On Tuesday night in Manhattan, police forced a protestor into an unmarked van in the middle of the street, pepper spraying those nearby. The tactics have drawn comparisons to Portland, OR, where federal agents have been terrorizing protestors for weeks, including abducting them off the streets in unmarked vehicles. The incident was captured on video by the independent journalist Michelle Lhooq and quickly went viral.
The incident in the video drew criticism from lawmakers as outrage spread on social media. “This video — of a protester in New York City being thrown in an unmarked van — is terrifying and should be unacceptable to everyone who respects the constitutional rights this country was founded on,” Rep. Jerry Nadler tweeted. “There must be an immediate explanation for this anonymous use of force.” The American Civil Liberties Union called the actions of police seen on the video “dangerous, abusive, and indefensible.”
The outcry forced NYPD to confirm the incident. The video shows a protest marching towards the intersection of Second Ave and 25th Street, where a silver Kia van is stopped, doors open. Several men in navy shirts are wrestling with someone, later identified as an 18-year-old trans woman, and trying to drag her into the van. Observers become upset and begin screaming and running towards the van, but are forced back. A group of bicycle police push through the crowd gathered around the van to form a perimeter and the van drives off with the protestor inside.
"Suddenly there was an unmarked grey van that moved out in front of us that had been waiting for us," Derrick, a 32-year-old protestor, told Gothamist. "Four guys jumped out and a line of police bicycles came out from down the block — we hadn't seen them. They pushed us back. They grabbed [her] like she was a rag doll...They had her arms on her neck and then they drove off."
A NYPD spokesperson told Gothamist that the protester was charged with “multiple counts of vandalism and criminal mischief for five incidents in June and July,” which include painting graffiti inside the Oculus at the World Trade Center and on an F train, as well as “painting over four NYPD surveillance cameras.” On Twitter, the police department also claimed the officers were “assaulted with rocks and bottles” by onlookers.
Police often single out trans people and target them for violence. “Even with massive protests against police violence directed at trans people, it can be unsafe for trans people to protest for their own basic civil rights and protections,” Katelyn Burns wrote for Vox. Even if the woman had painted graffiti and painted police cameras, people pointed out the disproportionate use of force — multiple men grabbing her off the street and forcing her into an unmarked van — to the nonviolent property crime described by the NYPD.
At the time of the incident, about 200 people were leaving a plaza after stopping to watch a skateboarding event. The protest was part of a planned 24-hour action against the NYPD. NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson called the video "incredibly disturbing.”
In a press conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by Jake Offenhartz of Gothamist about the video and whether officers will be disciplined for their actions. "I don't think this is about the officers," de Blasio said. "The officers, members of the warrant squad going and arresting someone who has an outstanding warrant, is actually their job...I don't think it's a matter of discipline, it's a matter of people understanding what is happening in this moment and making better choices about how to deal with things in this moment in history." Refinery29 reached out to de Blasio's office for a request for comment.
Andrew Cuomo called the arrest "obnoxious" and "frightening," the New York Daily News reported. “We have to repair the relationship between the police and the community,” Cuomo said on a press call Wednesday. “This is not going to be fixed by a press release.”