An Open Letter from Mott Haven Families Demanding Justice for June 4th

To:
Mayor Bill de Blasio
Commissioner Dermot Shea
Chief of Department Terence Monahan
Deputy Inspector Robert M. Gallitelli
Council Member Diana Ayala
Council Member Rafael Salamanca
Council Member Vanessa Gibson

We charge the NYPD and our local elected leaders with having profoundly failed the people of Mott Haven. The NYPD have failed us by engaging in horrific acts of brutality and lawless behavior. Our elected leaders have failed us by permitting such actions and not pursuing any accountability. As residents of Mott Haven and the South Bronx, we demand transparency, accountability, and justice. We demand that the NYPD release details about the planning of their response to June 4th. We demand that the Mayor and the City Council Members who represent the South Bronx initiate a new investigation into the NYPD’s actions to uncover the individuals who were involved in the planning and execution of June 4th. And we demand that anyone who was directly involved in the planning and the execution of the June 4th attack on peaceful protesters in Mott Haven be forced to resign or be fired.

On June 4th 2020, several Bronx grassroots organizations organized a protest in the South Bronx in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and in response to ongoing abusive practices of the NYPD. Residents of the South Bronx, including Mott Haven Families, witnessed the disproportionate response of the NYPD which included calling in officers from other precincts so that hundreds of police wearing heavy armor were sent to stop the peaceful protest. We saw snipers stationed on rooftops. We saw ICE agents in Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) uniforms guarding the 40th precinct. And we watched as police officers first kettled protesters, keeping people trapped until an 8pm curfew, and then immediately began arresting everyone, including legal observers and medics, and physically attacked protesters.

There have been several reports since June 4th documenting the NYPD’s abuses. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, released with an accompanying video produced by SITU research, found the NYPD’s actions to be “intentional, planned, and unjustified,” amounting to serious violations of human rights law. A Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) report found that “NYPD officers employed unlawful and excessive force against peaceful protestors, medics, and others.” A preliminary report from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that the NYPD’s excessive response on June 4th was based on false allegations made by officers and repeated by Commissioner Shea, who claimed that weapons were found on protesters in Mott Haven. The OAG report states decisively that “no gasoline or weapons were actually recovered from the protesters.”

The Department of Investigation (DOI) was directed by Mayor DeBlasio, Speaker Corey Johnson, and Council Member Ritchie Torres to investigate and issue a report on the NYPD’s response to city-wide Black Lives Matter protests, including the June 4th protest. The DOI report reached several conclusions. We are most concerned with their findings that: (1) the NYPD did not have a “clearly defined strategy” for responding to city-wide protests, (2) the NYPD engaged in “excessive enforcement,” and (3) the NYPD relied on insufficient intelligence regarding the possibility of violence from protests (they specifically cite June 4th here, stating that “[the NYPD’s] mass arrest of protesters for curfew violations, in the absence of evidence of actual violence, was disproportionate to the circumstances”). While we are not in a position to dispute any of the facts of this report, we remain critical of the report as an insufficient investigation. The investigation did not include interviewing any of the victims of police brutality, and does not reveal any details of the planning of the June 4th response. As witnesses to the violence of June 4th, Mott Haven Families has to seriously question assertions that the NYPD response was not sufficiently coordinated. What we witnessed was a well-orchestrated response specifically intended to attack and arrest protesters and intimidate residents. Crucially, the DOI report described only very general details of the internal planning of the NYPD—for example, they mention departments that coordinated but not individuals. This requires further investigation to discover the specific individuals who orchestrated and carried out the police response that violated individuals’ constitutional, legal, and human rights.

