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'It felt like warfare': Protesters detail clashes with police during NY attorney general hearing

America Protests in New York City
Posted at 10:29 AM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 11:34:59-04

NEW YORK CITY — A woman shoved to the ground, a man pepper-sprayed in the face, and another man who was hit by the door of a moving vehicle — these are just some of the violent moments between police and protesters that have come to light on social media in recent weeks.

But on Wednesday, protesters involved in clashes with NYPD officers during demonstrations following the Minneapolis police custody death of George Floyd had a new platform to tell their stories.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has spent the last two weeks gathering personal accounts from demonstrators about their interactions with police, heard testimony from protesters during day one of an online public hearing.

Watch Part 2 of Wednesday's hearing below.

Watch Part 1 of the hearing below.

James was tapped on May 30 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate police-protester interactions, as the early days of peaceful demonstrations in New York City quickly turned volatile.

A curfew was imposed in an attempt to quell the violence, but protesters continued to march in defiance.

Clashes between police and protesters resulted in over 2,000 arrests, an untold amount of property damage and hundreds of injuries on both sides.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea defended the “vast majority” of officers who handled the protests properly, but acknowledged there were individual incidents that needed further investigation and action.

Three officers have since been suspended without pay following NYPD Internal Affairs investigations. One of those officers faces criminal charges, including assault and harassment.

The attorney general, meanwhile, has collected over 100 complaints against police as part of her independent investigation.

Dozens of protesters and several officials testified during the hearing Wednesday, as James continues to examine the details of these police-protester interactions.

There were so many requests to testify, James said, that a second public hearing will be held Thursday at 11 a.m.

James was joined by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Barry Friedman of Policy Policing at NYU Law, who were brought on as advisers.

De Blasio was invited to speak, but declined the opportunity, The City reported.

The president of the city’s Police Benevolent Association said the union has submitted written testimony to James’ office.

“There is no dispute that the events of the past few weeks — particularly the major unrest and violence that occurred May 29 through June 2 — are something nobody in our city wants to see repeated. The images of burning police vehicles, looted storefronts and violent clashes between protesters and police officers will remain etched in our collective memory,” president Patrick Lynch said in a statement Wednesday. “They are symbols of a breakdown of our social contract, failure of the many systems and processes that make up the safe, prosperous city we have all enjoyed for several decades.”

Read on for recaps of some of the testimony. Refresh this page for updates as the hearing continues. Note: The names of those testifying may not have the correct spelling.

Dounya Zayer
Zayer detailed her now-viral assault by NYPD Officer Vincent D'Andraia during a protest near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn around 9 p.m. on May 29. When officers began stampeding she said she started recording on her cellphone and moving backward as directed by police.

D'Andraia told her to get out of the street and then smacked her phone out of her hand, Zayer said.

“Not even a second later he called me a “stupid f-----k b---h . . . and then he shoved me with as much force as he could,” she said.

Zayer fell to the ground and hit her head on the concrete. She had a seizure and was hospitalized. She said she suffered a concussion, nauseous, back pain and an inability to eat and sleep.

“Officer D'Andraia insulted me and then assaulted me,” she said. “There were hundreds of officers around and not a single officer stopped to help me.”

D'Andraia has been suspended without pay but Zayer said he should be fired. His commander has been transferred to a different unit, according to the NYPD. “As if that’s punishment?” Zayer said.

“I understand there are good cops, but where was the good cop to help me? Where was the good cop for George Floyd?” she said. “Where are the good cops that I keep hearing of?”

Dianne Morales
An educator and single mom, Morales said she was peacefully protesting on May 29 with her children, aged 21 and 19, when the demonstration broke down. The NYPD began charging with barricades and the energy shifted abruptly, she said.

Morales said her children were pepper sprayed.

“I watched in horror as they staggered back in pain,” she said. My kids “yielded no weapons or ill intent.”

Morales said she and her children then marched east on DeKalb Avenue and saw officers in riot gear blocking passage.

“The situation felt immediately unsafe,” she said.

Someone broke a glass and an officer slammed the man to the ground, Morales said.

“The army of officers advanced on the crowd … we were surrounded by officers in riot gear,” she said. "One of the officers targeted my son, shoving him repeatedly in the chest without provocation.”

Morales said she instinctively grabbed her son and shouted at the officer, "He is mine."

The officer took a step back and waved them on, “as if there was nothing wrong with his tactics,” she said.

