As a group of marchers made their way down Manhattan’s Second Avenue on Tuesday evening, 18-year-old Nikki Stone skateboarded ahead of the crowd. The protest was part of a 24-hour demonstration spearheaded by Abolition Park, a collective of activists dedicated to dismantling the police and prison industrial complex. Witnesses and participants say that, for the most part, the day’s protests had been fairly peaceful. Until that point.
A cluster of plainclothes officers soon descended on Stone, as video footage captured. At one point, three officers attempt to handle her as she falls to the ground, while other plainclothes officers collaborate with bike cops to keep the crowd of now agitated protesters at bay, reportedly dousing some with pepper spray in the process. Eventually, as the videos show, Stone is whisked into an unmarked minivan and driven away.
The incident is eerily reminiscent of recent arrests being made in Portland, Oregon, where President Donald Trump has deployed federal troops to quell the city’s social unrest. There, multiple videos also show unidentified officers hauling protesters off the streets and into unmarked vehicles. Trump later claimed that he would send the same treatment to other metropolitan areas experiencing protests across the United States, and Stone’s arrest had many assuming that he had made good on that threat.
However, the officers who snatched her in broad daylight were not under Trump’s jurisdiction, but rather part of the New York Police Department’s warrant squad, a unit operating under the administration of self-proclaimed progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio.
As videos of Stone’s arrest went viral, the NYPD released a statement claiming that she was wanted for “damaging police cameras during 5 separate criminal incidents” during an earlier action when protesters were camped at City Hall Park. The department also said that the officers making Stone’s arrest “were assaulted with rocks and bottles,” although multiple videos taken at different vantage points don’t seem to support that claim. The statement also clarified that the warrant squad “uses unmarked vehicles to effectively locate wanted suspects.”
In particular, the function of the NYPD’s warrant squad is to arrest those with outstanding warrants. Still, this NYPD division tends to lay siege upon vulnerable communities, from raiding homeless shelters in the middle of the night to previously targeting those with low-level violations in order to collect intel about the Occupy Wall Street protests.
“I think it was the wrong time and the wrong place to effectuate that arrest,” de Blasio told reporters the following day, per Gothamist. “The arrest as I understand was for damaging police property. I want to affirm very clearly: No one is allowed to damage police property. That is a real offense.”
New York City elected officials were more pithy in their condemnation of the arrest. The City Council’s Progressive Caucus released a statement saying that the tactic was “meant to intimidate protesters and discourage civil disobedience. As we loudly oppose the federal government’s use of unidentified federal law enforcement agents to curb dissent in Portland and other cities, we must be equally vociferous in opposing the use of such tactics by the NYPD.”
Many Black and Brown neighborhoods are familiar with these sudden and aggressive policing tactics, through the employment of racist policies like stop-and-frisk. And while New York police commissioner Dermot Shea announced in June that the department would be disbanding its anti-crime units, in which plainclothes teams targeted violent crime and often upheld practices like stop-and-frisk, he also stipulated that the plainclothes units would be reorganized into different divisions.
New York state senator Zellnor Myrie told City & State, “We have a tendency to … vilify the actions of this particular federal administration, and I have done so where appropriate. But when we do that, I think we lose the reality that this isn’t something that is new or necessarily attached to this administration. This is in the DNA of the New York Police Department.”
Corey Stoughton, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, additionally told Gothamist, “In Black and brown communities, the NYPD regularly make these abduction-like arrests, and it must stop immediately.”
“We know that people of color and transgender people are at greater risk of police brutality, with transgender people at particular risk of harassment and abuse while detained,” said Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David in a statement to ABC News, referring to the arrest of Stone, a homeless transgender woman.
New York City isn’t alone. Across the country, plainclothes cops have regularly used this tactic to terrorize vulnerable communities.
A 2017 report on the Chicago Police Department conducted by the Department of Justice calls the practice a “jump out,” involving “groups of officers, frequently in plain clothes and riding in unmarked vehicles driving rapidly toward a street corner or group of individuals and then jumping out and rapidly advancing, often with guns drawn. These actions often cause one of more members of the targeted group to walk away briskly or run from the scene. The officers then zero-in on the fleeing person, often with one officer tasked with chasing him on foot.”
Included in the report is an incident in which a plainclothes officer in an unmarked car pursued and ultimately shot a man fleeing from him. The officer claimed that the man had a gun, though no weapons were recovered. The shooting victim told investigators that he was running “because a sedan he did not recognize had raced through a stop sign and headed toward him.”
Stone, who is now receiving funds through GoFundMe to obtain housing, was released early Wednesday morning with a desk appearance ticket.
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