HIV Aids

Queer ACT UP Activists Were Among Those Beaten and Arrested by NYC Cops Amid #BlackLivesMatter Rallies

HIV/AIDS and #BlackLivesMatter activists in New York City are demanding an investigation by New York State Attorney General Letitia James of an incident in Greenwich Village the night of June 2—during which #BLM protesters, many of them queer and/or AIDS activists, were beaten and arrested by police during a face-off at an intersection in front of the sleekly contemporary building that houses The New School.

The outrage erupted in a week where cops nationwide were coming under intense scrutiny for aggressive, sometimes violent treatment of mostly young protesters who flooded the streets of U.S. cities for days and nights to demand justice and reform. The protests, mostly peaceful but some involving vandalism and looting, came in the wake of the May 25 death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while having his neck knelt upon for almost nine minutes by a cop while three other cops looked on, doing nothing. (All four cops have now been fired and charged with crimes, including second-degree murder.)

The New York City incident was preceded by a rally of about 1,000 people, mostly LGBTQ, in front of the Village’s iconic Stonewall gay bar, in recognition of police and civilian violence against Black transgender people. Specifically, the rally, organized by several queer and trans groups including Black Trans Media and Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, was meant to memorialize Nina Pop, a Black Missouri transgender woman, and Tony McDade, a Black Florida transgender man, who were killed in May.

According to accounts told to TheBody by four people who were arrested, after the rally, the crowd splintered into various marches through the streets of downtown Manhattan. According to ACT UP member Jason Rosenberg (whose HIV-positive uncle was written about in TheBody recently after dying of COVID-19), he was in a group that worked its way down the West Side Highway (parallel to the Hudson River) into Lower Manhattan, but when some marchers broke into and began looting a Starbucks, he and fellow ACT UP members Jake Powell and Bri’anna Moore decided to split.

“That was not what we signed up for,” says Rosenberg.

Aiming to head home—they were already out after the 8 p.m. curfew that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had called—they fell into step with a large group of mostly queer protesters making their way up to Union Square (in the middle of Manhattan’s 14th Street axis) from the Lower East Side. But past Union Square, at the intersection of 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, the group encountered what they say was a phalanx of New York Police Department (NYPD) cops, some of them having apparently piled atop protesters before arresting them.

“Then there was escalation,” says Rosenberg. Echoing the other three persons’ accounts, he says that the cops ambushed protesters, using their batons to either beat them or shove them violently to the crowd, then arrested them with plastic zip-cuffs.

“I just remember several officers coming at us from every side, punching me, beating with their batons, kicking. I remember being hit on the head, but not who did it or how many times. I don’t remember what they or I were saying, but it went on for a few minutes.”

As a widely circulated photo shows, Rosenberg ended up on the ground with others, cuffed, with blood streaming down his face. For up to an hour, say he and others who were arrested, protesters repeatedly chanted “Medic! Medic!” to tend to Rosenberg and others who were complaining of handcuffs cutting off circulation, but the cops did next to nothing, telling the protesters that the situation was their own fault for being out after curfew.

Says Powell: “The cops grabbed me, threw me to the sidewalk. [They say they were scraped and bruised but not seriously injured.] In about 10 minutes, about 30 of us were handcuffed and on the ground. The cuffs of the woman next to me were so tight that I could see her hand seizing. Everyone was screaming, ‘Take off the cuffs!’ to well over a hundred cops, but they said that none of them had brought scissors. One cop used a serrated pocketknife against the woman’s skin to try to cut the cuffs, but he eventually gave up and left her there.

“There was also a young Black man who’d been arrested while saying he was just walking home,” continues Powell, “and his cuffs were so tight that he was going in and out of consciousness, slumped over with his eyes rolling back. Some of the other protesters said they saw him vomiting blood, but the cops were saying he was faking it.” That man alone, says Powell, was finally put into an ambulance.

At a time when most New Yorkers are wearing masks to prevent giving or getting COVID-19, added Powell, most of the cops in the melee were not—and did not seem to care that many cuffed protesters complained about their own masks having come off amid the skirmish.