Shantal Johnson
On June 4, Johnson attended a protest in the Bronx on 149th Street. At exactly 8:05 p.m., she said police started attacking protesters with batons.

“I got hit on the lip,” Johnson said.

A man jumped in front of her, she said, so that she wouldn’t continue to be hit.

Johnson said her mask was covered in blood and she also had the blood of others on her clothes.

“Things that I saw, I cannot unsee,” Johnson said. “I saw people get their arms broken, I saw people get their legs broken.”

Johnson said she was able to plead with an officer she recognized from her neighborhood to let her go home and avoid arrest.

She has a photo of the officer who hit her with the baton and will submit it to the attorney general’s office.

Kali Gerber
On May 29, Gerber said she joined a protest that was preparing to march to Barclays Center but they were redirected by police to Lafayette Avenue and Classon Avenue, where they were met by officers in riot gear.

There was one incident when a group of teenagers jumped onto an NYPD vehicle, she said, but fellow protesters and police got them down without damage to the vehicle.

Police then shouted for the protesters to move back, she said, but gave protesters no time to comply with the demand. Gerber said police used shields, batons and pepper spray against the peaceful crowd.

The use of pepper spray, causing coughing, drooling and tearing eyes, put protesters at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, she said.

Many protesters sustained severe head injuries from the use of shields and batons by police, according to Gerber.

Gerber said her nursing skills kicked in and she began helping other protesters who were injured. At one point, she called an ambulance for one man who had been beaten with a baton, she said, but police would not allow the vehicle to pass through a line of police to get to the victim.

“I could physically see the ambulance on the other side of the police line,” she said, adding the ambulance had to find another way around to the location which delayed aid for about 20 minutes.

Matthew Gehring
Gehring submitted a video of police arresting him on his own front steps in Manhattan on June 4 around 8 p.m. for allegedly violating the curfew.

Gehring said he and his wife had crossed the street to record a police-protester interaction and then went back to their apartment steps on Central Park West. At that time, he said police crossed the street and arrested them.

The video shows police arresting him as his neighbors yell that he lives in the building and should be let go.

His wife was also arrested, and allegedly told “deal with it snowflake,” by her arresting officer.

Gehring also noted none of the officers involved in his arrest wore masks and there was a severe lack of masks and personal protective equipment in the jail.

Morgan Phillips
Phillips attended a vigil and march on June 4 that started in McCarren Park.

He said the crowd was allowed to peacefully march for a while but then they were “kettled” on a street and he was pushed to the ground and hit with a baton.

Phillips said he was also body slammed and suffered a severe head injury. An officer saw his injury and assisted him.

“He definitely protected me,” he said. “He seemed to be genuinely worried about me.”

Phillips was taken to a hospital and received five staples to his head to close the wound. He was then taken to jail and released around dawn.

He was issued a summons for breaking curfew.

Emily Jaeger
During a protest on June 4 near McCarren Park, Jaeger said police redirected the crowd to a barricaded street and then rushed at them as the protesters began to leave the area.

Jaeger said she was hit from behind and tackled to the ground.

“Two police officers had their knees on my back,”she said. “I couldn’t breathe.”

Jaeger said her hands were restrained so tight that she lost feeling in them and did not regain feeling in one hand for several days.

While being transported, she witnessed another person whose hands were tied so tight they were turning blue and they were screaming but she said no officers helped them.

She also testified that police took masks away from protesters when they arrived at Brooklyn central booking.

Ryan Fiedler
On June 4, Fiedler said he was arrested while peacefully protesting and left in tight plastic restraints for several hours, causing nerve damage.

He said he witnessed several officers hitting a person with their batons and his arresting officer charged at him when he yelled at them to stop.

Fiedler said he was also choked with a baton against an NYPD vehicle before he was arrested. He was issued a summons for breaking curfew.

Matt Binder
During a protest in Whitestone, he witnessed an NYPD officer flash a hand gesture that is known to be linked to white supremacy.

The protest was peaceful until this officer riled up the crowd in this way, Binder said. The officer also flashed the hand gesture before leaving the protest, as ordered by his commanding officer, according to Binder.

James said the attorney general's office has received complaints about the officer’s actions and it is under investigation.

John Darsh
Darsh is the executive director of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates NYPD misconduct.

