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Council Member Helen Rosenthal Drops Out of 2021 Comptroller Race


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Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, is dropping out of the 2021 race for Comptroller, she told Gotham Gazette in an interview Friday morning.

Next year, the entire city government – the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents and 51 City Council seats – will be on the ballot. Rosenthal is currently serving her second term representing District 6 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and cannot run for reelection due to term limits. She was among several Democrats seeking to replace outgoing Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is also term-limited and is running for mayor.

Rosenthal said she no longer sees a path to victory. “I think the campaign was going very well in 2019. We were very well received and it was very encouraging,” she said of the initial phase of her run. “But at the beginning of 2020, I knew that I had to hit some pretty significant benchmarks in order to have a viable campaign. And I knew that there was going to be a lot of work involved and I was going to have to really invest a lot in the work. And the way 2020 unfolded, it became very clear that I wasn’t going to be able to hit those marks.”

Rosenthal said she needed to make community-based and political connections throughout the city that she did not pursue earlier this year, instead staying fully focused on her work as a Council member. She also lags behind other candidates in fundraising and was going to have to make that ground up throughout this year and into next ahead of the June 2021 primary that is all but certain to choose the next Comptroller, the city's chief fiscal officer, given Democrats’ seven-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans.

Having previously served for seven years in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, Rosenthal has particular concerns about the city’s current budget and fiscal situation and said she was able to use her candidacy to elevate those issues.

The city had to fill a $9 billion revenue gap to balance the recently approved $88.2 billion budget and Rosenthal was among those who expressed support for a proposal put forward by Mayor de Blasio to allow the city to borrow funds for operational expenses. Though that idea has not yet been approved by the state Legislature, the city may still need that recourse if revenue deteriorates further and the federal government does not bail out the city, she said.

“Especially in the lead up to the passage of the fiscal 2021 budget, I was able to amplify my calls for borrowing, for opportunities for the state to pass laws to raise money, in particular from the Stock Transfer Tax rebate, and it’s given me the platform to talk about the investments that the city has to make in order for the economy to recover,” she said.

Rosenthal voted “no” on the budget because, owing to the lack of borrowing power, the city was forced to make cuts to services and programs for the most needy. “I think over the next six months, we have to bring together support for borrowing in the city,” she said. In her remarks when voting no, she critiqued Stringer for his opposition to the city borrowing, which appears to have had some impact on the state’s hesitance. Rosenthal also said the budget did not go far enough to cut funding from the NYPD and invest in youth services.

Rosenthal hasn’t decided yet whether she will throw her support behind another candidate. “It’s very much too soon and we’d have to be much closer to the election,” she said. “Given everything that’s going on around us, I think the field is still in evolution.”

Other candidates include fellow City Council Member Brad Lander from Brooklyn, Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymember David Weprin of Queens. State Senator Kevin Parker from Brooklyn has also filed initial papers to run but his campaign has not shown any activity. There are currently no Republicans who have declared a comptroller campaign.

As of the last campaign filing, all the way back in January, Lander had $250,914 in campaign cash, Benjamin had $252,225 and Weprin had $84,927 (he also owes the city Campaign Finance Board $320,000 from past fines). Rosenthal had just $13,808 (she has raised $136,520 and spent $122,712). Parker has yet to raise any funds. None of those totals take into account the public matching funds that will eventually be available to qualifying candidates. A new campaign finance filing deadline is imminent, the numbers from which will provide information about fundraising and spending thus far this year.

Rosenthal said she hopes that the remaining candidates will pay attention to her campaign platform. “I laid out some pretty good ideas and a clear path to balancing the city’s budget in a way that doesn’t hurt people, and that story’s not going to end for the next at least two or three years,” she said.

With eighteen months left in her term, Rosenthal said she has “a lot of work ahead of me.” Along with her focus on fiscal and budget matters, which has included a lot of attention on contracting and nonprofit service providers, Rosenthal has also led the Council’s Committee on Women, which under her leadership has in part focused on deficiencies in how the NYPD handles sexual assault.

Rosenthal said she does not have any immediate plans for what comes next, though she wants to remain involved in public service. She does not intend to run for another elected position in 2021.

“I will be looking for a job where it’s a good fit, where the skills I bring can be meaningful and used as a public service. And we’ll see where that takes me,” she said.

