NYPD Has Left The Chat: Testifying At An NYC Council Hearing On Police Violence
A firsthand account of a Brooklyn-based musician's experience testifying at a New York City Council public hearing on violence committed by the NYPD against protesters during the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd.
Can you identify this object?
It is a scream jar. A scream jar transforms wails into whispers. It achieves this by mechanically trapping the sound of your voice, but it also magically allows your soul to survive. It is an impartial collector; it cannot judge you, and it cannot react. (Unless you say “All Lives Matter” into a scream jar, in which case it explodes in your face). You scream into the jar and then move on with your life, your heart freed of emotional magma before it can cool and harden into rock. A scream jar only costs $21.99 on the internet. I hope you can appreciate this humble tool’s necessity in the year 2020, I know I sure do, and I must say I deeply regret not having one at the ready as I sat through eight full hours of Tuesday’s NYC Council Committee on Public Safety hearing following the first week of Black Lives Matter protests in New York City.
I now understand I must do my part in changing the system. Protest, donation, and long term community involvement are what I consider “my part,” in addition to deep personal reflection and ego disassembly—which includes my having convinced myself that I was one of “the good ones.”
A bit of background: I am a white man. I am extremely uncomfortable in the current moment, and I am new to this level of activism. I mention being uncomfortable because until this point I have only participated in fashionable shows of fleeting activism, though I have always considered myself an ally. This means I held personal beliefs on racial equality and justice, but until now I have not understood my complicity in America’s deeply racist society, and how it has benefitted me. I now understand I must do my part to change the system. Protest, donation, and long-term community involvement are what I consider “my part,” in addition to deep personal reflection and ego disassembly—which includes my having convinced myself that I was one of “the good ones.”
I am also the son of two police—my late father and my stepmother—and though I love them both deeply and attribute much of my moral makeup to their parenting, I believe the system they worked under must be defunded and dismantled. Testifying before the City Council felt like a direct and impactful way to bring truth to power. It was my first time testifying before city government, so my hopes for its effectiveness were high. I imagined those testifying would find solace in our City Council listening to and then standing up for us. I deeply wanted to relay the hurt and anger myself and my fellow protesters felt directly to the NYPD brass themselves. I wanted to correct the record, not only about their behavior, but to do it with them in the room. Though you’ll see just how defeated I felt by the end, we have seen some positive outcomes in our fight to defund the police since the hearing. Considering that, I still firmly believe that in working against this backwards system of little accountability, using our brutalized voices is vital, and I intend to do it again.
After sharing the story on social media of my ridiculous arrest by a rookie cop while protesting on June 3rd, a friend of mine reached out to notify me of an opportunity to submit my story as testimony to the City Council. I described to the Council how since night one of the protests, I’d witnessed the NYPD viciously assaulting nonviolent protesters with impunity. I explained that they have leveraged sparse incidents of looting and a ridiculous 8pm curfew (in New York City!) in order to criminalize and destroy dissent. It was evident to all of us on the ground that until curfew was lifted on Sunday, the NYPD employed unreasonable militaristic force as counterprotesters, not as police, and knew that they would never be held liable. They were agitators unbound by typical moral codes such as “do not pepper spray a young man on his knees for asking you to stop killing his family.”
Thankfully there are now plenty of accounts and videos available online that prove this is true. I submitted my testimony on Thursday afternoon, and on the following Monday received an invite to testify at the hearing itself. The hearing was held on the video chat app Zoom due to quarantine measures. There was something disarming and rather dopey about attempting to hold an entity like the NYPD accountable over what felt like a big FaceTime call, and I’d like to take a moment to recognize these heroes who decided to demand justice from space:
The general outline of the hearing process was this: opening statements, questions from the council members aimed at NYPD leadership, discussion of proposed Council bills, and then a slew of citizen testimony. The first four hours of the meeting consisted of a battery of questions from the committee members, including a very strong opening statement from Chair Donovan Richards (District 31), a clear strike from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams about protests over police brutality being unbelievably met with police brutality (not a headline from The Onion), a call to action from actor Michael K. Williams on behalf of NYC Together, and comments from the Council, who seemed to generally agree with the public’s calls to hold NYPD, the mayor’s office, and their other enablers accountable.
From this wide open promised land that was the “free to go” side behind us, they pulled up school bus paddy wagons and lit up patrol cars. From the sides they lined up more riot cops. They had us cornered and intimidated, packed like sardines by the thousands.
