September 29, 2020

Pro-Police Rallies Draw Counterprotesters and Clashes

Clashes between protesters and the police were familiar sights in the days after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. But a new kind of unrest has emerged in recent days: confrontations between New Yorkers who support law enforcement and those who are pressing for an overhaul of the police department.

There have been raw encounters in Brooklyn, Queens and in Manhattan, as civilian groups identifying themselves as pro-police have led marches in support of the men and women in blue.

The pro-police rallies also attract counterprotesters. Violent clashes and arrests have played out this month as unsettling images of civilian-versus-civilian rage echo back to past periods of racial violence in the city. New Yorkers are shouting, not at police officers, but over their shoulders, at one another.

Diane Atkins, a Bay Ridge resident, attended pro-police events in Brooklyn on a Saturday and a Sunday earlier this month. “We wanted to stand up for our police officers,” Ms. Atkins said. “These are everyday New Yorkers who could be your friends, family and neighbors.”

Most of the pro-police events have been neighborhood-based and organized by local residents, using Facebook and other social media outlets to gain traction. Others have been co-organized by local political groups, such as the Brooklyn Conservative Party, though most organizers try to refrain from discussing politics at their rallies.

ImageThe pro-police demonstrators in Bay Ridge carried American flags, and some had signs backing President Trump.
Credit…Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The New York Times

The crowds, which are overwhelmingly white, have been a mix of retired officers, their friends and family and other attendees who have said they are rallying support for law and order. Many law enforcement supporters feel local officers have been wrongly vilified since Mr. Floyd’s death. The rise of pro-police rallies is also a reaction to legislative efforts to shrink the police department.

But the rallies, often known as “Back the Blue” or “Blue Lives Matter” events, have been met by Black Lives Matter backers — racially diverse groups of protesters who are outraged at gatherings that they see as undermining their own cause.

“For pro-cop rallies to come down into the streets and yell ‘white lives matter’ or ‘blue lives matter,’ it almost takes away from the conversation,” said 18-year-old Abdullah Akl, who helped organize a counterprotest in Bay Ridge. “We aren’t fighting against individual police, we are fighting against the institution as a whole and all the racism practices within.”

Organizers of counterprotests have said that they intend their demonstrations to be “a peaceful, nonviolent show of opposition.”

But quelling public anger has proved to be difficult for both sides. Earlier this month in Brooklyn, in the Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge neighborhoods, hundreds turned out for pro-police rallies that were interrupted by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, and tensions quickly escalated in confrontations largely split along racial lines.

At the rally in Bay Ridge, pro-police participants waved American and Thin Blue Line flags and election signs for President Trump. Counterprotesters arrived with Black liberation flags and Black Lives Matter banners. Fists and insults flew even as police officers stood between the two groups.

Several people were seen being taken away by officers. The police later said two people were arrested in Bay Ridge, one for throwing a helmet into a crowd and the other for attempted assault.

Days later, a more violent clash took place on the Brooklyn Bridge.

A march of clergy to promote peace was joined by a group of off-duty police officers heading to City Hall Park. Black Lives Matter protesters planned to meet the march halfway. Before the two groups could face off, a few dozen on-duty officers halted the Black Lives Matter protesters.

Again, violence broke out, but this time solely between police and Black Lives Matter protesters. When a protester was being arrested on the bridge, a woman attacked officers with a cane, the police said. Among the targets were Terence A. Monahan, the Police Department’s chief of department and top uniformed officer, who sprained a finger. Other officers bled from head injuries, and several protesters were injured. The police said 36 people were arrested.

Credit…Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press

The incidents have each been separate, without a single group organizing all the various “Blue Lives” events, but they share a frustration with the criticism of police behavior and tactics and the calls to defund the police.

The smartphone videos filmed at the events and shared on social media tend to focus on the loudest and most volatile voices in attendance, but others have quietly sought to mobilize backing for law enforcement.

Mary Ziegler, 43, who lives in Burnt Hills, N.Y., near Schenectady, created a Facebook group to rally support for the police. In a little over a month, the group has grown to over 9,000 members from across the country.

“I would say this movement to ‘Back the Blue’ was galvanized when calls to defund and abolish the police became a very real force in this country,” Ms. Ziegler said in an email.

She recently created a Facebook event to organize a pro-police rally in Albany next month.

President Trump has attacked calls to defund the police, calling the demand a fad. And earlier this month, he criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for allowing “Black Lives Matter” to be painted on the street outside Trump Tower. On Twitter, Mr. Trump said the painted motto will “further antagonize New York’s Finest.”

It may have instead inspired them to create their own message: Last week, two police advocacy groups called for a “Blue Lives Matter” painting on a street near 1 Police Plaza in Lower Manhattan.

Some pro-police rally attendees insist that their mission is not to antagonize Black Lives Matter protesters. At a recent police rally in Staten Island, Scott LoBaido, 55, told participants the message should be kept positive.

“I emphasized if you’re going to spew anti-BLM rhetoric, that will not be tolerated at this rally,“ he said.

And not everyone in pro-police circles favors the rallies. The Brooklyn Young Republican Club turned down an invitation to the rally in Dyker Heights, according to Joel Acevedo, 25, the president of the organization.

“Good police do not need defending,” Mr. Acevedo said. “You can be pro-police and still support accountability to a police system that perpetuates inequities in Black communities. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Credit…Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The New York Times

The mere presence and timing of the nascent movement — and the “Blue Lives” language — has upset protesters calling for overhaul of policing.

“The logic is nonsense,” said Noah Weston, 35, an activist from Bay Ridge who attended two pro-police rallies as a counterprotester. On Saturday, he was treated at an emergency room after someone kicked him in the groin.

“Blue is their uniform, and they can take it off,” he said. “But Black people can’t stop being Black at their leisure.”

Protesters who want to defund the police said they plan to disrupt future pro-police rallies and are training their members on how to respond to an angry reception.

Some who attended recent counterprotests said police officers were aggressive toward Black Lives Matter protesters while being lenient with pro-police attendees when trying to intervene during confrontations.

Joseph Imperatrice, 35, the founder of the group Blue Lives Matter-NYC, attended the pro-police march in Bayside, Queens, in mid-July where violent confrontations with Black Lives Matter protesters erupted.

The consistency of counterprotests and altercations at pro-cop rallies has made Mr. Imperatrice cautious.

“That doesn’t mean I won’t go,” Mr. Imperatrice said. “But I’ll definitely think twice.”