[Read: 2021 Comptroller Candidates Offer Differing Ideas for Addressing City's Fiscal Woes]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

'I Actually Have to Negotiate a Budget': Corey Johnson and the Challenge of Running for Mayor as City Council Speaker


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Corey Johnson, with Bill de Blasio watching (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Speakers of the New York City Council don’t fare well when running for citywide office. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who previously held the job, was unsuccessful in a crowded 2019 special election for public advocate. Christine Quinn, the speaker before her, placed third in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary that saw Bill de Blasio advance toward the mayoralty. Gifford Miller, Quinn’s predecessor, similarly lost in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary to Fernando Ferrer, and Peter Vallone came in third in the 2001 Democratic primary.

Corey Johnson, the current City Council Speaker, is hoping to buck that trend as he pursues his own mayoral bid in 2021, when both he and de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current offices. But like Council speakers before him, his leadership of the city’s 51-member legislative body is likely to be a double-edged sword.

Johnson has been able to achieve major goals and advance populist ideas that could serve as the foundation of a fruitful campaign platform. But, by nature, his position requires consensus-building among a large, diverse group of lawmakers and compromising with the mayor. That was the case when he brokered the recently approved $88.2 billion city budget and found himself balancing the positions held by Council members and the demands of a movement against police brutality, and delivered a compromise that broadly angered people on the left and the right, and which even he admitted he was disappointed with.

“I love being speaker,” Johnson said in an interview earlier this week, discussing criticism he’s received, including from others in government. “I can't speak to other people's jobs, but as speaker I'm able to have a big impact on policy and legislation and the budget in New York City, and I'm grateful for that. It's a challenging job that requires me to take positions on issues on almost a daily basis. And there's an upside to that but also a downside to that because some of these things are complicated, nuanced, and politically fraught but still exciting and you still have the ability to impact the city and public policy in a significant way.”

Johnson’s potential mayoral opponents, particularly Comptroller Scott Stringer, had harsh words for the budget deal, especially with regard to the NYPD picture.

“Politics is politics sometimes,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s anything new that potential opponents are going to try to use issues and votes and the budget process against me or other Council members. That’s probably happened for time immemorial so I don’t think it’s unique to me. But, at the same time, being speaker, I actually have to negotiate a budget. I actually have to negotiate legislation, I have to support members who are negotiating land use deals. These things are much more under the microscope and politically electrified than what other elected officials have to deal with on a daily basis.”

In past interviews, when asked about the trend of City Council speakers struggling to become mayor, Johnson has pointed out it is a small sample size and that no comptroller has become mayor in decades, while no borough president has become mayor since David Dinkins won in 1989. Along with Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is the other current elected official expected to run for mayor in the 2021 election.

With the city facing a $9 billion revenue gap, Johnson faced the toughest budget that the Council has had to deal with in his time as speaker. The city had been flush with cash for years through a robust recovery after the Great Recession, allowing for massive increases in spending. Now, the mayor was proposing cuts to social services, youth development, education, and more. There was also a growing demand from police reform advocates that the city cut $1 billion from the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget.

Even as Johnson embraced that advocacy, he could not obtain the level or types of cuts he was pushing for as he cobbled together the votes for the budget. It was ultimately approved 32-17 just past the midnight deadline for the July 1 start of the 2021 fiscal year. It included pledged cuts to police overtime spending with no specific plan to achieve them, a small reduction in officer headcount, and hundreds of millions in costs shifted by moving school safety back to the purview of the Department of Education.

The pieces added up to what the mayor called $1 billion but were marked by the sort of gimmicks that incensed advocates and Johnson acknowledged did not hit that target. (Even the school safety shift isn’t expected to happen within the new fiscal year, a detail that didn’t emerge until after the budget was approved.)

“From the moment George Floyd was murdered at the end of May till when we passed the budget in the hours leading up to July 1, we were able to do a lot while also recognizing you can't do everything in five weeks,” Johnson said.

There has been speculation that the budget vote will come back to haunt Johnson’s mayoral prospects. A bargain frustrating the most fervent activists and made with de Blasio before a change election where each candidate is seeking to differentiate themselves from the two-term mayor could be challenging for the speaker. It’s somewhat reminiscent of what worked against former Speaker Quinn in 2013, who had been an ally of then Mayor Bloomberg and was running to some degree on a continuation of his policies and the broad success of the city. But Quinn, who hasn’t ruled out a 2021 mayoral run, was in part done in by her deal with Bloomberg to extend term limits over the will of voters.

“Chris Quinn...had the problem of being seen as too close to the mayor,” said Jessica Proud, a Republican consultant who helped run Joe Lhota’s 2013 general election campaign against de Blasio. “Corey doesn't necessarily have that problem but the duties of the job and the nature of the job, the decisions that come with it, pose challenges like any leadership position.”

