New York City has agreed to pay $21,500 to each of hundreds of demonstrators who were penned in by the police in the Bronx during racial justice protests in 2020, then charged at or beaten with batons, according to a legal settlement.
If a judge approves the settlement filed in federal court late Tuesday, the amount would be one of the highest ever awarded per person in a class action case of mass arrests, and could cost the city between $4 million and $6 million.
The case concerned roughly 300 people who were arrested on June 4, 2020, in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx during protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers the week before. His death set off protests across the country, including in New York, where thousands of people demonstrated in May and June.
On June 4, the police boxed in hundreds of protesters who had peacefully gathered on 136th Street and then prevented them from leaving, a practice known as “kettling,” according to the lawsuit.
They were restrained with tight plastic handcuffs also known as zip ties by officers who were not masked as the pandemic raged. Officers wielding batons swung at protesters and hit them with pepper spray, according to the lawsuit.
Samira Sierra, 31, one of the protesters who sued the city and who lives in the Bronx, said she was “violated” by the police during the demonstrations.
“We had every right to protest, yet, the City of New York made an explicit statement that day that the people of the Bronx are at will to be terrorized,” she said in a statement.
A Police Department at a Critical Moment
The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.
The kettling strategy was broadly defended at the time by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, who said it was needed because protesters were defying curfews and looters had ransacked parts of Manhattan, though the demonstrations had been largely peaceful.
According to the lawsuit, the protesters arrested in the Bronx were surrounded by police officers before an 8 p.m. curfew and prevented from leaving.
City leaders approved the tactics in an effort to “suppress the protests with well-orchestrated operations corralling and violently arresting the protesters,” the lawsuit said. “Many protesters were left injured and bleeding. Some protesters fainted, or lost consciousness and went into convulsions.”
The people who were arrested eventually had their cases dismissed, said Rob Rickner, one of the lawyers for the protesters, who said the kettling strategy was a part of a “preplanned show of force.”
In a statement, the police said that two and a half years after the protests, many of the department’s policies and training for large-scale demonstrations have been revised. Those revisions were made based on internal reviews and recommendations from three outside agencies that investigated police actions during that period.
“The NYPD remains committed to continually improving its practices in every way possible,” the statement said.
The 2020 protests were “a challenging moment for the department as officers who themselves were suffering under the strains of a global pandemic did their utmost to help facilitate people’s rights to peaceful expression all while addressing acts of lawlessness including wide-scale rioting, mass chaos, violence, and destruction,” the statement said.
Lawyers for the demonstrators described the settlement as “historic.” They said that before this agreement, the highest amount paid per person in a case of mass arrests was in 2010, when a federal judge awarded $18,000 per person to demonstrators picked up in a mass arrest during a 2000 protest near the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings in Washington, D.C., in a $13.7 million settlement.
The final amount New York City will have to pay in the Bronx case is not clear.
The lawyers said that while about 330 people were eligible to receive payments, as many as 90 of them have already settled with the city in separate complaints.
Other protesters may have decided to file separate claims against the city, especially those people who reported more severe injuries during their encounters with the police, Mr. Rickner said.
The agreement was filed weeks after the city released data showing that it had paid out $121 million last year to settle police misconduct cases. That amount, the most in five years, was awarded mainly to people whose criminal convictions were reversed years after their trials, but also included settlements from lawsuits filed following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
The city and lawyers for the protesters agreed to settle the Bronx case in December, but asked the court to file the motion detailing the settlement in February to give both sides time to finalize it.
The class action lawsuit was brought by five of the protesters — Ms. Sierra and her sister Amali Sierra, Ricardo Nigaglioni, Alex Gutierrez, and Charles Wood, who are all in their 30s.
The shocking scenes of looting, scuffles between the police and protesters and destruction of police cars led then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mr. DeBlasio to announce on June 1 that they would deploy twice as many police officers and impose a curfew.
“There comes a point where enough is enough,” Mr. de Blasio said.
But videos and photos from protesters and reporters showed police officers cornering and striking protesters who were demonstrating peacefully.
Over a period of several days, New York Times journalists covering the protests saw officers repeatedly charge at demonstrators after curfew with seemingly little provocation, shoving them onto sidewalks, striking them with batons and using other rough tactics.
Mr. DeBlasio, who was booed during a memorial for Mr. Floyd, later pledged to review reports of police officers behaving inappropriately.
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