Demand follows rough policing of immigration-related protest on Thursday and other prior incidents of abusive police treatment of protesters
Groups seek oversight of Strategic Response Group’s role in abusive and repressive protest policing and conflation of “anti-terror” and protest
New York, NY – Following the rough policing of an immigration-related protest on Thursday and prior protests in NYC where protesters were subjected to abusive treatment and tactics, a number of civil rights, legal and other organizations recognized MLK Day by calling for the City Council to hold an oversight hearing into the policing of protests. The groups noted the NYPD’s history of abusive policing of protesters, seeking Council oversight for its current form and especially the newly created Strategic Response Group (SRG) that was established in 2015 to dually handle protests and “anti-terror.” It represents steps by the NYPD under the de Blasio administration to militarize the officers who police protests and a disturbing trend towards categorizing and criminalizing protesters as akin to “terrorists.”
“It’s important that New Yorkers be free to protest injustices, including those advanced by the Trump administration, without fear of police aggression,” said Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. “As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we must recognize his important role in protesting injustices in this country and ensure that people in our city today be allowed to do the same without hostility and suppression by police. Unfortunately, the NYPD has too frequently engaged in overly aggressive and abusive policing of protests that effectively attacks New Yorkers’ Constitutional right to protest. This was seen on Thursday as New Yorkers protested the immoral and unjust detention of Ravi Ragbir and has occurred in prior protests. The NYPD’s specialized Strategic Response Group that conflates the policing of ‘anti-terror’ with that of protests is fundamentally problematic and has been at the heart of recent oppressive policing of protests. We urge this City Council under its new Speaker to fulfill its pledge to conduct significant oversight of city agencies by holding a Public Safety Committee hearing on the policing of protests and the Strategic Response Group’s role in the NYPD’s treatment of protesters. It is ironic that Terence Monahan was elevated to the highest uniformed position in the NYPD the same week this happened, since he was found responsible as a commanding officer for leading abusive policing of protesters during the 2004 Republican National Convention, which led to the largest legal settlement for abusive protest policing in history. An internal investigation by the NYPD is inadequate, and the Intelligence Bureau’s appointment to investigate is questionable since it is not the bureau that generally investigates excessive force complaints and it is led by another commanding officer involved in the irresponsible policing of those 2004 RNC protests.”
SRG, formed in 2015, has seemingly institutionalized problematic policing of protests that had previously been used by the NYPD and led to civil rights violations. When SRG was unveiled, then-NYPD Commissioner Bratton revealed that the specialized unit would handle “anti-terror” and protests. When civil rights organizations criticized the department for this, the NYPD made a “clarification” in the following days to say that the unit would not handle both. However, that “clarification” has been proven to be untrue, as SRG has been used precisely to handle protests – and its officers were among those responsible for Thursday’s hyper-aggressive actions that Speaker Corey Johnson described as “out of control.”
This type of abusive and overly aggressive policing of protesters has occurred too frequently in the city’s history but specifically during the de Blasio administration with the involvement of SRG. It has occurred at smaller scale protests that yielded less media attention and larger scale ones, like the 2015 protest when New Yorkers were brutalized while expressing outrage at the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Two state legislators were witness and subject to that abusive policing.
New York City’s history consists of several incidents where protesters were treated abusively and inappropriately by the NYPD. In 2014, the city settled for $18 million in a federal lawsuit against it related to the NYPD’s policing of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. It was the largest settlement in history related to protest policing, according to the NYCLU, which filed the initial cases related to it. Terrence Monahan, who was elevated to NYPD Chief of Department this week, was found responsible by a court and the Civilian Complaint Review Board for abusive policing during those RNC protests as one of the commanding officers. NYPD Chief of Intelligence Thomas Galati was also involved as a commanding officer during the policing of the RNC protests.
The National Lawyers Guild, NYC Chapter, stated: “In 2015, the National Lawyers Guild-NYC Chapter opposed the City Council’s funding of the Strategic Response Group (SRG), the specialized protest unit within the NYPD, arguing that a paramilitary-type unit would stifle political protest and disproportionately harm already vulnerable communities of color in NYC. Since the Council approved the funding, the SRG has grown to over 800 personnel, and funding for militarized equipment and technologies only continues to increase. While we encourage Speaker Johnson’s inquiry into the operations of the SRG, we also want the Speaker to be aware that the SRG’s aggressive tactics seen at Thursday’s protest have been frequently experienced by protestors and others around the city, most recently at a demonstration after Erica Garner’s funeral in Harlem only a few nights before Thursday’s events. In a City aspiring to enter a “New Progressive Era” there is no place for paramilitary-type tactics and the repression of political speech activity. We welcome the City Council’s close scrutiny and oversight of the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group.”