While they have worked together on many things, Johnson has also repeatedly set himself apart from de Blasio and under him the Council has tried to exert its power more often than under former Speaker Mark-Viverito, whom de Blasio helped become the speaker for his first term. Though he has at times made significant concessions when de Blasio has taken issue with his proposals, Johnson has more often than not forged ahead with his priorities and forced the mayor to go along.

The recent passage of a bill criminalizing the use of chokeholds and other harmful restraining methods by police officers is testament to that, particularly as it almost invited the first ever mayoral veto by de Blasio before he begrudgingly agreed that he will sign it over the opposition of vocal police leaders.

It also remains unclear how many voters will broadly attribute the budget deal solely to Johnson or if it will even take center stage in a primary that will occur in the middle of another budget session and, current signs say, while the city is still on its way to recovering from the pandemic. The deal may have alienated some on the far left, but that isn’t far and away the only constituency in the Democratic primary and it's not clear that those voters will have another candidate to turn to given that Johnson has also been competing for the left among the current crop of 2021 candidates.

There are, of course, center-right Democrats, the kind who voted for Bloomberg, who may also be turned off by the NYPD cuts. Moderate and conservative Democratic Council Members including Robert Holden, Chaim Deutsch, Kalman Yeger, and Ruben Diaz Sr. all voted against the budget on those very grounds. As one Democratic consultant said, “I don't know yet if this mayoral race is going to be about, ‘We need a fervent socialist, progressive, Black Lives Matter mayor.”

Johnson believes that voters won’t focus on this one budget vote, but will be looking for a larger vision for the future of the city. He denied conjecture among political observers, reported by Politico New York, that he may opt out of the race because of the fallout of this budget, though as with other candidates, he has yet to officially declare his candidacy. That announcement will likely happen after the presidential election in November, he indicated.

Unlike some of the other declared and potential mayoral candidates whose focus has seemed more defined, Johnson says he isn’t carving out a specific niche for himself. “I’ve never really thought of my campaign for mayor with regards to trying to appeal to one lane or one subset of voters,” he said. But he is clearly running to the left on issues that affect the city’s most vulnerable residents, as indicated by his support for the calls of a $1 billion NYPD budget cut. “It’s really about coming up with big ideas and solutions for the future of New York City, being myself, and seeing if that connects with a broad electorate,” he said.

Stringer has long-standing ties to the political establishment but has been wooing the insurgent left, especially as he has endorsed several female candidates, particularly women of color, aligned and adjacent to the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups that have emerged as formidable forces in recent elections.

Adams, a Black former police officer and state senator, now Brooklyn Borough President, leans more moderate, and hopes to win over both Black New Yorkers and the white ethnic voters that helped elect Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guiliani as mayor.

Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans Services, is also vying for the center-left, and advocates for a more fiscally restrained government and tougher law enforcement. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales (who left her job to run) has centered social justice issues in her campaign, including a major rethinking of how public safety is done and the need to create more opportunities for women to thrive and lead.

Former top Obama and Bloomberg aide Shaun Donovan has a lengthy resume as a public servant that has managed fiscal, health, and environmental emergencies. Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, is an accomplished civil rights attorney and activist whose campaign would likely target issues of criminal justice and racial inequity. She has been more outspoken of late, including in criticism of the city budget deal and in calling for the removal of NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Some who observed the budget process, or participated in it, had praise for Johnson’s leadership.

Longtime political consultant and former Mayor Ed Koch spokesperson George Arzt said Johnson did “an exceptional job” balancing the countervailing demands over the budget. “I think all in all, by next year, this will have been forgotten,” he said, noting that between now and the 2021 primary, there will be another budget modification in the fall, a presidential election and, hopefully, a vaccine for the coronavirus.

Arzt also noted that Johnson bore the brunt of criticism because of the public’s lower expectations from the mayor. “I don’t think there has been a mayor in recent times as unpopular as de Blasio, and he still has a year-and-a-half to go. So people look to Corey for leadership on major issues,” he said. “What the budget process showed is that he’s a person that people look up to for leadership and he can work to put together a stable government.”

Council Member Antonio Reynoso was among the half-dozen or so members who voted against the budget because the NYPD cuts did not go further. “I think that the speaker is in an unenviable position,” said Reynoso, a Brooklyn Democrat running for borough president in next year’s election, noting that the speaker’s individual positions can’t override the majority of Council members, who didn’t want to defund the NYPD as aggressively.

“I don’t think there’s any other position in the entire city that has the same role as the speaker,” Reynoso said. “Everybody else – the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, borough presidents, and even Council members can all speak independently about what they want without having to be accountable to anyone except their constituents. He, on the other hand, has to be accountable to these elected officials, to these Council members.”

