Video depicting members of the far-right group Proud Boys assaulting three protesters while yelling homophobic slurs near 82nd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan after a recent group event generated outrage from New York politicians, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, and police promises to pursue the perpetrators. Last night, the NYPD made its first arrest of a Proud Boy for his alleged role in the assault.
Law enforcement, politicians, and the media have focused significant attention on the Proud Boys, who held an event Oct. 12 at the Metropolitan Republican Club. But there has been far less scrutiny of the conduct of the officers assigned to the venue from the NYPD’s 19th Precinct and the department’s Strategic Response Group (SRG).
“The SRG seemed to be entirely focused on the anti-fascists,” said photojournalist Shay Horse, whose videos and photos documenting the Proud Boys event were used in publications like the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and were spread widely on social media. “The NYPD allowed the Proud Boys and the 211 Bootboys to march without an escort. Both of these decisions on the NYPD/SRG’s part made the attack possible. By totally ignoring the Proud Boys the police pretty much allowed them to assault people on the streets of New York.”
(The NYPD has defended its handling of the event, saying that participants in the assault dispersed “as soon as they [the NYPD] pulled up.”)
Activists say they are not surprised that the SRG appeared to back off when Proud Boys assaulted protesters because of the unit’s troubled history of suppressing protests, particularly those that call for justice for Black victims of police violence. Indeed, the SRG’s handling of the Proud Boys mirrors the police’s hands-off approach to the violence surrounding the far-right protests in Charlottesville in August 2017 that left one woman dead and many others seriously injured. A report on the tragedy from a former federal prosecutor concluded that the UVA Police Department’s “lack of intervention was obvious to everyone present.”
The SRG was established in early 2015 by then NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who said that the 350-officer unit would be dedicated to “disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities.” In his announcement of the SRG, Bratton specifically cited terrorism incidents such as coordinated attacks by Islamic radicals in Mumbai in 2008 that claimed nearly 200 casualties and a January 2015 attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 17 dead. Notably, Bratton also said that the SRG would deal with “events like our recent protests,” referring to the massive protests in New York that began in the summer of 2014 after the police murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. One march in December 2014 drew approximately 25,000 protesters.
The day after Bratton’s announcement, however, in what the New York Daily News described as a “walked back” statement, James O’Neill, who is now the NYPD’s commissioner, assured the public that the SRG “will not be involved in handling protests and demonstrations. They’ll have no role in protests. Their response is single-fold. They’ll be doing counterterror work.”
But such assurances did not assuage activists or attorneys from the civil rights and public defense communities. In March 2015, attorneys with the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild called the SRG “unjustifiably massive, dangerous in its approach, and wasteful” and demanded that the City Council “reject the Strategic Response Group proposal.”
Their skepticism of the SRG has proved to be well founded. Since it was established, the group has expanded into a nearly 800-officer unit that handles protests along with much more mundane policing tasks such as ticketing and animal rescue. (Even Bratton once noted that the SRG had “multiple missions.”) Indeed, in October 2015, an activist spotted members of the SRG policing homeless people in the subways. When the activist confronted one officer and said he thought the unit was supposed to be handling terrorism and protests, the officer said, “That’s not what we’re here for.” In January 2016, a reporter from the New York Times described SRG officers saving a kitten trapped underneath a car on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. A few months later, the unit was deployed with bloodhounds to hunt down a Black 16-year-old boy who escaped police custody after an arrest for turnstile jumping. By September 2018, even SRG officers themselves complained about mission creep: Whistleblowers from the unit complained to the New York Post that their bosses pressured them to meet ticket quotas. “We feel that we’re not as sharp on our tactics,” one officer said, “because they are pulling us away from tactical training to grab numbers.”
Why Accountability, an abolitionist group led by Black women, has observed SRG conduct the ‘new stop and frisk’—traffic stops—in the Bronx,” Shannon Jones, a co-founder of the group, told The Appeal. “SRG is another tentacle of white supremacy seeking to wrap and squeeze Black freedom.”
Jones’s organization and with other grassroots activist groups that engage in street protest have experienced the SRG’s repressive tactics, particularly Black Lives Matter and pro-immigrant protests. The SRG has become a regular fixture at abolitionist group NYC Shut It Down’s weekly #PeoplesMonday protests, where activists highlight stories of people killed by police. The SRG showed up at this week’s #PeoplesMonday, just days after the Proud Boys event.
In addition to violently arresting pro-immigrant protesters in February 2017 and routinely harassing and intimidating Occupy ICE NYC protesters in Foley Square in July, the SRG also helped ICE detain immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir in January. When protesters attempted to stop ICE from taking Ragbir, the SRG pushed, choked, and arrested protesters, some of whom were local politicians. Later, when Ragbir was taken to a hospital, he said there were about 20 people watching him, half of whom were part of the SRG.
The SRG’s ever-expanding power and focus has also led to deadly consequences for Black and brown people.
In December 2017, the SRG initiated a low-level drug-and-gun investigation that led to police raiding a Bronx apartment and killing 69-year-old Mario Sanabria. Officers claimed that he swung a machete at cops, but Sanabria’s family and his roommate, a 92 year-old-man, insisted that he never wielded the sword against the cops. The police said they were acting on a “legitimate search warrant” but Sanabria’s family insisted that they acted on a bad tip from a confidential informant and were searching for a relative named “Daniel Conde.” “We have nobody in our family named Daniel,” one family member said.
In April, four officers, including two from the SRG, shot and killed 34-year-old Saheed Vassell on a Brooklyn street corner. The cops said that they had received calls about a man with a gun and that the pipe that Vassell was holding when he was killed resembled a weapon. “Why were SRG, a militarized strategic force, responding to a 911 call?” asked his brother Andwele Vassell. Days later, during a large march in Brooklyn demanding justice for Vassell, the SRG showed up to try to intimidate protesters. This week, Vassell’s father Eric met with New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood to discuss possible charges against the officers involved in his son’s death. “This is the tactics of the NYPD to just [let] the families suffer for years and years and years,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve seen them do that. They do all types of things to cause us to break down. It’s a game that they keep on playing with us over and over, wanting us to believe they’ll do good. But when it comes to people of color, they see us as minorities and because we do not have no power, they keep on spinning us over and over.”
Unlike Vassell and Sanabria, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes wasn’t shot when he left the group’s Oct. 12 event waving a samurai sword he had just used to re-enact the 1960 assassination of Japanese socialist Inejiro Asanuma by an ultranationalist who has since become an icon in far right movements. Instead, SRG officers escorted him to his car and then tried to arrest anti-fascists who appeared to throw objects, like a plastic bottle, in his direction. When confronted with this fact, an NYPD spokesman tweeted that “the ‘sword’ was plastic” to which a Twitter user responded, “Oh so now police can distinguish between real weapons and toy weapons?”
Activists with the Committee to Stop FBI Repression-NYC have recently demanded the disbanding of the SRG, a call that resonates with Horse after witnessing the unit’s conduct at the Proud Boys event. “The SRG has no business policing protests with such heavy-handed tactics, acting like an occupying army more so than a police force,” he said.
Jones of Why Accountability, like many other Black and brown activists in NYC, says she isn’t surprised by what she sees as the SRG’s laissez-faire treatment of the Proud Boys. She views the SRG’s mission as similar to general police functions, which she describes as “social control, the protection of private property, and repression of the Black liberation movements in New York City.”
“We ain’t having it,” Jones said. “Black freedom now. Abolition Now.”