In the month leading up to last week’s general election, the New York City Police Department made preparations for mass upheaval. Top brass told uniformed officers to prepare to contain unrest following “one of the most highly contested presidential elections in the modern era.” A tactical squad staged amped-up training exercises in preparation for pervasive property destruction. The department, according to an NYPD spokesperson, even got ready to “freeze areas of Manhattan” to car and foot traffic “should wide spread looting occur.”
The post-election riots that the NYPD anticipated never happened. Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état seemed to have flopped, and New York experienced no notable election irregularities or ballot-counting drama, so the city’s residents didn’t see a need for that kind of escalation. But the cops still policed as if they did. During the three days between Election Day and the announcement of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, armored officers stalked and harassed organized protest marches and celebrations, in several instances kettling demonstrators, instigating confrontations, and making violent arrests.
“It was just marching.… it didn’t make any sense for arrests to be made,” said Tameer Peak, who was among more than 50 protesters taken into custody in Manhattan on November 4. Arrests were “definitely the plan,” he said. “It was just run and catch and grab.”
The New York City protests stood in stark contrast to the celebrations that took place across the country on Saturday, when activists and marginalized communities who had spent the last several months enduring cop violence were joined in the streets by white liberals rejoicing over news networks’ declaration of Trump’s defeat, prompting almost no confrontations with police. Since those celebrations, cop aggression at New York demonstrations has already resumed.
The dynamic reinforces an argument often made by Black Lives Matter protesters: that Trump’s defeat, though a necessity, doesn’t represent a fundamental change in the on-the-ground fight against institutions of authoritarian oppression in the United States—especially the police.
In New York City the night after Election Day, as the Trump campaign made its sloppy attempts to prevent the counting of some mail-in ballots, two separate protest marches demanding that election officials be allowed to “count every vote” garnered a few hundred demonstrators. They also attracted a comparable number of riot police and body-armored bike cops—part of the tactical squad that had been training for post-election unrest.
The NYPD has made it sound as though officers began making arrests after protesters at one of the marches set some trash on fire. Some protesters assert that the fires were actually started after the cops took the first demonstrators into custody, and witnesses claim that both marches ended in violence soon after they started because police were crowding and kettling nonviolent demonstrators and looking to use any small interaction to justify takedowns and arrests. The NYPD later characterized the situation as a case of “individuals who attempted to hijack a peaceful protest”—but the cops still descended on both groups and trapped them in the street with no way out, eventually tackling, beating, and dragging several marchers and arresting more than 50.
Peak was taken into custody as he was trying to film arrests on Instagram Live. Cops went to take his phone, he said, and when he tried to get them to wait as he saved the video, they tackled him. “I could feel their knees on my back,” he said. They pulled back his arm, which was already injured from an encounter with police the week prior. “I just started screaming.”
Videos of the November 4 arrests prompted a Human Rights Watch deputy director to call on the city to conduct an immediate investigation, comparing the incident to a brutal mass arrest event that took place in the Bronx in early June, which the organization found was “intentional, planned, and unjustified.”
The following evening, at a march for trans rights that gathered at the Stonewall Inn—a celebration and protest that Black trans activists have held every Thursday for months without incident—the same suite of riot cops showed up. They stalked and crowded the demonstration for hours, picking off for arrest more than a dozen protesters, including one of the Stonewall leaders, who was caught up in a scrum after cops started tackling people around her.
The Stonewall march eventually made its way to a park, at which point most of the crowd headed home or went to wait outside NYPD headquarters (where they were again harassed by police) for the arrestees to be released. But a few dozen stayed behind, and eventually trickled into a bike lane to yell at the hundreds of cops, who were monitoring them from across the street, to leave them alone. Over a loudspeaker, the police played a recorded announcement that New York protesters have come to know well: “Please be advised that pedestrians are not permitted in the roadway. Pedestrians are also prohibited from obstructing sidewalks…. If you unlawfully obstruct pedestrian traffic, or walk in the street or roadway, you may be placed under arrest and charged with disorderly conduct.” Even though traffic was passing between the two groups, the cops charged, so outnumbering protesters that they’re barely visible on video.