But Reynoso did say that the police funding issue will continue to be on the forefront if the Council and mayor fail to follow through on the promises made in this budget, particularly relating to changes in how school safety is handled. “If a lot of the stuff that [Council members] thought was going to happen doesn't happen this year, I could see a change in heart [from Council members],” he said, predicting that in such circumstances, there may be even more support from progressive members allowing for greater cuts to the police budget next year.

Advocates are also keeping a watchful eye to see that those pledges, however disappointing, are fulfilled. “We’re in this for the long haul, we're not going anywhere,” said Andréa Colon, lead organizer for Rockaway Youth Task Force, a member of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition.

Colon faulted all parties involved in the deal – the mayor, speaker, and the Council at large. “Even members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus said, ‘This is a win for our community. This is a first step,’ but so many acknowledged that this doesn't go far enough. So if they’re able to acknowledge that, why vote yes?”

The night of the budget deal there was chatter among activists on Twitter that Johnson’s mayoral campaign was over.

“It was probably one of the most challenging budgets in modern municipal history,” Johnson said in the interview. Having spent weeks dealing with the varying crises the city faced, and having to triangulate what his members demanded and what the mayor was willing to concede, he appeared visibly exhausted and browbeaten in the hours before the budget vote. “My goal was to save as many programs that affect poor New Yorkers, communities of color, and covid-vulnerable communities as possible while at the same time recognizing this moment of national reckoning on police reform and racism and pushing as far as we can go,” he said.

Even as the full scope of proposed NYPD cuts weren’t realized, the speaker emphasized that the Council managed to save vital programs and services to the tune of about $700 million that were on the chopping block in the mayor’s proposal, besides the funding that was reallocated from the police. “The mayor wasn't there and the Council was divided,” he said on the NYPD budget. “So I had to try to find consensus. And I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end.”

Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national organization that trains and supports progressive Democrats running for office and those seeking to work on campaigns, said that though Johnson could be hurt by carrying the weight of the budget vote, he can also benefit from it.

“I think given the trauma that this city has been through over the past year and even longer, superficial politics are going to be a thing of the past,” he said. “Straight rhetorical politics aren't really going to carry people very far. And [Johnson] will have a case to make that he has had to make tough decisions, which is not something that everybody in the race, either now or in the future, not everybody's going to be able to say that.”

He also noted that Johnson’s potential opponents will have to explain their own records. “Not all, but many of the people critiquing Corey don't have very long histories of being aggressive for reform of the police,” he said.

“The '$1 billion cut' to the NYPD proposed by the Mayor and the City Council is not a $1 billion cut—it's a bait and switch and a paper-thin excuse for reform,” Stringer said of the budget, though he had proposed a more modest NYPD cut than Johnson’s plan, and Johnson acknowledged before the budget vote that the deal did not include $1 billion in cuts.

Adams said, “The city is in crisis, inequality is deepening, New Yorkers are marching every day against injustice — and instead of forging change and lighting a path to a brighter future, this budget simply maintains the status quo.”

On Twitter, Wiley wrote, “Today’s deal isn’t a cut. It’s moving the deck chairs around. We have to stop tinkering and start transforming public safety.”

Morales, in a statement, said the budget “failed those whose lives have been lost at the hands of the NYPD and communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by violence and brutality.”

Johnson’s “greatest advantage,” Gupta said, is the various proposals he has advanced at the Council, particularly his Streets Master Plan (though that has been delayed because of the pandemic’s impact on the budget). “I think there's a huge constituency in the city for that kind of vision right now,” he said. Johnson was also successful in convincing the mayor to fund the Fair Fares discounted MetroCard program for low-income New Yorkers and in getting more funds to provide pay equity to early childhood educators. He has proposed major plans to address homelessness and food insecurity.

“This is an existential election for the city. So people are going to be looking for truth-tellers, not performers,” he said. “I think people are going to be looking for somebody that they trust. And I don't know who that person is yet but I certainly don't think that this past week has been disqualifying [for Johnson].”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

A Month After Historic Curfew, Many Unanswered Questions About How City Policed Protests, Looting


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Mayor de Blasio & NYPD Commissioner Shea (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


The first day of the most recent chapter of protests against police brutality and racism in New York City was Thursday, May 28, the same night 500 National Guard troops were being deployed to Minneapolis, where rioters had set fire to a police station in the quarter where George Floyd was killed three days earlier.

