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NYC to pay $21,500 — per person — to protesters ‘kettled’ by police

A class-action lawsuit said over 300 protesters were surrounded and arrested during a 2020 demonstration

New York City police stand in formation after arresting protesters marching after curfew in June 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)
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The hundreds of people who marched through the Bronx on June 4, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd had no idea they would face what a watchdog group described as one of the “most aggressive police responses” in the country.

As an 8 p.m. curfew neared, New York Police Department officers bicycled around the protesters and “kettled” them: Officers in body armor blocked the crowd from both ends of East 136th Street in the Mott Haven neighborhood, trapping them with no way to disperse, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Then the police pushed forward.

Henry Wood was lifted up by an NYPD officer and thrown to the ground as he huddled over a young woman who’d fallen over, according to a complaint in a class-action lawsuit.

Samira Sierra protested when officers did the same to her sister Amali, who has multiple sclerosis, and was allegedly told, “Why would your sister be out here protesting if she’s disabled?”

Over 300 were arrested, attorneys for the protesters said. Now, those who haven’t individually settled with the city will be eligible to receive at least $21,500, attorneys announced Tuesday, as the class-action lawsuit brought against the city and the NYPD nears a conclusion after two-plus years of litigation.

“To our knowledge, it is among the highest per person settlement awards in a mass protest context in our country’s history,” attorney Ali Frick, who represents several protesters in the lawsuit, said. “We think that reflects the seriousness of the illegality that occurred.”

Amali Sierra said in a news release announcing the agreement: “This settlement serves as testimony of the wrongdoing by the hands of the NYPD, and it is a reminder that this institution is not built to protect Black and Brown communities.”

The NYPD said in its own statement that the period was a “challenging moment” and that it has revised its policies for policing large-scale demonstrations since 2020. When asked for comment, the city of New York referred to the NYPD’s statement.

Protesters surrounded by police at East 136th Street on the evening of June 4 will be eligible to receive the $21,500 settlement payment, and some will receive an additional $2,500, according to a news release from the attorneys representing them.

The exact number of eligible recipients is unclear, but more than 300 people were arrested at the demonstration, according to the complaint. If that many accept the settlement, the total payout by the city would exceed $6 million.

The NYPD’s actions drew condemnation from watchdog groups and residents. Observers described a display of violence and disregard for legal protections that punctuated a tense week already marked by images of police brutality.

“The violence unleashed upon us that night was intentional, unwarranted, and will be with me for the rest of my life,” Wood said in the attorneys’ news release.

Video footage from the kettled protesters compiled in the Human Rights Watch report, which attorneys cited in their complaint, shows protesters trying to remain calm as officers surround them. Some yell that they’re being corralled as officers threaten them with arrest for violating curfew.

“You guys are on the other side,” a protester can be heard asking police at the front of the crowd. “Where do we go?”

“You’re getting locked up,” an officer responds.

When police later moved in to arrest the surrounded people, officers were seen in videos using pepper spray, throwing protesters to the ground and striking them with batons. Among those arrested were legal observers and medics, according to Human Rights Watch and the complaint.

The kettling maneuver was a planned operation to arrest protesters en masse, the complaint alleged, citing statements by New York officials in the days following the arrests.

“We had a plan which was executed nearly flawlessly in the Bronx,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a news conference the next day.

Several protesters filed an initial complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city of New York and NYPD officials in October 2020. De Blasio was dismissed from the suit in 2021, attorneys said, but the case against the NYPD and city continued for two years.

The settlement agreement reached Tuesday still requires approval in New York’s district court and a final fairness hearing in October.

“While I am relieved that we have been able to secure some monetary restitution,” Wood said in his statement, “… nothing will change what happened to us and so many others suffering under the boot of the police in America.”