Finally, on Friday night, a group of young people took to the streets to celebrate Trump’s impending election loss. The march had the air of a high school dance party—complete with singing ’80s pop and a stop to do the Cha-Cha Slide—with the same horde of cops, who seemed to again outnumber the demonstrators, acting as their aggressive armored chaperones. Though the NYPD opted for no arrests during the march, some riot cops returned to the park where it had begun later that night to close the area off by swinging their batons at young people and arresting someone who was playing NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” over a speaker.
Instances of over-policing following Election Day played out elsewhere. In Portland, Ore., the epicenter of militarized policing during the ongoing protest movement, Governor Kate Brown activated the National Guard, which rolled into the city in Humvees, to break up a single group of 100 to 300 demonstrators, some of whom were breaking windows.
And in Minneapolis, police trapped a protest group, including children and elderly people, on a highway for around five hours, arresting the entire demonstration—646 people—without offering protesters warnings or an opportunity to leave.
“The police tried to antagonize people…. They were looking for an excuse to beat the shit out of us,” said Jae Yates, an organizer with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, which helped organize the action.
The Minneapolis marchers described the protest, like some of those in New York, as celebratory and nonviolent, giving credence to activist beliefs that cops will target protests that are critical of policing as frequently as they can get away with, no matter the context.
“For those of us that were active during the uprising [over the summer], we had seen that level of brutally before,” said Yates. “We just hadn’t seen it on that mass scale.”
And these activists recognize that, for the time being, elections aren’t poised to change this.
“We can acknowledge a little bit of relief that Donald Trump is no longer in office,” said Isaac Ortega, who has been taking to the streets in New York since May, and who witnessed the NYPD’s brutality last week. “We also need a healthy dose of realism.”
“Joe Biden is an establishment Democrat, and Black Lives Matter started under an establishment Democrat,” Ortega continued. His election isn’t going to substantively change the behavior of cops, who “have state legitimacy and are state-sanctioned violence.”
Amid nationwide calls to defund police departments to support other government services, Biden campaigned on a promise to provide them with $300 million in additional federal funds. He was endorsed by sheriffs, police chiefs, head prosecutors, and former Homeland Security officials, and has peddled a rhetorically enticing vision of “community policing”—a vague concept for which there’s no evidence it makes neighborhoods safer.
Biden’s unwillingness to confront the realities of policing in the United States tracks with the tendency of his party: State and local Democrats have routinely provided cover for police and will continue to do so. Portland just reelected “Tear Gas Ted” Wheeler, the Democratic mayor and police commissioner, and Oregon’s National Guard–happy governor, Brown, is also a Democrat. Chicago, Washington, Detroit, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and countless other cities have seen protesters and other residents brutalized by police under Democratic Party governance. And last week, when asked about the violent post–Election Day arrests, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the cops, as he has since May. “What you see in front of your eyes is not always the full story,” he said of video evidence of the NYPD violence. To avoid this kind of suppression, he suggested that protesters could coordinate their actions with police.
“De Blasio’s full of shit,” said Peak. “The cops are literally attacking and being violent and belligerent towards protesters.… We get arrested, we get records, we get broken arms, and we don’t even get to defend ourselves.”
And the presidential election isn’t going to change that. “Trump is a problem, but he is not the problem,” Peak continued. “The problem is the system itself, in its totality.”
On Saturday night, as Biden victory celebrations had been raging throughout the day, a group of activists in New York City—many of whom had experienced the police crackdowns earlier in the week—gathered for their own post-election rally. They reiterated their long-term vision of police abolition; they called for the dismantling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; they celebrated the defeat of Trump; and they rejected the crime bill author and vice “deporter in chief” Biden as their savior. To counter the mass displays of liberal patriotism that had taken place that day, they burned an American flag.
“Black people are still endangered in this country,” said one of the Stonewall march organizers into a megaphone. “Let’s be very honest.… We have got to understand that the work is never going to stop until [we] are free.”
Of Biden’s election, “it’s a return to the status quo,” said Ortega. “And the status quo is the policing and over-incarceration of Black bodies, and the disrespect of Indigenous rights, and US imperialism abroad, and cruel immigration policies that separate families. So no, the fight doesn’t stop.”