After months of forceful police responses to anti-police brutality protests in New York City, the New York Police Department seemed to be using kid gloves with Orthodox Jews protesting new COVID-19 safety restrictions in Borough Park, Brooklyn on Tuesday night. Like some Black Lives Matter protests, Borough Park protesters congregated in the streets and lit garbage on fire. They even were recorded assaulting a journalist and allegedly beating a counter-protester unconscious.
But whereas Black Lives Matter protests were often met with force and arrests, the NYPD made no arrests Tuesday night. The only obvious difference between Tuesday’s protests and the ones in June is that the Borough Park protesters were white and conservative.
When asked about the assault, Mayor Bill de Blasio said “anyone commits an act of assault, of course there'll be consequences,” but police haven’t taken anyone into custody. Although no directly comparable incidents come to mind from the summer’s protests, two anti-police brutality protesters were promptly arrested and faced federal charges after they threw Molotov cocktails into empty cop cars.
Another video shows protesters harassing and bum rushing a journalist, while yet another shows protesters surrounding and openly antagonizing a deputy sheriff in front of a rubbish fire. The deputy simply simply walked away. In contrast, in May, also in Brooklyn, two cop cars rammed into a group of Black Lives Matter protesters that were blocking their path, with police claiming they were surrounded and felt unsafe.
Over the past several months, the NYPD have sometimes taken heavy-handed, at times violent, approaches to policing protests against police brutality and systemic racism, including mass arrests, shoving and kicking protesters and holding arrested protesters in crowded cells without masks or water for hours. Several high-profile incidents led to some form of discipline for officers involved. A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that police engaged in human rights violations at a June protest in the Bronx, when police penned protesters in with walls of police in front of and behind them, preventing them escaping or willingly dispersing, and began violently arresting them without warning. Although both the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio maintained the police acted appropriately and that they had reason to believe the protest would turn violent, little to no evidence has since emerged to support those claims. The protest was still peaceful when arrests began.
Protesters in Borough Park lit garbage fires in the streets, which many threw their masks into, but the actions did not lead to arrests or altercations with police. Police in June said they tasered a Black teenager because video footage allegedly showed him trying to start garbage fires.
Hundreds of people were illegally in the road blocking traffic on Tuesday, yet there was no evidence of police attempting to disperse the crowd or issuing summonses. Compare that to an abrupt crackdown on a crowd standing on a traffic median in the West Village last month, in which a line of police rushed across the street and arrested several people.
“There is certainly structural racism and the NYPD as an institution has always been racist, but… the problem with policing is that it's inherently discriminatory (and) will never be equally enforced,” Leo Ferguson, movement building organizer at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, said. He added that the goal is not to see police respond violently to other communities, such as the Orthodox protesters, even though he said it was “enraging” to see disparate enforcement. Ferguson said city leaders should have done more to “rein in the NYPD, or in any way, hold them accountable” in the past.
Videos showed many of the Orthodox Jewish protesters were not wearing masks, even while standing right in front of police. None of them were fined, even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for greater enforcement of the mask mandate to combat the severe outbreak of COVID-19 in that neighborhood. The NYPD itself has been subject to repeated complaints that they refuse to wear masks in public.
Apparently absent were the walls of police and massive NYPD presence that so often accompany Black Lives Matter protests. “If I held a rally, and my name and organization was on the flyer, before the protesters even arrive … there are going to be police bicycles, police scooters, there's going to be an NYPD legal team to videotape it, there’s going to be SGR, which is strategic response group,” Chivona Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told City & State.
Newsome said that the Orthodox Jewish protesters, who were overwhelmingly white, benefited from their white privilege. “When something is white-led … police actually respond with respect and courtesy, even when they have to make arrests,” Newsome said, adding that white Black Lives Matter protesters have been the victims of alleged brutality due to their proximity to Black-people and a Black-led movement. “Police target certain individuals who are always at protests and they meet them with aggressive force and they slam them to the ground,” Newsome said. “You will never see this in any other community.”
The NYPD response also seemed in line with how they have treated right-wing protesters and counter protests recently. That is to say, amicably. One video seemed to show the protest organizer, local radio host and City Council candidate Harold “Heshy” Tischler, speaking to protesters through a police car speaker. In front of an NYPD inspector, Tischler said that the community was at “war” and that the protesters were his “soldiers.” The inspector did nothing even as Tischler could have been interpreted as inciting violence. Last month, video footage showed police escorting pro-Trump counter-protesters into a car that subsequently drove through a crowd of anti-police brutality protesters. Police did not charge anyone in the car with a crime. In July, pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” demonstrators in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood allegedly attacked peaceful counter-protesters, but none were arrested.
Police have appeared more likely to arrest Black Lives Matter counter protesters at Blue Lives Matter and similar rallies, sometimes even before the two protests meet.
Jennvine Wong, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said that anecdotal evidence suggests that police engage in different kinds of protest policing depending on who the protesters are, although there are no modern studies of current activist movements to support the claims. “As someone who has just been following these protests this summer, it's a troubling trend that we are seeing, at least in the news,” Wong said. “And so it warrants a closer look at how the NYPD is using their discretion.”
The NYPD did not return a request for comment about why police made no arrests, whether they took a different approach compared to Black Lives Matter protests and about several of the incidents caught on camera Tuesday night.