In a typical month, the CCRB receives about 400 complaints. In the last two weeks, the agency has received more than 700 complaints related to 170 unique incidents, Darsh said.

“This is bigger than these moments,” Darsh said before calling for systemic reform of the NYPD.

Sarah Skelton
Skelton said she attended several demonstrations over the last few weeks, but the most violent interactions she witnessed and experienced were on May 29. Near Fort Greene Park, she witnessed an NYPD vehicle drive toward a crowd of protesters.

“I thought he was going to hit somebody,” she said.

Later that night, she was part of another demonstration around the area of Park Slope when she said police told the demonstration to break up and charged at the crowd. Skelton said she was corralled up a narrow street and was pushed from behind by an NYPD officer who yelled at her to keep moving.

“I have a video of someone standing in the middle of the road and about 20 cops swarming,” she added.

The next day, during a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge, Skelton said she encountered police officers who covered their badge numbers and refused to uncover them.

Michael Sternfeld
Just after 9 p.m. on June 3, Sternfeld said he was in Cadman Plaza when police began to break up the protest.

Sternfeld said the police actions were “horrifying” and the NYPD did not give any notice before moving in on protesters. He said he was slammed on the pavement by police while trying to record another officer “beating” another protester.

Sternfeld said he still experiences pain in his tail bone and elbow.

Sternfeld said it was a stark difference to a curfew-breaking protest he attended the night before, which was largely peaceful as police left demonstrators alone.

He also admonished police for a lack of professionalism and humility.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez
The congresswoman criticized the NYPD for their actions and expressed outrage over videos of inappropriate behavior toward protesters.

The videos “speak to a culture of impunity in our police department,” she said.

Velazquez called for a demilitarization of police departments nationwide.

“When police are equipped like an occupying army, they act like one and treat their citizens like an occupying enemy,” she said. “We need a complete reexamination of how policing is done.”

John Gulick
Gulick, of Buffalo, said he does not condone any violence by police but he also does not support the dismantling of police departments. He said police need to enforce “law and order” when thousands of protesters congregate to ensure the safety of everyone.

“De-escalation is the key element here,” he said.

Gulick said he would support reforming departments, and pointed to the suggestion of a national database of police disciplinary data.

“But to dismantle our police force. I would be very displeased if anything like that would happen,” he added.

Whitney Hu
Near Pacific Street and Flatbush Avenue on May 29, Hu witnessed an officer shove a woman, identified as Dounya Zayer, to the ground. None of the officers stopped to see if the woman was OK, she said.

Zayer had a seizure before medics arrived and Hu said the only people who were helpful were members of the FDNY. She said she accompanied Zayer to the hospital and has witnessed the lasting effects of her head injury.

Later that night in Flatbush, she said she treated 15 people who had been severely maced or beaten back by batons. Many were under the age of 18, she said.

“It felt like warfare,” she said.

Hu also described a harrowing incident in which police advanced on a 14-year-old girl who was frozen in fear. She said she pulled the girl out of the way but an officer chased her and tried to pull the girl from her arms. Another protester then threw something, Hu said, and they ran while the officer was distracted.

Hu also testified that she spent time helping protesters after they were released from jail in Brooklyn. She said there were many people who were illegally held for several days without proper water or medical care, including pregnant women.

Alan Williams
Williams described two times when he was arrested during protests: on May 29 in Brooklyn and on May 31 near Bryant Park in Manhattan.

Before the first arrest, Williams said he was indiscriminately pepper sprayed during a peaceful but tense demonstration near the Barclays Center. During his arrest in Manhattan, he said he witnessed other protesters being tackled and several people suffered head wounds.

Williams also submitted a video of police using an arrest tactic called “kettling” to arrest protesters on 136th Street in Mott Haven in the Bronx on June 4. He said he was on his way to a protest in Manhattan when a friend called and said they didn't feel safe and asked that he pick them up.

"Even if they were violating curfew, they should have been given a chance to go home," he said. "They clearly had been trapped and were unable to move before the curfew went into effect."

Williams said he also witnessed a medic in scrubs placed under arrest.

Jeffrey Castillo
While protesting in Manhattan on June 3, Castillo said he was targeted by police on 14th Street heading toward the West Side who tried to knock him off his bicycle using their vehicle.

Later that day, he suffered bruising during his arrest and he still has marks on his wrists more than a week later from the restraints that were left on for four hours.