Over the next three nights, violence -- toward police and the burning of NYPD vehicles, by aggressive officers toward protesters, and in the form of rampant looting -- became a fixture of nighttime hours in pockets of New York City, leading to many questions about policing tactics and the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Monday, June 1, Governor Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio, like their counterparts in other states, instituted a curfew in the city for the first time since World War II.

As the protests were unfolding the mayor and his police department seemed unable to stop what destruction was taking place around them. At the same time, there were frequent acts of brutal policing, which quickly became the subject of ongoing investigations by the New York Attorney General, New York City Department of Investigation along with the Corporation Counsel, and the city’s Civil Complaint Review Board.

Throughout those first nights and lasting for about a week into early June, de Blasio was asked repeatedly by members of the media for the city’s enforcement strategies around the large crowds and marches, looting, and the curfew, to which he responded with answers that were often vague or inconsistent with reality.

Weeks later, the de Blasio administration won't say what specific instructions, if any, were given to commands or officers on how to police the demonstrations, the looting, or the curfew. Despite repeated requests by Gotham Gazette, spokespeople for the mayor and NYPD did not provide information about the size and location of police deployments or details on crowd control and looting prevention and enforcement strategies.

Yet some limited pieces of this information formed key elements of the administration's narrative used to justify the historic, six-night curfew that many believed escalated tensions between protesters and police, and was the basis for numerous, seemingly indiscriminate arrests, often with major displays of force.

Curfew, Kettling and Chain of Command
"The curfew is to help us separate the peaceful protesters, which are the overwhelming majority, from people who are looking to exploit the moment by looting, et cetera," Cuomo said on CNN a few hours before the curfew went into effect on Monday, June 1.

Around the same time de Blasio was on NY1 saying, "the curfew is very clear that we will not tolerate any criminal activity, anybody breaking into stores, looting, smashing store windows. And that will give the officers, from 11 p.m. on, the ability to say to anyone on the street, 'You have to leave immediately.'"

What tactical decisions were made up to that point and why the NYPD -- a police force of 36,000 uniformed officers with a great deal of experience policing large crowds and violent crime -- needed the extra help remain unclear.

By the time the first looting took place on the fourth night of protest, viral images had already painted a complex picture of a heavy-handed NYPD response to marchers objecting to police violence and seeking a broad withdrawal of police, and of mayhem, including violence against cops and police vehicles.

There were several scenes, often captured on social and news media, of officers using rough tactics and displays of force apparently without enforcing laws. On Friday, May 29, someone in a quickly-moving NYPD car was caught on video opening the passenger-side door to hit a protester. That Saturday, a police helicopter hovered low above nonviolent marchers, whipping up dust and debris, the marchers shielding their eyes. There were reports of cops corralling and charging peaceful demonstrators with batons and pepper spray, sending protesters to the hospital, and intimidating journalists.

Reports of alleged police abuse from 80 incidents, from May 28 through May 30, were filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an oversight agency charged with investigating police misconduct. In the weeks of protest, over 200 incidents have been reported to the board.

After the chaotic second night (Friday, May 29), both de Blasio and Cuomo said there would be “independent” investigations of how the protests were policed. Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to conduct the state review. De Blasio appointed Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Jim Johnson, the administration's top lawyer as corporation counsel, to lead an investigation into conduct "by all players" and "to look at where accountability needs to be." The mayor also said the NYPD would conduct its usual internal reviews.

"It’s the NYPD’s obligation to find the best possible way to keep peace, to protect everyone, to avoid anything that allows further violence to occur,” de Blasio said at a May 30 press briefing, “but that means also recognizing that any aggressive act towards a peaceful protestor sends exactly the wrong message."

"At the same time, we saw acts of violence from protestors that have nothing to do with the tradition of peaceful, democratic protest," he added.

"This is New York City and we handle hundreds if not thousands of protests of all different sizes, shapes and forms," NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in testimony to James weeks later, on June 22. "Some protests can take place with very minimal officers. Obviously the larger protests will require a different response in planning."

"I can tell you what we learned almost immediately from the Thursday night protest and continuing right into Friday and Saturday, that these protests were different," Shea said of March 28-30, the first three nights. "The main difference was, these were violent."

The NYPD says officers arrested over 2,500 people during the protests, "but the number is fluid and more details should be available at a later time," wrote NYPD spokesperson Detective Sophia Mason in an email. More than a fifth of those -- 631, according to preliminary NYPD figures -- were for burglaries, a vast majority of which occured on Sunday, May 31, and Monday, June 1, wrote Mason. According to information provided to Gotham Gazette by the city's five district attorney offices, about 1,090 people were arrested in the first week of the protests, which included the looting.

