Last Wednesday, elected officials, civil rights nonprofits, avid copwatchers and grassroots organizers descended upon City Hall Park for a rally demanding the abolishment of the NYPD’s controversial protest-busting Strategic Response Group (SRG). The unit came under scrutiny for their tactics during Black Lives Matter movements, including a June 2020 mass arrest in the South Bronx where protesters were zip-tied and beaten by police according to the NYCLU and Human Rights Watch.
“For the last almost three years, I have seen and experienced the SRG’s violence firsthand,” said NYCLU organizer Isabel Leyva. “In my work, I have had dozens of conversations with community members, leaders and activists. And what has been clear is that the SRG does not keep us safe. For activists who engage in protests and for the monitors who monitor those protests, the SRG being on the ground is a red flag and is a sign of danger.
“It means that a non-violent protest can turn to violence and chaos at the drop of a hat. Over and over again, the SRG inflicts violence and militarized tactics on our community members. This unit is trained to do this.”
The SRG was formed in May 2015 as a counter-terrorism unit. Currently, it operates under the NYPD’s Special Operations Bureau and responds to large-scale events ranging from protests to parades with “multiple missions that include disorder response, crime suppression, and crowd control” according to the department website.
Council members present championed Intro 0277, which would stop the NYPD from deploying the SRG to break up nonviolent protests. The bill’s author, Council District 36’s Chi Ossé, told the Amsterdam News he saw red flags in the unit’s tactics long before he was elected to represent Bed-Stuy and northern Crown Heights.
“The reason I ran for office was actually in the outrage and protest movements of the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “And as someone that was on the ground for a decent amount of days that summer, I witnessed a lot of aggression from the SRG in terms of how they interacted with non-violent Black Lives Matter protesters. As someone that was out there, as well as someone that understands American history and the importance of movements and protesting and speaking up about racial justice and inequality, I found their behavior to be completely inappropriate.
“When it came to the genesis of this bill, this was something that immediately came to mind, because of how undemocratic the SRG can be in terms of interacting with non-violent protesters, as well as the extreme discrimination that I’ve seen in terms of how they interact with Black Lives Matter protesters versus say, an anti-vax protest.”
Ossé wasn’t the only one to mention the SRG treating protesters differently based on what they were protesting. Activists from grassroots movement NYC for Abortion Rights say the SRG is always present at the organization’s clinic defenses, providing escorts for anti-choice protests but manhandling those seeking to protect the Planned Parenthood branches.
Brief fireworks occured at the rally when a pair of men in FDNY t-shirts confronted the speakers. They were promptly drowned out by the rally attendees and pressured to leave.
Last September, the NYCLU produced a report on the SRG, highlighting around 66% of complaints against the unit brought to the Civilian Complaint Review Board between 2015 and 2021 were by Black New Yorkers, although the data does not include allegations made during or after the George Floyd protests.
According to the NYPD, changes were made to the SRG after reviewing and implementing suggestions from organizations like the NYCLU last summer. A police spokesperson said the unit is trained in team tactics and specializes in reducing injuries during arrests, citing less than 10% of complaints against individual officers during the George Floyd protests were members of the SRG. The department says the SRG is now kept at a distance from protesters and can only be called in by a police executive.
“Finding the right balance in policing protests does not come with certain or obvious answers, it is an ongoing process,” added the NYPD spokesperson.
To compile instances of SRG violence, the NYCLU partnered with composer Michael Genese for a digital soundwalk, linked by QR code stickers at the locations of the incidents.
It can be found at https://www.michaelgenese.com/srg-home.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w