Jin Hee Lee, Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) said: “Last Thursday, the public witnessed a shocking display of undue violence by NYPD officers against non-violent protesters. As our nation commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must not lose sight of the vital role of peaceful protest in the struggle for justice and equality. Having represented Dr. King – during the Birmingham campaign in 1963, in Selma in 1965, and elsewhere throughout the South – LDF stands firmly with all who engage in peaceful advocacy for a more fair and just society. This is especially true during these tumultuous times, when the rights of so many vulnerable and marginalized people are at risk. We urge the NYPD not only to apologize for this abuse, but also to take all necessary actions to ensure such misconduct does not happen again, and call on the City Council to hold an oversight hearing on the NYPD’s policing of protests.”
Mark Winston Griffith, Executive Director of Brooklyn Movement Center, stated: “At a time when the need for social justice action in the U.S. has seldom been more pronounced, the collapsing of anti-terrorist and protest policing under the Strategic Response Group is a threat to the exercise of democracy and the preservation of human rights. Brutality against activism should not be enshrined in the practice of so-called law-and-order. The Brooklyn Movement Center stands with CPR and all those who care about police accountability in calling on the New York City Council to schedule hearings that will result in oversight of the SRG.”
Loyda Colon, Justice Committee Co-Director, said: “We are disgusted by the hyper-aggressive, abusive policing of Thursday’s protest against the unlawful detention of Ravi Ragbir. Unfortunately, however, we are not surprised given the NYPD’s long history of abusive policing of protests and the establishment of the heavily militarized Strategic Response Group (SRG) under de Blasio. The SRG’s multi-pronged purpose- to police protests, terrorism, and “areas requiring an increased police presence”- is indicative of the administration’s move to increase the militarization of the NYPD while at the same time criminalizing low-income communities of color and New Yorkers who are exercising their first amendment rights. Over the past two years Justice Committee members have witnessed and experienced SRG officers abusing and intimidating protesters on multiple occasions, including at vigils and rallies organized by families who’ve lost loved ones to the police. We have also witnessed the SRG in subways and the streets of our neighborhoods, which has the effect of making our communities feel like occupied territory. We, therefore, are calling on the City Council to hold an oversight hearing regarding Strategic Response Group operations both during protests and in our communities.”
Carmen Perez, Founder of Justice League NYC and Co-Chair of the Women’s March, stated: “We were saddened, yet not surprised, to see the overly-aggressive and abusive policing exhibited last Thursday towards protesters, especially in the arrests of City Council members Rodriguez and Williams. This type of violent treatment of protesters has occurred too often in this city. We call on this City Council under Speaker Johnson, who witnessed the egregious behavior of the NYPD on Thursday, to keep its promise of agency oversight by holding a hearing on NYPD’s policing of protests, including the use of force and other tactics against protesters. There needs to be significant oversight of the Strategic Response Group and its role in policing protests.”
Sue Udry, Executive Director of Defending Rights & Dissent, said: “When people care enough about injustice to make their voices heard, police should respond with respect and facilitate the people’s right to assemble and speak out. A vibrant democracy depends on dissent. We are tired of the NYPD’s militarized and abusive response to protests, and call on the City Council to hold an oversight hearing about the NYPD’s policing of protests and the Strategic Response Group unit’s role in the use of abusive tactics.”
Darian Agostini, an organizer for Make the Road New York stated: “The detention of Ravi Ragbir was an inhumane act. It’s another exampled of the ongoing criminalization of Caribbean immigrants who look like like the men and women who raised me and my siblings. The actions of the hyper-militarized and aggressive NYPD officers who met peaceful protesters, calling for Ravi’s freedom, with brutal force is a reaffirmation that Black and brown Caribbean immigrants are still not seen as people deserving of living our lives with dignity and respect, but as problems to be policed and forcibly exiled from our communities.”
Onleilove Alston, Executive Director of Faith in New York, said: “As a Faith and justice organization that works on immigration we are deeply saddened at what happened to our ally Ravi and his supporters on January 11th. We know that NYC has a long history of abusive policing of protests and protesters. It wasn’t that long ago that NYC paid an $18 million settlement – the largest protest settlement in history – for the abusive policing of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. One of our former staff Members was mishandled. This needs to stop and as people of faith we demand that our city leaders respond to this injustice.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights stated: “The hyper-militarized Strategic Response Group’s abuse and arrest of New Yorkers, including City Council Members, standing in solidarity with activist Ravi Ragbir last week is neither new nor surprising. It speaks volumes that the unit tasked with handling protests is the same unit tasked with handling “anti terror” policing. The SRG’s very scope assumes protests are inherently criminal and inevitably leads to the sort of excessive aggression we saw on Thursday. It is in perfect step with the nationwide rise in anti-protest legislation and the infiltration, surveillance, and labeling as terrorist of groups like the Movement for Black Lives and activists fighting for Palestinian rights, animal rights, and environmental justice. The City Council must hold an oversight hearing on the NYPD and SRG policing of protests. It is critical that protests aren’t policed by the same force engaged in anti-terror policing. As the Trump administration continues to abuse the rights of everyone, New Yorkers need to be able to engage in peaceful protest without fear of overzealous reactions from the police sworn to protect them.”