Throughout that first week of protests, before and after the initial June 1 curfew, de Blasio and Shea maintained that they wanted foremost to protect the rights of peaceful protesters. The two have insisted that the department's "restraint" and ability to "deescalate" was the overriding characteristic of its approach, though facts on the ground belied those statements.

"We've tried to be as flexible as possible in allowing people to demonstrate, respecting their first amendment rights...and also having respect for people's property and trying to maintain order," Shea said in the testimony to Attorney General James, who asked what directions were given to officers around enforcing the curfew. "So that was the instructions, it's not very unlike instructions that are given at any other protest." Shea provided no specifics.

The well-documented tactic of "kettling" -- where lines of police barricade and confine groups of protesters -- was common before and after the curfew was imposed. On many occasions, marchers were charged with batons and riot shields, but Shea indicated in his testimony to James that it is not a practice he’s been familiar with or ordered.

"I was never familiar with it until about two weeks ago and I’ve heard it more in two weeks than I’ve ever heard it,” Shea told James of “kettling.” “I believe I know what they’re referring to—it’s corralling, if you will, protesters. But it’s not something that to my knowledge exists in our policies.”

At least when the curfew was in effect decision-making was largely decentralized, according to NYPD leaders. "Discretion is given to all commanders on the scene. Decisions are not made from 1 Police Plaza,” said Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the NYPD's highest ranking uniformed officer, in an interview with Gothamist published June 11. “They're made from the commanders on the scene based on what they're seeing."

That discretion clearly played out in the streets, with different approaches to policing and different outcomes. In some cases peaceful protesters were dispersed and in many other instances their counterparts in other marchers were subject to kettling and rough arrests.

"If officers say now is the point we need you to go home, it's time to go home," de Blasio said to reporters at a June 4 press conference when describing broad parameters of how protests amid curfew were being policed. "I can say this in many places in the good old USA, a curfew at 8 p.m., that would be the whole, this the end of discussion right there,” he said later in the briefing. “It is the nature of New York City and the restraint shown by the NYPD that we're trying to give people extra space if they do it the right way, if they respect the instructions of the NYPD and do no violence, no harm, don't plan any violence."

Policing experts and former law enforcement officials disagree over what they believe was going on at the command level.

"Because of all of the looting and violence that was seen throughout the country, New York City and the Police Department put forth a 'full enforcement' type of response," said Dr. Alfred Titus, Jr., an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with 23 years as an NYPD homicide and hostage detective based in Harlem and Washington Heights. "Which means that for any slight amount of violence the police were instructed to move in, apprehend people, stop the violence, protect property," he told Gotham Gazette, based on his observations.

"That was where a lot of the conflict came," Titus said.

Brian Higgins, the former Chief of Police in Bergen County, New Jersey, who also teaches at John Jay and consults with municipalities on crowd management, thought cops appeared to have their hands tied. "It's obvious there was a conscious decision to change tactics," he said of the NYPD's typical approach to crowd control. "It was most likely that the New York City Police Department was told to, for lack of a better term, stand down."

On the first night of looting, which led to the curfew, police allowed hundreds of peaceful marchers to cross Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan, toward a site where, the night before several police cars were set on fire in the later hours. In moments like that, Higgins wondered why police didn't intervene in anticipation.

"It appears as if the normal protocols used by the New York City Police Department were not allowed to be used at night," he said. "And a crowd can be a very dangerous situation. It's almost like playing with fire."

In the first week of protest, from March 28 to June 4, 450 storefronts were damaged, according to the mayor's office, and everything from bridges to city buses were vandalized. Thirteen police cars were set ablaze and "were a total loss," according to an NYPD spokesperson. Another 269 were graffitied, had windows broken or tires slashed. The damages cost taxpayers an estimated $795,700 and 22 vehicles remain out of service, the spokesperson said in late June. (A spokesperson for de Blasio said June 29 that the mayor's office could not provide a cost estimate for the total damage, either to businesses or to city property, just before a new city budget was due.)

Thursday, May 28 through Saturday, May 30 - The First Three Nights
"I want to see a light touch because people are undeniably angry for a reason," de Blasio said of policing protests on WNYC radio on the morning of Friday, May 29, after the first night of protests. But "attacking a police officer is unacceptable," he said in response to a question about reported police injuries. A review of the police reports for May 28 say that violence against officers -- including a protester who allegedly threw a trash can into a crowd, knocking a cop unconscious -- occurred as they were taking part in "crowd control" or dispersal, at times while they were arresting other protesters.