The NYPD leadership was introduced. In the center was Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker and on either side were two other cops-in-suits-that-were-not-Police-Commissioner-Dermot-Shea. We were never offered a reasonable excuse for Commissioner Shea to be missing. I was prepared for the NYPD to hedge and dodge. I was not prepared for them to outright lie to our (battered) faces because I am a naive fool. Barring just giving you the entire 4 hour chunk of video to watch while you chew on tinfoil, allow me to point out a few examples of the (tear)gaslighting nonsense that was tossed our way.
At one point, they explained that the thousands of protestors who were trapped on the Manhattan Bridge last Tuesday just after curfew were “free to go” back to Brooklyn at any time. Having been one of those trapped and terrified protestors, I can attest that they offered no such communication. In fact, they suggested to us repeatedly that they would let us through the barrier on the Manhattan side, which bought them time to build up a frightening display of hundreds of (really stupid looking, but still scary because they had guns) riot cops behind them.
From this wide open promised land that was the “free to go” side behind us, they pulled up school bus paddy wagons and lit up patrol cars. From the sides they lined up more riot cops. They had us cornered and intimidated, packed like sardines by the thousands. Because they ultimately chose to take the night off from breaking an unarmed youth’s skull open, they can now sit in this hearing and tell city government that they showed restraint. We were “free to go,” except that meant we’d have to march directly into a line of exhausted, stupid, and angry police who had been beating the shit out of everyone all week long, with no way of knowing what might happen if we did. “Free to go” comes from the officer on the left there in this clip:
One of the more ridiculous moments was their attempt to highlight the “atrocity” of 350 NYPD cops being injured during the “riots.” It’s news to me that riots can include seated candlelight vigils. They beat the shit out of the vigil group an hour later, by the way. While facing a stack of battered and traumatized nonviolent protesters, they had the audacity to lament a comparative few police injuries and imply a balance between violence committed and violence received. Every protester’s face on the Zoom screen represented an exponential amount of brutal incidents both experienced and witnessed, and there were approximately 120 of us there. Was that comparison supposed to calm us? Was it meant to trigger our empathy for them? “Officer Shitheel pulled his hamstring while ripping a surrendering protester’s arm from its socket, so there were some ouchies on both sides! Oopsies! Please don’t take away our money.” Here’s their sob story:
Deputy Commission Tucker said this: “When you say we’re beating peaceful demonstrators, that’s troubling because that’s not the purpose, that’s not what they should be doing, if indeed that happened.” The last bit there is the key: “if indeed that happened.”
In a broad sense, the NYPD’s defense centered around an “aw shucks, we didn’t know about the war crimes” attitude, combined with a distinct picture of their ability to dodge accountability and hide behind bureaucratic obstacles. As quoted in Gothamist, Deputy Commission Tucker said this: “When you say we’re beating peaceful demonstrators, that’s troubling because that’s not the purpose, that’s not what they should be doing, if indeed that happened.” The last bit there is the key: “if indeed that happened.” Let me remind you there were 120 living, breathing victims staring right back at them. There are videos depicting police brutality as clear as day racking up views on the internet. There is a video of my arrest which shows clear evidence an officer stole my bike from me so that I’d follow him and would be easier to arrest.
Meanwhile, as the Council discussed proposed reform bills, NYPD resisted, saying things like “if my officer is in a life or death situation, I don’t want to tell them they can’t use a chokehold.” Currently, it’s exceedingly difficult to discipline or prosecute chokehold cases, because they are often labeled as being accidental unless the injured party can prove deliberate harmful intent on the part of the officer. Essentially we would have to be able to pry open an officer’s mind while the crime takes place to see if they meant it or not. Since we can’t, it’s usually just an “oopsies.” This was a large part of Daniel Pantaleo’s defense in the Eric Garner case. The hearing went on and on like this, and at each turn the NYPD either lied, performed impressive semantic gymnastics, or straight up ignored the Council’s attempts at wedging open their Big Blue Door so we can really see what’s rotting in their basement.
Council members performed their roles reasonably well, and yes, they actually were discussing bills meant to curtail incidents of police brutality: A bill that classifies chokeholds and other restraint techniques that block a person’s airflow as misdemeanors, a bill that codifies citizens’ right to film police activity (which is already protected by case law, so cool thanks), a bill to adopt a police disciplinary matrix, a bill to establish an early intervention system for officer misconduct, and a bill to strengthen the requirement that police officers not cover up their shield numbers.. These bills, while not bad in and of themselves, are too weak and specific, and don’t really get to the root of the problem.
