As protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody boiled over in New York City on Saturday and video of NYPD vehicles driving into demonstrators sparked outrage, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would not “blame” police officers facing such an “impossible situation.”
“If those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this,” de Blasio said in a call-in appearance on NY1 just before a hastily scheduled late-night press conference.
That was his first live appearance in over two nights of nationwide chaos, more than 24 hours after City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wondered on Twitter “Where is the Mayor???” amid massive unrest, destruction, and hundreds of arrests in New York.
It was just the latest instance of New York’s embattled mayor struggling to make sense of rage in his city.
While defending police against protesters who he said “did the wrong thing” by surrounding the vehicle, de Blasio also claimed most of the unrest in his city came from outsiders. He said he’d been on a text chain with other mayors who reported on newly arrived groups of mostly white outsiders— an oblique reference to left-wing black-bloc types—sparking confrontations with the police.
“People who represent the communities of our city and the residents of our city are not joining negative and violent protests. You can see it with your own eyes,” he said at his press conference as NY1 showed him on a split screen with a crowd watching a police car burning by Union Square. “They’re just not participating in it.”
De Blasio came under withering attack from fellow Democrat and New Yorker Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for his comments about the SUV incident.
“This moment demands leadership & accountability from each of us. Defending and making excuses for NYPD running SUVs into crowds was wrong,” she tweeted at him. “Make it right. De-escalate.”
“Running SUVs in crowds of people should never, ever be normalized,” she added. “No matter who does it, no matter why.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams took to Facebook with a message for the mayor: “This is not the time to say that police can do whatever they need to do.”
The NYPD clashed with crowds in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
In Flatbush, officers had deployed pepper spray as some protesters hurled bottles of water, bricks, and slabs of concrete at them. In Union Square, a slew of windows were smashed before cops used tasers to corral a smattering of protesters. One Brooklyn resident there, who asked for his surname to be withheld, said he witnessed at least one NYPD vehicle plow into the group of protesters earlier in the evening.
“I thought it was going to hit me but then it hit a bike,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was unbelievable. The police were inhumane, they didn't care about the people. One tried to tase me and another man.”
De Blasio said Saturday that “we saw a lot of restraint from the NYPD,” and “I believe the NYPD is overwhelmingly acting appropriately.”
The mayor said he couldn’t immediately provide numbers for how many people had been arrested, or how many of them were from outside of the city. But an NYPD source said that 204 people had been arrested on Friday, including 163 from New York City. While most of those people were quickly released, two sisters from the Catskills faced federal charges after allegedly trying to throw a Molotov cocktail into a NYPD van in Brooklyn.
Another protester, Amira Dunn, 23, said the police response on Saturday to the latest round of unrest had been mixed. While some aggressively corralled protesters, she said, others seemed “humble.”
“There's so much hatred, so much insecurity but I looked some in the eye and it looked like they were gonna cry,” she told The Daily Beast.
Despite his call Saturday for New Yorkers to go home, de Blasio said that there was no need for a curfew in New York, as other mayors had imposed, given the size of the NYPD.
But accounts of residents being roughed up—a journalist was seen being led away in handcuffs in Brooklyn on Saturday evening—sparked concerns that America’s largest police force was unmoored.
The latest fit of rage over local and national policing came just a day after an NYPD officer was filmed shoving a woman to the ground and calling her a “stupid fucking bitch.” But that incident, and vehicles bashing into protesters on Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope Saturday, didn’t seem to register with cops in Manhattan hours later.
One officer in Union Square late Saturday night argued that the motivation for vandalism was unclear, telling The Daily Beast, “It’s random violence. It’s just rioting.”
Around the same time, a number of protesters lit trash cans on fire and the scene escalated, with demonstrators chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Police attempted to arrest one man who resisted—and was wrestled to the ground and then tasered multiple times.
-With reporting by Rachel Olding, Lachlan Cartwright, and Danny Gold