It looked like one of the videos circulating from Portland, Oregon: Police officers surrounded a young woman and dragged her, kicking, into an unmarked van. But the footage, captured on Tuesday, wasn’t the feds. It was the New York City Police Department.
Nikki Stone, an 18-year-old activist, was a well-known figure at recent racial justice protests, and at Occupy City Hall, a since-disbanded local protest camp geared at cutting police funding. A homeless transgender woman, she previously told Gothamist that the protest encampment was one of the first places she felt safe from police. That ended when plainclothes police pulled Stone into an unmarked vehicle.
Her arrest wasn’t part of a federal insurgency but routine practice by NYPD, especially when used against the homeless and people of color, critics say. But now it was turned against an activist during protests specifically targeted at racism and police brutality.
“This is standard operating procedure for the warrant squad, as far as I know,” Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer, Brooklyn prosecutor, and current professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast. He was referring to an NYPD division that seeks people with open warrants. “They would seek to make an arrest as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. Therefore they use unmarked vehicles routinely.”
The NYPD, which did not return a request for comment on Wednesday, announced that Stone had been arrested on charges of criminal mischief and vandalism. Specifically, she was accused of spray-painting graffiti and painting on four police cameras around the site of the former Occupy City Hall protest encampment. The department confirmed that the warrant squad was behind the arrest.
Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said the aggressive arrest seemed out of step with the allegations against Stone.
“It seems to me that they should be prioritizing more serious cases than criminal mischief and graffiti,” she told The Daily Beast.
That said, arrests by plainclothes officers in unmarked cars—no matter their unit—are a fairly well-known phenomenon in New York City’s public defender circles, she said.
“We have all had clients who had that experience,” Wong said. “It is something that is a well-known part of our practice. It may not happen every other day or every other week, but it is common enough to practitioners in the public defense world that they are familiar with these tactics. They know it happens and they have had more than one client it’s happened to.”
Footage of Stone’s aggressive arrest drew national attention for its similarities to arrests by federal agents in Portland, who stormed the city in an initiative cheered by President Donald Trump. Those agents have led a weeks-long campaign against local unrest, arresting some demonstrators in unmarked vans and widely deploying less-lethal weapons against the crowds.
Trump recently announced the deployment of federal agents to more cities, but State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who represents parts of Brooklyn, said his constituents were used to such incidents.
“The video is incredibly disturbing and understandably inflames passions for those of us who want to see public safety done in a way that is compassionate,” Myrie told The Daily Beast. “But this is not uncommon. What happened was unfortunate and tragic, and because it was captured on video, more people will be able to witness it, but in Black and brown communities, this is the type of treatment that we have been crying out about for decades. This is the type of treatment, the rough handling, the lack of notice, the disrespect, the use of force, all these things have plagued the communities I represent.”
Homeless people have also long been subject to arrest in unmarked NYPD vans, as Vice reported in 2015. A homeless man told the outlet NYPD sometimes entered homeless shelters late at night, seeking people with open warrants, and packed them into waiting vans with little notice. "You’re asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Then they crush you into the vans like sardines. And it’s a freezer in there,” he said.
Myrie noted that marginalized communities also face raids from federal forces like immigration agencies—some of which were deployed against protesters in Portland. Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, which he represents, has seen Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on restaurants accused of hiring undocumented people. In nearby Gravesend, Brooklyn, plainclothes ICE agents shot a 26-year-old man in the face while attempting to arrest his mother’s boyfriend in February.
Arrests like Stone’s are “not new. There are a lot of open questions about the warrant squad’s practices,” Myrie said, noting that NYPD claims it uses unmarked vans for safety reasons.
In a crowd of protesters who already distrust police, however, the arrest could have an additional chilling effect, compelling activists to be even more on the lookout for law enforcement.
Myrie noted a recent history of NYPD crackdowns at protests, where officers have deployed pepper spray, cuffed journalists, and driven SUVs into crowds. “You can’t expect the public to give you the benefit of the doubt when we see the type of aggressive environment and behavior that we believe is unwarranted,” he said.
The specter of arrest in an unmarked van only makes matters worse.
In a moment when “this president has sent unmarked vehicles and unidentified law enforcement officials into people’s protests, this warrants a very serious investigation and discussion,” Myrie said.