Four of our members live on 136th Street, where protesters were trapped and beaten. One family recalls the following:

Our family resides on the block of 136th only a few doors from Willis Avenue. On June 4th, our family was outside after we had celebrated the essential workers by banging pots and pans to signify our appreciation for their sacrifice. At around 7:30pm, we noticed a great deal of movement by the NYPD. We noticed vans positioning themselves at 135th and Willis and that the police were posting up there. Within minutes of seeing NYPD scurry to position themselves, we saw a large group of protestors turning down our block. The protestors were chanting and walking down the street. Our family felt proud that we had the opportunity to witness what we wanted to take part in ourselves but could not due to the age of our children and the potential risks of contracting Covid-19. We would describe the group as energetic and passionate. We did not detect any signs of violence or feel any threat to our family as they walked by. Some protestors even paused to say hello to neighbors on the block. But our pride soon became an eerie fear. After most protesters had marched past us on our one-way block, the NYPD followed closely behind. The sheer number of police was frightening. There were easily twice as many officers as there were protesters. We also noticed that this was not the usual formation of police officers we were used to seeing in our neighborhood. These NYPD cops had bikes and special uniforms in addition to gear we had no clue how they would use. It looked more like a military outfit than police looking to keep the peace. All of this was before 8pm so we figured the protestors had walked through, the cops followed and they probably had kept moving the protest to another street. The most jarring event we witnessed happened at about 8:30 or 9:00pm. We saw stretchers of people being wheeled up our block in the opposite direction. We did not know at the time what had transpired and wondered how a peaceful protest could turn so violent so fast that people would be wheeled away for medical attention. Our kids asked questions we could not answer and were shaken up about anyone being hurt. It was not easy for any of us to sleep that night, having a feeling something went horribly wrong.

The response to the NYPD’s excessive force and unlawful actions was swift: as mentioned above, several organizations conducted immediate investigations, the NYCLU filed a class-action lawsuit, and all charges against people who had been arrested during the June 4th protest were dropped. Yet at this point we still do not know who specifically planned and carried out the response on the part of the NYPD. Also unclear is the role of elected officials in the planning of the response. This is crucial for two reasons: residents of Mott Haven have a right to know what went into the planning of this incident and whether we will be subjected to such an authoritarian response at the next local protest; and residents of Mott Haven have a right to demand that any officers who engaged in any abusive actions that violated the safety of peaceful protesters be held individually accountable, from the officers on bikes who knocked over protesters to the heads of departments and the Commissioner himself.

In our efforts to secure some accountability, Mott Haven Families has sent dozens of emails to elected officials and officers from the NYPD. In response, we have received conflicting accounts, answers that side-step our questions, or no response at all. The most comprehensive account we received was from the Director of the 3rd Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), Michael Brady. Mr. Brady informed us that the NYPD contacted him at 2am the morning of June 4th, and he was then in regular communication throughout the day with Hector Espada, a Community Affairs Officer of the 40th Precinct, as well as Council Members Diana Ayala, Rafael Salamanca, and Vanessa Gibson.

Council Members Salamanca and Gibson have not responded to any of our questions about their knowledge of the NYPD’s plans. Council Member Ayala has only said she had no foreknowledge of NYPD’s plans for the protest, and that the first time she heard about the protest was at 5pm on June 4th, when she reached out to the NYPD after hearing from a constituent. Council Member Ayala’s assertion of no prior knowledge of NYPD’s response plans for the protest contradicts the information we received from Michael Brady. Ayala told us that in the evening of June 4th, the NYPD informed her that they were expecting 1,200 protesters, and that “peaceful protesters who did not adhere to the curfew would not be subject to arrest.” Since then, we are unaware of any attempts on the part of Ayala to reach out to the NYPD on behalf of any of her constituents who have emailed her asking about accountability.

