Over 1,500 protestors were arrested in New York over the last few days as public demonstrations and acts of resistance against police brutality continued throughout the city.
The unrest comes in the wake of the death in Minnesota of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes. The protestors also cite the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her Louisville home in March, and many other deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police.
On Monday, over 700 protestors were arrested citywide, according to the NYPD, who said they estimated approximately 280 arrests for Tuesday.
Amid concerns that a sudden influx of people into the city’s jails could exacerbate the spread of coronavirus among those detained, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance issued a statement in support of the protests. “Our office is independently evaluating all arrests of protestors to determine if their cases should move forward,” the statement said. “With regard to recent custodial arrests, we have independently evaluated and charged certain cases where assaults against police officers, destruction, and looting are alleged.”
However, Vance also has asked Gov. Cuomo to use emergency powers to alter the state’s bail laws to allow detention of people arrested during the unrest.
A joint statement by the city’s public defense agencies on Thursday slammed that move. “At a moment in which Black people and their allies are rightfully protesting state sanctioned racial violence while simultaneously bearing the brunt of a global pandemic – a crisis that makes brutal and dangerous city jails even more deadly – DA Vance offers incarceration as the solution,” read the missive from Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, Queens Defenders and New York County Defender Services.
In Manhattan, most arrests over the weekend did not result in immediate jail time, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Of the 481 cases the office handled from Thursday through Monday, and 342 of them were released pending arraignment. Of the remaining cases, most were arraigned and released pending their court cases, which will be heard later this year.
Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at The Legal Aid Society, cautioned that early numbers might not account for people being held who have not yet been charged. “We don’t really know until we know – until people come through arraignments,” said Wong. “So it’s not likely that we’re going to get accurate numbers right now.”
Wong said that January bail reforms might likely mean that fewer people will be spending time in jail following the protests, but she also said that these unprecedented circumstances make that hard to predict. “We’re wading in new territory, in unfamiliar territory in a few different senses – the new law, the pandemic, these protests,” she said.
On Wednesday’s Max & Murphy Show on WBAI, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said his office has seen very few cases emerging from the protests and violent clashes.
“A lot of those people who committed those acts of violence and the looting were not apprehended. We’ve only put through about 14 cases into the court system,” Gonzalez said. He estimated another 100 cases involving desk appearance tickets or summonses than have not reached his office yet. “I’ve made a commitment to the residents of this county that we will review every single one of those desk appearance tickets to see whether or not those individuals should ever have to come to court or if those cases should be declined. That’s an ongoing practice.”
“I’ve declined a very small number of protest cases, normally when the arrest is simply made for protesting and not for an act of violence,” Gonzalez continued. “We’ve had other cases that have come through that are sort of related to the protest but the person was really arrested for a different thing. So, we had a person who was arrested for carrying a loaded gun during one of the protests and that case proceeded through.”
The census of people in New York City jails available through NYC OpenData indicates that 117 people had been brought to jail between noon on Friday and 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, when the data cuts off. It was not clear how that compared with a normal five-day period.
With reporting by Anika Chowdhury and Jarrett Murphy