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‘It was like a kidnapping’: Viral video shows NYPD officers forcing protester into unmarked van

NYPD officers seen in a video shared online Tuesday evening forcing a protester into an unmarked van during an arrest. (Screengrab via Twitter/Twitter)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio scolded the city’s police force Wednesday after a protester was arrested by plainclothes officers driving an unmarked minivan, an incident that went viral on social media and drew comparisons to the widely condemned tactics used by federal authorities who clashed with demonstrators in Portland, Ore.

Nikki Stone, 18, was taken into custody in Manhattan on Tuesday evening by the New York Police Department’s warrant squad. Authorities said Stone was wanted for damaging police cameras near City Hall.

De Blasio (D) said that, while it was proper to arrest a person suspected of damaging city property, this was “the wrong time and the wrong place to effectuate that arrest.”

“A lot of us have watched in pain what’s been going on in Portland, Oregon, and the fact that you see federal agents, federal officers, federal troops, clearly doing inappropriate things meant to undermine our democratic process. That’s just thoroughly unacceptable. So, anything that even slightly suggests that is, to me, troubling, and it’s the kind of thing that we don’t want to see in this city. This is not Portland.”

When the unmarked Kia minivan screeched to a stop near protesters Tuesday evening, the demonstrators’ surprise swiftly gave way to alarm. Several NYPD officers wearing T-shirts and shorts spilled out of the van and grabbed Stone, dragging her toward the vehicle, according to bystanders’ videos.

Protesters who witnessed the incident described it as a “kidnapping,” while a number of New York’s elected officials, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), decried the officers’ actions and demanded further explanations from the NYPD.

“Our civil liberties are on brink. This is not a drill,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “There is no excuse for snatching women off the street and throwing them into unmarked vans.”

(Warning: This video contains explicit language.)

Police said Stone has been charged with criminal mischief related to five separate incidents.

“When officers from the Warrant Squad took the woman into custody in a gray NYPD minivan this evening, they were assaulted with rocks and bottles,” NYPD officials said in a statement. “The Warrant Squad uses unmarked vehicles to effectively locate wanted suspects.”

Protesters present during the arrest disputed the NYPD’s account, insisting they did not engage with the officers.

“None of that happened whatsoever,” Clara Kraebber, a 20-year-old Oxford student, told Gothamist. “We literally turned the corner and were met with a line of police who attacked us without warning.”

Kraebber said officers pepper-sprayed the group “seemingly at random,” adding, “They were trying to make it painful to be there.”

Another witness told Gothamist that the protesters had been “skateboarding and eating pizza” before the van’s unexpected arrival.

“We didn’t see where they came from,” the witness said. “All of a sudden they grabbed [Nikki]. It was like a kidnapping.”

In one video, a group of protesters, some of whom are riding bikes and skateboards, are making their way down the street before the camera pans to one of the officers grabbing Stone several feet away from the van.

As a handful of protesters approach, an officer repeatedly shouts, “Get back!” and charges on foot at those getting too close.

Within seconds, more police flood the area, using their bicycles to create a barrier between the van, where the officers are still struggling with Stone, and the crowd.

Additional videos of the aftermath showed protesters in a tense standoff against the remaining NYPD officers. One officer was filmed yelling at the demonstrators to step back while brandishing what appeared to be a large spray bottle and a baton.

Though the NYPD suggested that Stone’s arrest followed standard procedure and said that no federal authorities had been involved, critics noted the scene closely resembled accounts from Portland this month, where protesters were grabbed off the street by agents dressed in military attire and loaded into unmarked minivans.

In Twitter posts by the NYPD on Tuesday and Wednesday, officials presented the arrest as having been carried out by the book. Video posted by Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison shows a female protester spray painting over and dumping paint on security cameras. Another clip shows a woman apparently using a broom to vandalize another space. It was not clear if the clips all depict the same individual, and an NYPD official could not confirm whether the clips depicted Stone, who was charged with criminal mischief and making graffiti stemming from five incidents in June and July.

‘It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them

The actions of the federal agents in Portland, who were deployed as part of a show of federal power championed by President Trump, have heightened anxieties in cities such as New York and Chicago, which are still experiencing frequent protests and spates of violence. Trump administration officials have defended the Portland operation against critics who have decried the agents’ aggressive tactics and has continued to threaten to send federal forces to other cities led by Democratic mayors.

Operation Diligent Valor: Trump showcased federal power in Portland, making a culture war campaign pitch

Several city officials have expressed unease about the arrest, and at least one demanded an independent review of the incident.

“With anxiety about what’s happening in Portland, the NYPD deploying unmarked vans with plainclothes cops to make street arrests of protestors feels more like provocation than public safety,” New York City Council member Brad Lander (D) tweeted.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D) tweeted that the video was “incredibly disturbing,” while Scott M. Stringer, the New York City comptroller, said he was “deeply concerned.”

“We need answers immediately,” Stringer added.

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer urged the police to remember the importance of de-escalation.

“We can’t let what is happening in Portland happen here,” Brewer tweeted. “Part of police accountability is ordinary citizens knowing who is policing them. When you can’t identify a vehicle taking someone, it causes alarm. Police can’t de-escalate situations if they don’t identify themselves.”

Jacobs reported from New York.