On Wednesday morning, New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot F. Shea tweeted a low-resolution video of an unidentified officer picking up blue plastic crates on a city street corner. The crates, which appeared to be filled with chunks of masonry, had apparently been left next to a garbage can near Avenue X and West 3rd Street in Gravesend, a neighborhood by the water on Brooklyn’s south end that’s been largely untouched by the protests elsewhere in the borough and the city.
"This is what our cops are up against: Organized looters, strategically placing caches of bricks & rocks at locations throughout NYC," Shea wrote. On Wednesday afternoon, the White House included that clip in a video compilation of footage it claimed showed “Antifa and professional anarchists... invading our communities.”
But Shea didn’t explain why organized looters would have left bricks in a quiet, mostly residential Brooklyn neighborhood, and conversations with people who work and live in the area suggest the NYPD’s Twitter bulletin threatened to stoke tensions for no reason.
An officer in Sector B of the 61st Precinct, which covers Gravesend, said he could not explain or discuss the details of the brick discoveries. NYPD coordinators for the neighborhood did not respond to requests for comment. A detective at the Office of the NYPD Deputy Commissioner, Public Information said he did not know anything about the incident.
“The city is going through an unprecedented issue with looting and protesting,” he told The Daily Beast. “The normal people who would answer your questions are out trying to protect the city. So that’s why you’re not getting answers to your questions.”
In the week of protests since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, cops and politicians alike have been quick to point to “organized looters” and “outside agitators” fomenting unrest. But the claims often come with little evidence, and seem to buckle under scrutiny. Last week, after NYPD vehicles were filmed driving into a crowd of protestors, Mayor Bill De Blasio claimed that “a small set of men… came to do violence in a systematic organized fashion.” And there have been reports of protesters throwing bricks at police in New York.
But New York City Council Member Mark Treyger, who represents the Gravesend area, disagreed with the idea that external troublemakers were making mischief in his turf. In a phone call with The Daily Beast, Treyger said he became aware of the discovery of containers of suspect materials at two locations in his district when a constituent messaged him over social media, and that he confirmed the finding with the 61st Precinct.
However, Treyger said that the NYPD acknowledged to him the containers might simply contain construction debris. The councilman said that he had not seen protests in the area or any signs of organized looting—and pointed out that at least one set of the containers were found near a construction site, suggesting that the bricks came from there.
He called his conclusion “simple math.”
"There is literally a construction site and construction fencing and signage. And they found five or six containers of what appears to me to be construction debris,” Treyger told The Daily Beast.
“I believe that [Shea’s] tweet about my district is not responsible. Because he did not give the full set of facts and the full picture, especially when his own department says the discovery was still under investigation,” Treyger added, warning that such rumors could cause division in the racially diverse neighborhood. “The police commissioner needs to be very mindful with his words, because they could incite violence.”
The commissioner’s claims about the crates in Gravesend were especially remarkable because they were nowhere near the locus of protests Tuesday, which is when five employees of local businesses told The Daily Beast the bins were removed.
Employees at two businesses—Knapp Pizza II and New Fortune Wine & Spirit—on the block in question told The Daily Beast police had removed the crates on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s protests in Brooklyn were centered closer to the Barclays Center, nearly five miles away.
A woman who asked to be identified only as Sabrina R. said that the medical offices next to the apparent site of the bins did have security cameras, but that they were blocked from a view of the corner. An employee at nearby New Fortune Wine & Spirit said they had heard about the bricks, but had seen no protest. She said that while the store was outfitted with security cameras, that they belonged to the landlord, who could not be reached by press time.
At Smart Choice Pharmacy, which sits across from the site where the crates appeared to be collected, a staff member told The Daily Beast the street has been very quiet. “We haven’t seen anything like that,” she said. “It was very quiet yesterday. We didn’t see anything like that… There was no protest in Gravesend last night.”
An employee at the Dunkin Donuts across the intersection from the site in question told The Daily Beast they had not noticed the bricks at all.
An NYPD spokeswoman told the Daily Beast no complaint report had been filed about the containers. “No one called it in to complain,” she said. “It wasn’t taken as a complaint report… Because it’s not a crime. [The crates were] just left there.”
In a media availability Wednesday morning, Commissioner Shea discussed the issue with Mayor De Blasio. “So in terms of the tweet today, unfortunately it’s not an isolated incident,” Shea said. “That was two locations, one was in Brooklyn, one was in Queens, where pre-staged bricks are being placed and then transported to quote unquote peaceful protests—which are peaceful protests—but then used by that criminal group within to sow fear.”
Shea did not provide any details on the incident in Queens or specify how NYPD had come to the conclusion that the debris containers were associated with protests, given that no major protests had been reported in that area. He did concede that they might have come from construction sites.
“We’ve had construction sites burglarized in recent days in Manhattan,” Shea said. “It’s interesting. Construction site burglary is not that uncommon, but during a riot it’s interesting what was taken—bricks.”
Shea also mentioned a pattern of protestors throwing water bottles filled with cement at police officers, but did not provide specific instances of when such incidents had occurred, or evidence that any of those had been “an orchestrated attack.”
“I do believe that the police commissioner needs to be clear in his messaging that this debris was found near a construction site,” Council Member Treyger said. “And as of this afternoon, I have not heard of organized looting in my district.”