Testifying citizens began to notice and later called out an irritating and somewhat suspiciously collegiate attitude between Council members and the NYPD. When speaking to us, Council seemed firm and ready to fight, but when turned towards NYPD they repeatedly said things like “now, Deputy Commissioner Tucker, I respect you” and so on. While that may seem unimportant, that professional courtesy, combined with anemic bill proposals made it evident to me that Council members were, at least in part, putting on a show, even if they took the cops to task here and there. They explained the systemic issues of racism and overuse of police plaguing society well, but their tone and flimsy oversight proposals did not inspire confidence in us that they intended to make aggressive enough moves in towards reigning in the NYPD.
About 2 hours into public testimony, CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38) paused to ask for anyone still on the meeting that represents NYPD or the mayor’s office to speak up (there wasn’t anyone).
Also, for some reason they let gooey-goblin-in-a-mansuit CM Holden (District 30) speak. He went on about the blue line and probably said some racist stuff but I’m not totally sure because I was busy looking up directions to the gulag. All told, the NYPD equivocated, ducked, and thumbed their noses at the citizens they’d spent a week harassing and assaulting while Council members said “Hey don’t do that. Please say true things. Oh? Nothing is true ever? Oh ok.” The whole thing hurt my head a lot, so a few hours in I started cleaning my room—to my horror I’d left my video on while doing so, which meant a few bored citizens were probably watching me try to detect which pair of drawers on the floor were fresh or not.
After 4 merciless hours of this nonsense, it was time for public testimony. We all perked up and with re-energized enthusiasm began to stick it to the shifty cops-in-suits. However, shortly into our turn at the mic, we noticed something. NYPD had left the chat. About 2 hours into public testimony, CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38) paused to ask for anyone still on the meeting that represents NYPD or the mayor’s office to speak up:
What a disgrace. A sham. A goddamn boondoggle even. Now, to be clear, this is apparently regular procedure despite Speaker Johnson stating that every agency involved was required to stay through public testimony. But who’s gonna cop the cops, I guess. Council can pass oversight legislation, they can make NYPD testify under oath, and they can performatively stomp their feet, but here in real life, they have no direct control as to whether or not the NYPD or the mayor’s office listen to the people themselves. If the City Council can’t force them to be there, why should we trust them to make the major budgetary cuts we were demanding? Councilmembers barely brought up the budget, despite defunding the police being central to our demand and it is arguably their most powerful weapon. Since NYPD could just log off insouciantly, it seemed that they thought their money was safe. The NYPD should’ve been present for this entire hearing. They should’ve faced direct threat to their budget, and especially in this heightened, tense, emotional moment, these damn cops and the mayor’s office should’ve been forced to hear from the citizens whose rights they stripped. They work for us.
Public testimony went on for six hours. After a while, a pattern of similar stories began to take shape, and we all heard in excruciating detail what happened out there. Every single testimony centered around unbelievable incidents of police brutality including broken bones, pepper spray, unjust arrest, intimidation, racist/sexist/all of it agitation and insult by police, the list just goes on and on and fucking on for 6 hours. The hearing became an open forum of shared trauma that, while feeling like an echo chamber, cemented the picture of NYPD’s refusal to accept unrest in the name of BIPOC, leaving their lawless cruelty on full display as we conveyed our rage and our grief. Those of us on the Zoom call itself could watch participants’ reaction to testimony; it was common to see synchronized hands moving up to cover mouths, or tears being swept away in unison a mosaic of faces over. It was a devastating and exhausting event to take part in, paused occasionally by CM Menchaca so that he could again ask if NYPD or the mayor’s office were present. They of course were not.
It’s important to note that the stories laid out by public testimony originally occurred in full sight of news cameras. They were absolutely screamed about on social media. They unfolded in daylight and in nightfall, yet they went largely ignored by the national press until well into the protests’ 7th day. The media wrongly spun events in NYC as chaos brought about by unruly, lawless gangsters, despite incidents of looting being committed by a miniscule portion of the protesters. It was classic “law and order” rhetoric depicting people of color as agents of anarchical crime. So without accurate press coverage and with de Blasio stating he had seen no evidence of police brutality, I realized this hearing was the first chance we got to really tell it like it was.