Castillo said he believes he was racially profiled for being black and gay.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams
Public Advocate Williams said city and state officials responded to protests with the very actions demonstrators were protesting against.

In his testimony, Williams said most protests were calling out over-policing, laws that create tension between law enforcement and the public, and potential victims not being believed.

The response, he said, was “bad.”

Police were deployed, and reinforced all three of those protest points as a response to them, Williams testified.

He also said instead of police focusing on stopping looting or arson, areas that have been points of contention during protests, officers seemed dedicated to stop protesters blocking traffic — not the best use of resources, he said.

In addition, the curfew raised tension, he said, and provided an opportunity for more over-policing.

Officers, he said, frequently yelled “mayor’s curfew” or “time to go home” without warning, before pushing, shoving or penning peaceful protesters.

He said officers seemed to have no directive, and the mayor and governor seemed unwilling to listen to criticism.

During the question and answer period, Williams said it was his understanding that the state sent thousands of officers to the city to provide assistance.

He further described a militarized presence, where police were armed with riot gear and metal pens were used to barricade protesters, like at Barclays center.

When asked about recent executive orders and legislation enacted statewide to combat police brutality and enact reform, Williams said more needed to be done.

“It’s always hard to say thank you to things that should’ve happened years ago,” he said.

Following her questioning of Williams, Lynch departed the hearing.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie
Myrie said he was pepper sprayed while at a protest at Barclays Center attempting to diffuse tension between protesters and police.

Myrie said he attended the May 29 peaceful protest in Brooklyn both in solidarity with constituents, and also as a black man in America.

“I had hoped that by attending, I could help keep peace and de-escalate when things got out of control,”he said.

Myrie, who was wearing a neon shirt with his name and title on the back, said he was at the front of the line between police and protesters when the NYPD began ordering protesters to move back.

He said he communicated to officers that he and protesters were obeying orders, though the NYPD began to get aggressive, he said.

At least one officer hit him on the back, another pushed and shoved him backward, and finally, an officer pepper sprayed him directly in his face, he testified.

He was then surrounded by other officers and put in handcuffs.

“I feared for my life,” he said.

He was not processed or jailed, he said, because officers learned of his official role with the state.

He said policing at these protests does not follow the city belief of community policing, and instead featured uniformed officers arriving with an antagonizing position, ready to escalate and inciting violence.

State Sen. Kevin Parker
Parker proposed a new emergency response for 911 to provide a mental health professional during necessary emergencies.

Parker said when those in need call 911, there are three responses: medical emergency, fire emergency and police emergency.

He said a new bill he’s proposed will create a fourth response: a mental health emergency. Instead of police being dispatched for these emergencies, it’d be a mental health professional that responds.

Parker also said he was appalled by the videos he saw, and that police ignited tensions on peaceful protesters and used the very behaviors they were protesting against were used against them.

City Councilmember Donovan Richards
Councilmember Richards, who also chairs the committee on public safety, said black New Yorkers have been told through policies for years that sacrificing black civil liberties was necessary for public safety.

“We are tired...but the work must continue,” he said.

Richards said a protest at the Rockaways in his district did not have any notable incidents of brutality or violence, which he credited to the community’s relationship with community affairs officers in the 101st, 103rd and 105th precincts.

He said outside agitators were identified early, and community protesters were clear they did not support those individuals.

What happened in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, he said, was different.

Richards called out the NYPD for their lack of PPE at protests, and said officers are frequently not wearing masks when policing.

State Sen. Leroy Comrie
At a peaceful rally in Hollis, Queens, Comrie said he saw video of an anti-crime officer seemingly looking to incite violence from New Yorkers.

Following the protest, Comrie said people remained in the area. At that time, an anti-crime officer was holding his baton and spit on the ground, seemingly looking to incite violence from these New Yorkers that had recently protested.

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi
Biaggi, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

The senator said she was repeatedly assured that those providing legal, jail and medical support were to be exempt from curfew orders while assisting protesters.

However, she said there were numerous accounts of harassment of those individuals by police, or in some cases, arrests.

Assemblyman Michael Blake
Blake said he saw a "mini war zone" in the South Bronx on June 4.

After the curfew had fallen, protesters dispersed and were moving. Later in the evening, Blake said officers stopped protesters.

He said there were some third party individuals not connected with the larger protests that had Molotov cocktails and similar items with them and did push officers.