Powell and Rosenberg were among arrestees taken to precincts in Brooklyn, where they were held first outside in the rain, then inside in cells until dawn hours, while police filed their paperwork.

“The facility was a zoo,” says Powell. “The police were complaining to us that they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. When they released us, they told us that anyone coming to get us before 5 a.m.”—when the curfew ended—“would be in violation of the curfew.” Powell, who lives nearby and walked home, said that reps from the National Lawyers Guild awaited arrestees outside precincts to help them get home.

As for Moore, she separated from Rosenberg and Powell at some point during the protest and bumped into a mutual friend, Claire Kuhn, then walked arm in arm with her and others. The two were briefly cuffed and given a summons on site but not taken to precincts.

“An officer hit me really hard with a baton,” says Moore. “We started running down Fifth Avenue as cops shouted at us, ‘Run faster! You need to get home.’ But once they got us and cuffed us, they were suddenly very nice and said, ‘You’re just going to get a summons.’ We got lucky.

“I guess being out after curfew is technically illegal, but otherwise nothing we did was, so I don’t understand why they treated us so aggressively,” continues Moore in a breaking voice. “I’m Black. I know what my ancestors went through during the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve seen in Selma when they cross the [Edmund Pettus] bridge [in a now-iconic 1965 confrontation between protesters and cops], and it’s just crazy to me that people are still treating us the same way.”

Says Kuhn, who previously that evening had been at protests in Union Square, “Seeing a picture later of Jason with blood on his face while knowing he’s an extremely peaceful person is fucked up. There was no reason for the cops to get violent with him or deny him medical attention for four or five hours.”

According to Rosenberg, when his cuffs were finally removed in the jail cell, he then realized that his arm felt like it was swinging free from his elbow. He says that, in jail, police referred to him as “the bloody one,” and that one cop cracked, “At least now you look badass.” Upon release from jail (at which point he posted this video, he went to the ER.

After that, he posted: “We finally made it home. Luckily the ER was wrong in saying I need surgery. A broken humerus with a brace, 9 staples, and some scrapes. Let’s start the healing and keep protesting from home. And just so everyone’s aware … we were peaceful. We linked our arms in civil disobedience, not resisting arrest. We were beaten. Fuck anyone who tries to say otherwise. Tony McDade you were not murdered in cold blood by the police in [vain]. #justicefortony

Around noon on June 4, Rosenberg said that he was taking Percocet for his arm, which hurt badly and could take up to two months to heal, but otherwise was doing OK.

Longtime founding ACT UP member Eric Sawyer, who said that he is handling legal matters for Rosenberg while he recovers, told TheBody that an account of the incident had been sent to the office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James with a request for an investigation. A rep in James’ office said they were aware of photos and videos from the incident but, because an investigation was active, they could not say more.

The press office of the NYPD did not reply by a given deadline of 4 p.m. Thursday June 4 as to why force was used on protesters who were practicing civil disobedience—they linked arms at one point against the cops—but were not violently resisting arrest. The query also asked if the NYPD was conducting its own investigation of the incident.

Also arrested in the incident was well-known New York City activist and drag artist Marti Gould Cummings, who did not reply to a request for comment over Facebook by deadline.

Those spoken to here say they have no intention of stopping their participation in protests against police brutality and for changes that include the dramatic defunding of the NYPD, passage of a long-dormant anti-chokehold bill, and repeal of a New York State law (50-a) that shields police officers’ disciplinary records from public view.

“The NYPD are an occupying force, and we need to stop it,” says Powell. “Seeing peaceful protesters being beaten by police officers have made it abundantly clear to me that policing is not about safety. Reducing policing will create safer communities than now, where we have a military occupying our city.”

Says Moore: “The mayor [de Blasio] needs to resign. You can’t be mayor of a city where you’re afraid of your own police department and they have so much power over you. We also need to defund them. Their $6 billion budget is way more than is spent on social services, health, the fire department. It’s ridiculous how much money and power they have.”

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