On the morning of May 29, Shea said there would be a heavy police presence in response to the prior night: "The NYPD is out here in force tonight. We will have thousands of officers deployed throughout New York City."

That night saw the first serious clashes between protesters and police, with NYPD vehicles set ablaze and city buses graffitied, and dozens of arrests were made.

Protests in Manhattan were "overwhelmingly peaceful," Shea said the next morning. Only 11 arrests were made in the borough, according to the district attorney's office.

But in Brooklyn, where police estimated roughly 3,000 demonstrators had gathered in protest, cops beat and pepper-sprayed protesters, and protesters chased and burned police vehicles. There remain unanswered questions as to why NYPD officers on the scene moved to pen in and disperse protesters, and the extent to which objects were thrown at police officers, which NYPD leaders said instigated the crackdown.

The next morning, on Saturday May 30, de Blasio said the city would change its approach to the protests. "We are working as we speak today to make sure that the protests in the days to come will be as peaceful as humanly possible, that there will be different protocols and approaches to ensure the right to protest is honored and that everyone can do so in a peaceful manner," he told reporters about his dissatisfaction with some of the tactics used on nonviolent marchers.

"We practice de-escalation but it is very difficult to practice de-escalation when you’re having a brick thrown at you, at your head," Shea said Saturday morning, striking a somewhat different tone from the mayor. "We have countless, and that is accurate, countless officers -- at this point still tallying how many were injured from last night -- in the emergency room as we speak."

In his sworn testimony to the Attorney General a few weeks later, Shea said that nearly 400 officers were injured during protests, of which 65 percent (meaning 260 officers) required treatment at a hospital. According to a police spokesperson, 280 officers had to be treated at a hospital and six were admitted for injuries from the protests.

"The NYPD felt like they were under attack," said Dr. Ted Hamm, the chair of Journalism and New Media at St. Joseph's College, who has over a decade of experience covering protests in New York City, including at the 2004 Repubican National Convention, which featured somewhat similar mass arrests. "It seems like they took offense, they took this personally in very direct ways. And they decided, we're going to make lives difficult for these people who want to express an opinion that we don't like."

"A lot of what we saw was emotion-based,” Titus said of the overall atmosphere in the city and beyond. “The whole country was almost in outrage at one point."

On the third night of protest -- Saturday, March 30 -- in a hastily-scheduled late-night press conference outside the city’s Office of Emergency Management in Downtown Brooklyn, as protesters were igniting cop cars in Union Square, de Blasio told the public: "If you're out there to commit an act of violence, you're going to get arrested tonight." He urged people to go home -- "You have been heard," he said. Dozens of police vehicles were burned or damaged that night as New Yorkers who weren’t in the streets watched the scenes play out on social media and television. For almost two more full days, de Blasio and Shea maintained the NYPD was capable of policing the crowds without a curfew. 

De Blasio later said he spoke with Shea ”probably 50 times...literally" that Saturday, but what policing strategies they discussed is unknown.

Sunday, May 31 - Serious Looting
Looting began in downtown Manhattan the next night, Sunday May 31, after marchers crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn and were splintered by police in Chinatown and funneled into the SoHo retail district. Arrest data provided by the Manhattan District Attorney's office shows a lot of the looting targeted expensive stores, though for some the dollar amount was not the point. That night WNYC reporter George Joseph tweeted a quote from a young man who had stolen bandaids from a pharmacy: "It’s the principle. It’s people higher than you, sitting in the chair watching + saying ‘wow look what they’re doing over one person’...We never had a voice, we’re gonna make one now."

The looting fed into a largely hollow narrative of "outside agitators," which had been spreading nationwide, echoed in statements made by politicians from the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis to President Donald Trump.

"I have been on this evening a thread, a text thread with mayors all over the country. They're all experiencing exactly the same thing," de Blasio said that night of May 31 on NY1. "But they're not from communities of color. They're often not from – not only not from the neighborhoods they're protesting in, they're not even from the city in some cases."

The mayor and NYPD have not provided evidence of a significant element of outside agitators, though they repeatedly made those claims in the initial days of protest. In Manhattan that Sunday and Monday, where some of the worst looting took place, of the 114 "live arrests" made, 14 were of people from outside the five boroughs, of which nine were from Long Island or the Hudson Valley, according to arrest data provided by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. The remaining five were from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

As the evening wore on, officers reportedly stood by as looters entered smashed stores in Lower Manhattan, though a total of 169 arrests were made in Manhattan that night. "Sunday, Monday, for thousands -- yes, I mean thousands -- of people running through the streets, looting, hitting stores, but you were there. You were making arrests, and you did a fantastic, fantastic job," said Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest ranking NYPD uniformed officer, in a video addressing officers and posted to Twitter for the public to see on June 12.