But Blake said the response was not limited to those agitators. Officers swung batons on crowds, standing on cars to hit people from above, he said, claiming their response was to swing, hit and hurt people rather than to de-escalate.

Borough President Eric Adams
Borough President Adams testified that — as a former NYPD lieutenant — officers not equipped to handle peaceful protests in New York communities, and called the NYPD ill-prepared to respond to the types of nonviolent situations seen in recent weeks.

He said not all officers are fit to be responded to all situations, including those that have created tension at peaceful protests. Just because you hold a certain job in a career field doesn’t mean you can do all jobs in that career field, he said, making the comparison the specific skills and demeanor of an ER doctor versus other medical professionals.

He said he has seen evidence of several inappropriate maneuvers, including in protests at Brooklyn Borough Hall. He also testified that he saw ICE agents near one protest.

Recent action taken by state and city leaders, including legislation and policy changes, are pieces of a larger need, he said.

He called for community boards to interview and approve powerful precinct commanders that are in their neighborhoods. He also sparked a discussion about greater evaluation of fitness of officers.

State Sen. John Liu
Liu identified two incidents that he witnessed during peaceful protests on May 31 in New York City.

Liu said he was with protesters marching over the Manhattan Bridge and on Canal Street, purportedly headed to Foley Square.

After turning onto Church Street, Lui said the crowd was stopped from going any further with no reason given.

After a few minutes, he said, for no obvious reason, police surged into the crowd and knocked people over. He said several individuals were hurt, and it was not evident why police surged into the peaceful crowd.

In another situation in the same crowd, Liu said protesters heading to Union Square were stopped, and they were told their peaceful protest was in fact violent.

Protesters sat on the ground, Liu testified. He said without warning, police again charged forward, unprovoked, and many people were hurt.

“That’s a tactic that just does not belong in a civil society,” he said.

State Sen. Brian Benjamin
Benjamin described a scenario where police guided peaceful protesters onto a New York City highway, only to charge them with being there.

Benjamin said a May 30 peaceful protest was headed toward Central Park. Officers, he said, blocked off entrances to Central Park and other areas, guiding nonviolent protesters to the FDR Drive. From there, many were arrested for being a pedestrian on a highway and for disorderly conduct, he said.

Benjamin asserted that actions he’s seen in the past few weeks showed the NYPD was more concerned with policing protesters and silencing First Amendment rights than stopping looting.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera
Rivera said there was someone in her district that was a victim on the same knee-on-neck maneuver as Floyd, who died in police custody.

Her constituent is alive and well, though she affirmed that the officer who used the maneuver remains on the force.

She said in situations she is aware of, the NYPD ignored calls for help from looting victims and instead instigated peaceful protesters.

Conrad Blackburn
Blackburn, from the Bronx Defenders, said he saw, and was victim to, police officers using their bicycles as weapons against protesters, swinging them. He said mass arrests in Mott Haven included medics and legal volunteers. In one case, he said a legal observer was body slammed by an officer after he ripped her essential worker papers from her hands.

Anthony Posada
Posada, of the Legal Aid Society, said a client of his was headed home from his job as an essential worker. During that time, he was arrested for unlawful assembly — though he was not protesting — and was held for 7 days, accused of violating his parole.

He was one of several people transferred to other boroughs and/or held for hours without resources or access to counsel.

Additional testimony
Leaders from several public defender groups, legal observer groups, trade groups and public advocacy groups discussed incidents where legal observers or journalists were hindered from doing their jobs at protests or detained or arrested. It was also asserted that Black and Brown protesters were treated differently that White protesters.

Andy Izenson, of the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild, said about nine legal observers from his organization — dispatched to a protest to watch encounters between citizens and police officers, document them, and receive information to provide jail release assistance to protesters arrested — were detained by police. They were intentionally faced backward, so they could not see interactions and therefore could not do their job.

Leaders from Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society said individuals were illegally detained for more than the 24-hour period allowed, and many people were transferred away from the borough where the went into police custody; their families and counsel did not know there whereabouts.

A community leader in Albany said she was hit with a tear gas canister attempting to help someone said to me injured by a rubber bullet at a protest.

A Bronx-based community advocate said helicopters that flew low to the ground at demonstrations created "deafening noise," and at one time, officers tried to provoke protesters, telling them to "do something."

Many called for change, excluding divesting police funds to other community services.

A second day of hearings is set for Thursday beginning at 11 a.m.