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Testy De Blasio Defends NYPD Actions at Freddie Gray Protests

By Jeff Mays | May 1, 2015 11:42am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the NYPD Thursday after complaints from demonstraters protesting the death of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died after being arrested by police there, that they were treated more roughly by police than in previous protests.
De Blasio Discusses New York City Freddie Gray Protests
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CITY HALL — Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the NYPD Thursday after demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray complained they were treated more roughly by police than in previous protests.

Police arrested 143 protesters Wednesday night in a demonstration that started near Union Square and evolved into a march. But protesters say police escalated the situation "with an aggressive show of force," according to the groups, preventing the crowd from marching in the street and even arresting individuals who were protesting peacefully.

During protests over the death of Eric Garner last year, protesters say police took a much more relaxed approach and facilitated groups who wanted to march in the street. Police also were not as quick to arrest protesters, mainly grabbing them up when they tried to do things such as purposely block traffic.

During a testy press conference at City Hall where de Blasio repeatedly scolded reporters for "editorializing" and sensationalizing, the mayor said that peaceful, non-violent protests would be respected but police orders must be obeyed.

"When the police give you an instruction, you follow the instruction," said the mayor. "It's not debatable."

The mayor said that some protesters were looking to stir up trouble but that sort of behavior would not be tolerated in New York City.

"There are a few groups who travel the country looking for opportunities to incite violence, who don't want peaceful protests to work," said de Blasio.

"There are some individuals who want to spark a confrontation and we won't let them do it," added the mayor who said peaceful protests would be supported.

De Blasio acknowledged that he was being criticized by "colleagues, friends" and "even my supporters" over the way the protests were handled.

Activists gathered outside of NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza yesterday and criticized the NYPD for heavy-handed policing of protesters. De Blasio also met with the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, Thursday morning in what the mayor said was a long-scheduled meeting about income inequality.

"Our communities have been brutalized and killed by police despite following the law for decades, and last night New Yorkers were once again brutalized by the NYPD for simply protesting," said Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform.

“It’s unacceptable that Mayor de Blasio refused to take responsibility for the systemic lack of respect that the NYPD showed for the rights of peaceful protesters last night by being the ones inciting abuse and violence against New Yorkers," she added.

De Blasio, a former organizer who was arrested in 2013 at a protest against the closing of Long Island College Hospital when he was a mayoral candidate, repeatedly denied that there had been any shift in tone from the Garner protests to the Gray protests by police.

"The strategic approach is exactly the same," de Blasio said. "We are going to respect non-violent protests and we will accommodate it in all sorts of flexible ways." 

But if police warn protesters to stay out of the street or off of a bridge roadway "they have to respect the instructions of the police," the mayor added.

"To people who want to work on this issue here's an easy piece of advice: Pay attention to the instructions of the police and I think everything will go fine," said de Blasio.

The mayor said that the drop in stop-and-frisks, which a federal judge ruled discriminated against mostly black and Latino men, and his plan to lift 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty are "major structural changes" that would not get as much attention as the complaints about Wednesday's protests.

When pressed on the issue of whether there was any strategic shift in police policy, de Blasio accused one reporter of editorializing.

"If you guys want to sensationalize, if you think that’s your contribution to society, feel free," the mayor said. "I’m giving you lots of quotes. Maybe you could borrow from one of these quotes."

When another reporter asked whether there was any contradiction between the mayor telling protesters to obey the police and his own previous protest arrest in 2013, de Blasio said he was "astounded" by the question.

The mayor then proceeded to lecture the reporter on the history of non-violent protests.

"I have to school you for a moment. Civil disobedience — it’s called civil disobedience — Ghandi, King, etc. You plan with the police what’s going to happen," said de Blasio.

"I don’t know if you were there that day in 2013. It was the most choreographed thing on Earth in terms of how the police wanted to handle it. We didn’t make it up."