I urge you to go to the Council’s website and take in at least some of the public testimony starting around 4 hours in. It is the Committee On Public Safety meeting on June 10, 2020. It would be impossible to summarize 5-6 hours of testimony in this space, so I’ll just point out two testimonies that stuck with me. I’m sure I will never totally understand the pain and trauma laid out here in Charlie Monlouis Anderle’s testimony, so I cannot summarize. I instead urge you to watch and take in the entire thing:
Imagine showing up to this public event and being willing to broadcast that excruciating story. As I watch it again, I’m reminded that I am still not doing enough. I was thoroughly verbally insulted and lied to while under arrest, and I’m a cis white male, so you can imagine the continuum of how a trans person might be treated under the same circumstances. Their story is true. If you watched that testimony and thought it was exaggeration, you are not paying attention. Many of us came to this hearing with summary and some generalized, intellectualized demands to make of Council, but few of us had the mettle to share every second of a violent, horrifying, and degrading incident like this one. Remember this is a single moment, a tiny example of a trans person of color’s continued oppression since birth at the hand of a militant force meant to hold them and their people down for centuries.
Here is a testimony by Jasmine S drawing out a clear picture of our experience in this hearing. She also touches on the frightening complacency by police and officials of all stripes who were comfortable remaining complacent in not only physical violation of peaceful protest by the police, but also in their deeply affecting psychological and emotional abuse, which is a devastating signal to protesters that standing up for BIPOC will not be tolerated. Please notice her opening statement, and stay for the rest:
The next testimony I’ll highlight is by Andre Richardson, who paints a visceral picture of the fear he lives in every day as a black man in New York City. He makes it clear that black Americans are not fighting for equality, but they are instead “fighting to stay alive”:
With that, I’d like you hear Jess La Bombalera. She laid it all out. She even touched on the historical truth that NYPD, and police everywhere, act as “colonizing forces,” in effect being a strong arm that protects white supremacist power, money, and status quo since coming into existence. Her testimony is packed, but I took particular notice of her calling out not only the NYPD and Council, but also the white citizens waiting to testify like myself.
I quickly said a few things, held up an index card with my contact scribbled out, and yielded the rest of my time. This seemed like the best way to be of service and to open the floor for subsequent BIPOC to speak. That was hard for me, I had to get over myself, but it’s crucial for anyone who considers themselves an ally to learn how to leap over oneself many times over, so I just considered it practice.
By the time my turn arrived we had all endured 8 hours of this, so I felt undone and woozy, nauseous and dim when the moment arrived. I decided to take Jess’s suggestion and keep my testimony to just one minute, while offering myself up to the people present on the call as a body available to help the cause. I’d written a full, detailed testimony recounting my experience with police brutality since May 29th, but at this point it was entirely redundant. I quickly said a few things, held up an index card with my contact scribbled out, and yielded the rest of my time. This seemed like the best way to be of service and to open the floor for subsequent BIPOC to speak. All I’d have achieved by testifying in full was further delaying the voices lined up behind me—which were the voices we most needed to hear. That was hard for me, I had to get over myself, but it’s crucial for anyone who considers themselves an ally to learn how to leap over oneself many times over, so I just considered it practice. You may not know me personally, but if you do, you might notice the exhaustion in my testimony:
I received a battery of messages after I testified, many from people watching the event in real time, and several from fellow citizens on the call itself. Every one of them expressed the same notion: that this hearing was a joke, that City Council was not adequately representing us in their legislation, and that there was A LOT more work to be done. I did meet several people I’m still in contact with, and have been invited to actions as a result, and that feels productive. After testifying, I watched a few more folks testify until the claustrophobic frustration became overwhelming, so I decided to use what was left of daylight in the streets. I exited the call, and went out to protest. This was what my screen looked like to the rest of the participants as I left:
Though I lament not being able to speak directly to our abusers, we did get a chance to put pressure on the people who rely on our votes and directly control the police budget.
I don’t know if that was the right move. In some sense I felt a bit bratty about it. I had approached this hearing hopeful about participating in our civic process, but by the end I felt powerless and deflated. Many of the participants stayed on for the remainder of the hearing, which clocked in at a mind-bending 10 hours. I rarely do anything for 10 hours, let alone play party to a slog of public trauma framed by little governmental leverage or accountability, so I can’t necessarily in good faith encourage you to do the same without setting some diminished expectations beforehand.
