive use of force by the NYPD. The answer to aiding and monitoring public adherence to social distance policies is not more enforcement, but rather a standardized approach and merely just communicating the policy to keep all New Yorkers safe.”
Officials from The Legal Aid Society say that Garcia has been sued seven times for misconduct, and six of those lawsuits have been settled for a combined $182,500, according to CAPstat.
“This certainly isn’t the first time and this isn’t even the first time in this pandemic that we’ve seen evidence of discriminatory policing by the NYPD,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at The Legal Aid Society. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Garcia should no longer be on the job; interviewed on cable news television channel NY1, de Blasio said, “if an individual officer isn’t doing the right thing, well then there’s clearly disciplinary structures and evaluative structures to determine if that officer should keep doing that job or not… Can they serve the city and the people, the city the right way? That’s what matters much more than any financial consideration.”
Two weeks ago, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ office requested the release of demographic data related to arrests and enforcement actions taken by the NYPD for violations of social distancing or mask mandates in a letter to de Blasio. Williams wants the number of summons and arrests conducted related to COVID-19 mandates, by race and zip code.
“The incidents we saw this past weekend in our parks and on our streets and social media feeds have made it abundantly clear that the same historical disparities in police enforcement are reflected in and magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic response,” Williams said. “This inequity is made clear when some violating social distancing receive a mask while others receive a summons, when some are warned and others violently arrested.”
In a statement, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said that NYPD officers should not be tasked with enforcing social distancing orders. He says city officials have given officers “vague guidelines” and “mixed messages” and officers have to fend for themselves.
“Nobody has a right to interfere with a police action,” Lynch said. “As the weather heats up and the pandemic continues to unravel our social fabric, police officers should be allowed to focus on our core public safety mission. If we don’t, the city will fall apart before our eyes.”
CEO and founder of Harlem’s Street Corner Resources Iesha Sekou tells the AmNews that she’s concerned some NYPD officers are using tactics reminiscent of the stop & frisk.
“People who do not have the mandated PPE, due to lack of resources, are being stopped by the police and are subject to unwarranted arrests,” she said. “The NYPD needs to work with our community in a non-punitive manner, giving assistance and resources wherever possible. They should not harass people nor should they make unwarranted arrests.”
Harlem State Sen. Brian Benjamin said to the AmNews that there appeared to be a double standard when it comes to enforcing social distancing rules.
“With the weather getting nicer, people want to be outside, which is understandable. But we are seeing pictures from wealthier neighborhoods where large crowds can gather and be unbothered by police, whereas communities like mine are being harassed for much less,” he said. “We cannot have an uptown and downtown response to COVID-19 in anyway, not in healthcare, not in service delivery, and certainly not in policing. That sort of behavior has to stop.”