We also tried to get answers from the NYPD stationed in our neighborhood. We had a brief email exchange with Sergeant Kevin Noonan, a Neighborhood Coordinating Officer (NCO) at the 40th precinct. He told us that one of the goals of NCOs is to address “quality of life issues that occur within the 40th precinct by working with the community and getting their feedback.” However, we have been unable to get adequate responses from him, or anyone else in the 40th Precinct, regarding our questions about the June 4th protest. One of the things we are concerned about and that we raised with Noonan was the presence of ICE officers at the protest. However, Noonan refused to answer any of our questions other than to say that there was “not a single ICE officer at the precinct.” If he had responded to any of our further queries, we would have asked him about this photograph, which shows someone wearing an HSI uniform standing with NYPD officers on June 4th outside the 40th, just hours before the protest. We also were not able to get satisfactory responses from Elizabeth Mitchell, Digital Communications Officer at the 40th precinct, who told us that some of the images we saw of protesters getting beaten must have been fake and claimed that teenagers with machetes and crowbars posed a danger before the march, something that has not been reported by any media or investigations or repeated by any other NYPD official as justification for police actions on June 4. Noonan and Mitchell are the only two NYPD officers who have responded to any of our multiple attempts at communication, and neither answered any of our specific questions about the NYPD attacks on protesters and the presence of ICE agents.

The NYPD continues to feign ignorance and spread falsehoods about what happened on June 4th. When we asked Commissioner Dermot Shea to comment on June 4th at a community meeting that took place after the HRW and PHR reports came out, this was his response (transcription of his full response can be found here): “A person [was] arrested bringing a gun to that protest. People [were] stopped in cars with weapons and flammable things for that protest.” He repeats these falsehoods in a letter to the Human Rights Watch. There are no credible accounts of anyone with weapons present at the protest (as stated earlier, all charges against the protesters have been dropped). In fact, the only items found as a result of the arrests are common tools used for bicycle repair and maintenance work. The OAG report and the DOI report both found that there was no credible evidence of actual or threatened violence leading up to or during the Mott Haven protest. There are, however, hundreds of documented cases of the police acting violently. We deserve more from the Police Commissioner than outright lies, and we deserve more from our local precinct than abuse followed by silence.

We are horrified that the NYPD committed these brutal acts, and that they continue to lie in the face of mountains of evidence and in the face of those of us who saw what they did with our own eyes. We are equally horrified by the abdication of any responsibility for this brutality. The Commissioner will not admit to any wrong-doing, despite a multitude of eyewitnesses. The Deputy Commissioner of the 40th Precinct has been completely silent and out of sight. The same is true of the Chief of Department Terence Monahan, who was present on June 4th and who led the response on June 4th. How much did Deputy Inspector Gallitelli and Chief of Department Monahan orchestrate the response on June 4th? Who did they work with? How involved was the Commissioner? Both Commissioner Shea, as an appointed official, and Deputy Inspector Gallitelli and Chief of Department Monahan, as hired personnel, owe the residents of Mott Haven an open, clear, and honest communication about the decisions that went into the response to protests of June 4th. The DOI report about the June 4th protest condemns the NYPD response but answers none of these questions. When the NYPD sends hundreds of police officers to our neighborhood, subjecting individuals peacefully protesting police brutality to violence, ignoring their basic constitutional, legal, and human rights, all the while coordinating with ICE officers, we have a right to know the details of that violation. Elected leaders must pressure the NYPD to provide us with specific information about who is responsible for the violence of June 4th, and they also must pursue accountability.

The presence of ICE agents raises another alarm, as it seems to be a clear violation of the Sanctuary City policy and poses a direct threat to our immigrant neighbors. We are deeply concerned about the details of the relationship between the NYPD and ICE. Who brokered this arrangement? Were our elected representatives aware of this, and if not, why have they not called for an official investigation? Many of our neighbors are immigrants, and many of our friends are undocumented people. The presence of ICE agents not only raises significant legal questions, it also poses an immediate threat to our neighbors and community.