Now, I use the word “futile” many times in this screed, but I want to pull back to remind you that I intend to do this again. I know that seems contradictory, but there were some positive effects here that should be taken into account: everyone on the call who was truly paying attention must feel a renewed sense of duty, it gave us all an opportunity to hear from BIPOC citizens whose perspective is of ultimate importance as the movement continues. Some of the limits of the City Council’s power were revealed to us (that was especially amplified by our disbelief that they could not force NYPD or the mayor’s office back into the discussion), and though I lament not being able to speak directly to our abusers, we did get a chance to put pressure on the people who rely on our votes and directly control the police budget, which is of course critical to the idea of defunding the NYPD.
As the hearing went on, members of the City Council (those that remained) sounded increasingly frustrated themselves, and to their credit there were fewer instances of interruption or redirected culpability in the second half than there were at the beginning of public testimony. It was laid bare that they did not have the whole picture, and they know full well that their positions rely on majorly adjusting how they represented us thanks to very loud and very righteous BLM protests.
We should remember that de Blasio and Governor Cuomo are not DILF’s because they gave us some level headed information on COVID-19, they are the epitome of neoliberalism-employing-militant force-hidden-under-fashionable-social-awareness.
So the real source of my disappointment: I am let down that our testimonies could not be made directly to the people that wronged us. I am disappointed by the overall mechanics of this process forcing us to share our very real trauma with a few members of City Council, whose motivations will be varied and in many cases corrupted, instead of the NYPD and mayor’s office themselves. But when I soberly examine this entire event, the thing I wanted from it was not really the point. Ultimately we want to thin the police budget and spend that money, our money, on more effective and compassionate ways to treat ailments of society.
In that vein there have been some minor concrete developments since the hearing. Our feckless, mealy-mouthed mayor Bill De Blasio has vowed to defund the police (without specifics). Council Speaker Corey Johnson released a statement saying they were committed to cutting $1 billion from the NYPD budget in 2021 and investing it elsewhere, which is certainly a start towards our central demand. Quite a lot of people represented by the ghoulish CM Holden now know they are represented by the ghoulish CM Holden, so his constituents can perform whatever benevolent magic is needed to lock him into a crystal and throw it in the East River.
Those are important wins even if they feel too small. That said, we should remember that the City Council played a substantial part in expanding the NYPD budget in the first place before we cheer them on and let up the pressure. They are directly responsible for putting more cops on the street. We should remember that de Blasio and Governor Cuomo are not DILF’s because they gave us some level headed information on COVID-19, they are the epitome of neoliberalism-employing-militant force-hidden-under-fashionable-social-awareness.
Ultimately I will testify again, not purely as an act of civic engagement, but also as an act of protest. When we march in the streets and stand firm at barricades and demand nonviolent passage, if they don’t give it to us we will be back tomorrow to demand it again.
I will remember that, though I believe my police parents intended to do what was best, the jobs they worked supported a system that has instigated, murdered, and oppressed BIPOC for centuries, and that I am just now at 32 years old beginning to truly understand that. These thoughts will keep me in the streets seeking an education that I’ve always had access to without the knowledge that I needed it. As I mentioned before, I am extremely uncomfortable, and I learned very quickly to bring my own cookie to the protest if I want one. It keeps me motivated to be uncomfortable, and few of us allies have been uncomfortable enough to really lift this lid until now. Be there if you mean it, be in these hearings if you mean it, do what you can with what skills you have, but prepare yourself for a reckoning, because if you sit through this hearing and your take away is ”Jeez, cops are jerks but Council is on our side,” then I’d remind you that Council is also responsible for what happened to Charlie Monlouis Anderle, and not even all of them could be bothered to stay and listen.
Ultimately I will testify again, not purely as an act of civic engagement, but also as an act of protest. When we march in the streets and stand firm at barricades and demand nonviolent passage, if they don’t give it to us we will be back tomorrow to demand it again. We will be back the next day if we must, and so on. The police may stand stone-faced in our way, unmoved by our shouts, or not even be present to hear them, but we do it anyway. So, we should continue to show up at hearings and at the polls, in the streets, and on whatever platforms we have been afforded in our lives to speak to whoever is listening. Defund the police, and Black Lives Matter.
Tim Race is a Brooklyn-based musician who has been active at BLM marches and actions in New York City. You can connect with him via his band Big Bliss's Instagram and Twitter at the links below.