Monday, June 1 - The First Night of Curfew
The next afternoon  -- Monday June 1 -- Cuomo and de Blasio announced the city would be piloting an 11 p.m. curfew that evening (the mayor would later shift the curfew to 8 p.m. from June 2 through Monday, June 8, though he ended it Sunday, June 7 instead). Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh all instituted curfews the same night and at least 13 other cities had in the days before, according to a Gotham Gazette review of news reports and government announcements.

Property damage would continue the next two nights, notably in the Bronx on June 1, where 86 people were arrested on burglary and vandalism charges, according to a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney.

Along with the curfew, de Blasio and Cuomo announced the NYPD would double the deployment and Cuomo later said there would be 8,000 uniformed officers on duty that Monday (June 1). "The additional officers will be deployed to areas where violence and property damage occurred during last night’s protests – specifically in lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn," read a joint press release announcing the curfew.

But the additional deployments failed to prevent the damage, and the mayor and police department were admonished by Cuomo the next day. "The police in New York City were not effective at doing their job last night. Period. They have to do a better job," the governor said on June 2, offering support from state police and 13,000 National Guard who were on stand-by. Cuomo later apologized to rank-and-file cops, saying he had been calling out NYPD leadership and the mayor.

"I believe, believed there was an issue of management, and deployment of the NYPD," he said the next day.

NYPD leaders said the sheer scale and tenacity of looters made vandalism and theft difficult to prevent. "They had a lot of people out here. We had a lot. They had more," Monahan said the night of June 2 on CNN, after the second night of looting had occurred June 1, this time under the 11 p.m. curfew.

"Someone would hit it," he said referring to storefronts being broken, "and then some would go in, or they'd circle back. It was cat and mouse all day. But we made 700 arrests. There were 2,000 out here."

No one from the mayor's office or NYPD has said why police weren't better able to prevent the wide-scale looting that took place in the Bronx and Manhattan and why, as Monahan reported, they were caught outnumbered by and struggled to keep up with looters.

Tuesday, June 2 through Sunday, June 7 - The Duration of the Curfew
Looting went on through the evening of Tuesday, June 2, when the curfew had been moved from 11 p.m. to 8 p.m. That night the city also banned traffic in Manhattan south of 96th Street, which Monahan said would help police maneuver more nibbly and keep up with looters.

"With the curfew at 8 o'clock, it gives us a reason, if we have a group that's starting to cause trouble that we can stop them all, and hopefully get them all off the street," Monahan said.

Tuesday, June 2, was the last night of widespread looting. Over the next several nights the police department selectively enforced the curfew, often kettling protesters before cracking down on them with batons and zip-tie cuffs or dispersing them.

Melees between police and peaceful marchers continued through Thursday, June 4 -- a week since the first night of protests. One of the largest and most severe mass arrests took place that evening in the Bronx, after peaceful marchers were kettled and then charged in Mott Haven around the 8 p.m. curfew. The Bronx District Attorney's office said there were 332 arrests that night, many for unlawful assembly. At the same time marches in Brooklyn were allowed to go on for hours after the curfew before facing kettling and some aggressive tactics, but with relatively milder outcomes compared to the Bronx. Shea defended the arrests, saying officers were acting on intelligence that suggested violence was being planned, and that enforcement was "executed nearly flawlessly,” but questions have been raised about the cited intelligence and preemptive tactics.

Police issued a total of 1,349 summonses for violating curfew, according to a statement issued by the NYPD after the curfew was lifted. About a third of them were issued to white people, while 42 percent were to individuals identified as “black or black Hispanic” by police.

The following Sunday, June 7, de Blasio repealed the curfew, one night ahead of schedule and after two nights where no protesters were arrested. Daily demonstrations throughout the city have continued relatively peacefully since, though there have been exceptions including clashes at the “Occupy City Hall” demonstration that developed in the lead-up to the budget deal reached by the mayor and City Council on June 30.

Many Unanswered Questions
Many unanswered questions remain about the tumultuous eight-night stretch, including to what extent the police department exacerbated and quelled tensions. What orders were given to officers and when are unknown, as is how many officers the NYPD deployed throughout the most damaging nights of looting and who or what can take credit for the peace that eventually settled.

"Cutting it back to 8 p.m., that helped a little but that wasn't the main thing that slowed down the violence," Dr. Titus, the former homicide detective, said of the curfew. "I believe it just kind of ran its course, more or less."

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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