The responses of our elected leaders have also been disappointing. While both Council Members Ayala and Salamanca issued a statement condemning the police brutality witnessed by so many, they have not used their positions as City Council Members to press for more information, and they have not used their positions on the City Council Committee for Oversight and Investigation to initiate a more thorough investigation into the action of the NYPD on June 4th. Council Member Vanessa Gibson has also been silent, not even issuing a statement condemning the NYPD’s response to June 4th. The DOI report was insufficient in determining the specific planning of the NYPD. Our City Council representatives should put in the effort to fight for Mott Haven, and that means fighting for the rights of protesters and the rights of people brutalized by the NYPD. The Council Members should push for a City Council hearing to discover details of the NYPD’s plans. They should also support all reform measures that come to the City Council which create external accountability measures and external enforcement powers, as well as policies that reduce funding to the NYPD and increase funding to other social goods and services such as housing and education.

June 4th and its aftermath only reinforce what residents of Mott Haven have known for years: the NYPD, and specifically the 40th Precinct, do not care about the community they police. The 40th Precinct regularly receives some of the highest complaints from the CCRB. Recently released CCRB data reveals that over twenty years, the main complaints filed against officers of the 40th Precinct are Use of Force (141 complaints) and Abuse of Authority (273 complaints). Similarly, the majority of complaints filed after June 4th concern Use of Force and Abuse of Authority. The 40th Precinct has shown time and time again that they view the people they are supposed to protect as enemies. They barricade themselves in the precinct, causing hazards for traffic and pedestrians. They park their cars in crosswalks, forcing elderly people with walkers and families with strollers to walk in the street. They assault peaceful protesters and lie to residents asking for answers. The aftermath of June 4th has also shown us how little our elected officials are willing to take on the hard job of fighting for people from the South Bronx. We deserve the right to move freely about our neighborhood. We deserve the right to peaceful protest. We deserve peace, safety, and respect.

While we do not support all the recommendations of the DOI report, there are several recommendations we do support. For example, we urge the City Council and the Mayor to direct the NYPD to reduce reliance on the Strategic Response Group. We urge the NYPD to create guidelines for responding to protests that explicitly respect individuals’ right of protest. And we urge the Mayor and City Council to consolidate existing police oversight functions into a single agency, headed by an independent board and that has prosecutorial powers over the NYPD. Similarly, we support the recommendations outlined in the OAG report to create multiple external accountability mechanisms, including: increasing the CCRB’s authority to investigate and prosecute officers accused of misconduct; creating an independent commission with budgetary authority over the NYPD as well as hiring and firing power over all NYPD officers, including the Commissioner; and decriminalizing minor offenses, thereby reducing reliance on the police in dealing with non-criminal conduct. Broadly, we urge City Council Members and the Mayor to support defunding the NYPD and reinvesting in New York City residents through housing, employment, education, parks, and other social goods and services.

Since there has been no response to our efforts at honest dialogue, which include extensive email attempts to the 40th Precinct Community Affairs Officers, publicly posed questions at multiple fora where representatives of the 40th Precinct were present, and extensive email communications with Council Member Ayala, we demand the following:

The 40th Precinct—specifically Gallitelli—and Commissioner Shea must:

  1. Release a detailed report on who was involved in planning and executing the June 4th assault, and in what ways, including any elected officials or other city or federal government officials.
  2. Terminate or otherwise discipline officers who either planned or carried out violence on June 4th against peaceful protesters, and those who collaborated with ICE agents in our neighborhood.
  3. Agree to other reform measures outlined in the DOI report and the OAG report, specifically reform measures that include disbanding the Strategic Response Group, and consenting to the creation of external accountability institutions with the power to enforce policy changes or to prosecute officers.

Council Members Diana Ayala, Rafael Salamanca, and Vanessa Gibson must:

  1. Call for an additional investigation into the actions of the 40th Precinct to discover individual actors who planned and carried out the June 4th attack.
  2. Advocate for defunding the police and for reform measures as outlined in the DOI report and OAG report as described above. Mott Haven needs more funding for schools, parks, recreation centers, job placement and housing security—not more police.