New York City

Even black lawmakers get pepper-sprayed

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson discuss their trauma-inducing experiences at a peaceful protest.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie restrained and pepper-sprayed by NYPD officers at Barclays Center on May 29th.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie restrained and pepper-sprayed by NYPD officers at Barclays Center on May 29th. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On May 29, Assemblywoman Diana Richardson and state Sen. Zellnor Myrie attended what they had hoped would be a peaceful protest against police brutality and institutionalized racism at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. However, despite their positions of power as state legislators, both were pepper-sprayed by New York City Police Department officers.

“They (the NYPD officers) didn’t need to know who we were, they didn’t need to know our title, for them to do their job,” Richardson told City & State.

“I have all of the things that you quote-unquote want to avoid trouble and have a bunch of degrees for which I’m paying dearly,” Myrie told City & State. “I have a pretty good pedigree by way of my profession as a state senator. I have no criminal records. I went to a peaceful protest. Regardless of all those things, I was still subject to unjust treatment by the NYPD.”

He added: “I’m hoping that my experience shows people that this isn’t some sort of made up grievance. This isn’t a fake agitation. This is a deep-seated frustration with the system that has ignored us for way too long.”

Both lawmakers recounted that as the sun began to set on that Friday evening, officers with bicycles began surrounding them and the group of protesters they were demonstrating alongside. The officers began pressing the wheels of their bikes into their bodies and then proceeded to pepper-spray them. Richardson, eyes stinging from the chemical irritant, was pulled out of the group by a fellow protester who helped her rinse out her eyes. Myrie, on the other hand, was handcuffed with a zip tie, eyes still burning. Myrie was identified by an officer soon after being brought to an area where other detained protesters had been gathered, but he could not shake the feeling that he shouldn’t have been the only person released.

Richardson and Myrie had intended to act as peacemakers between the officers and the protesters, but then officers chose to act aggressively toward them. “I was absolutely shocked because where we were and who we were amongst, there was nothing happening to warrant that response from the officers present,” Richardson said, as her voice trembled over the phone. “We were assaulted by the NYPD.”

Since being pepper-sprayed, Richardson has been having difficulty dealing with the lasting psychological impacts of the incident. “I’m really emotionally hurt and fragile about the situation, and I have been feeling very down and depressed inside,” the assemblywoman said, audibly trying to hold back tears. “It speaks volumes about what exactly is wrong here in America and how the officers are out of control,” she added.

Myrie said that he is similarly haunted by the experience and has been questioning why the NYPD acted so aggressively. However, both lawmakers are hoping to advance a package of legislation, along with other state lawmakers, that would hold cops more accountable for their actions. Included in the package of bills, which have been around for years, is a bill to repeal Section 50-a, which prevents the public from accessing the personnel records of first responders.

“I think the legislation is a first good step. It’s not one bill by itself; it’s the package and each addresses a very specific issue regarding the negative patterns of behavior we’ve seen with the NYPD. ... People want accountability and transparency,” Richardson said. “Many feel that the NYPD has a badge and license to kill unjustly. When we look at everyone in the streets (protesting), it’s about pain and holding accountability and the legislation puts us on the path to where we want to go.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that he will “sign” a bill to “reform” the 50-a law, but Richardson pointed out that Cuomo could introduce his own bill to repeal it at any time.

“Legislation is one part of the solution,” Myrie said. “We are seeing another solution, protests, advocacy, agitation, as another point. But I do believe that legislation will help move the needle forward (when it comes to addressing systemic racism). I think it’s a step in the right direction to help restore public trust. I think we have to remove disciplinary proceedings from the auspice of the police department so that they (New Yorkers) will feel confident that there are consequences for police combat.”

He added: “We’re talking about a centuries-old problem. People have been mistreated by authorities in this country forever so, no, one piece of legislation is not going to rid us of that DNA. But I think it will start to help change behavior.”