Protests over killing of George Floyd: Burning police vehicle becomes symbol of unrest in New York City


New York: On Friday night in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, protesters descended on an unoccupied New York Police Department van, which quickly became the target of all their anger and angst.

After chasing officers away, people threw rocks, glass bottles, and “anything and everything” at the van, according to one protester, who would only identify himself as Mike. After failing to turn over the vehicle, protesters set it on fire by burning their signs inside it, he said.

Soon, images and videos of the vehicle, with windows broken and engulfed in red flames, spread across social media during the first night of protests in New York City following the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died on 25 May after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down by his neck for several minutes.

By Sunday morning, the department said that 47 police vehicles had been damaged during protests, 13 of them burned in ways that were similar to the attack on the first police van in Fort Greene, according to officials.

These vehicles have become the symbol of the unrest and have begun a debate over who is escalating the violence. Some protesters have cheered the destruction as a victory against law enforcement and a manifestation of the pent-up rage against the growing number of incidents of police brutality, while officials have said the damage is proof that a violent element is trying to hijack a tradition of peaceful protest in the city.

A police car is set on fire at the corner of Snyder Avenue and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn on 30 May. By Chang W Lee © 2020 The New York Times

“No place in America has protected protests more than New York City,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday. “And we will continue to do so whatever someone’s views but it has to be nonviolent. We honour the tradition of civil disobedience.”

In Union Square on Saturday, protesters climbed onto a police department vehicle, which had a shattered windshield and lights blaring, as onlookers cheered. One image on social media from Brooklyn on Saturday night showed a cyclist taking a selfie in front of a department vehicle that had a broken windshield and was covered in black spray paint.

At least four people have been charged in connection with Molotov-cocktail attacks on police vehicles.

A woman from the Catskills region, Samantha Shader, 27, was arrested on charges that she had thrown a firebomb at a police van in Brooklyn on Friday, the police said. Her 21-year-old sister, Darian Shader, interfered with the arrest and was also taken into custody, the police said.

Minutes after that first firebomb on Friday, the police said Urooj Rahman, 31, and Colinford King Mattis, 32, coordinated a Molotov-cocktail attack on an empty police vehicle, and ignited a small blaze in the back seat. Both were arrested.

The total cost of the vehicle damage Saturday night alone “is estimated to be in excess of $750,000 and expected to go up,” said Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for the department.

One encounter between protesters and a police vehicle has become a flashpoint in the debate over who is to blame for the escalating violence.

At around 8 pm on Saturday, two police department vehicles drove through a crowd of protesters, scattering dozens of people who had surrounded the cars, according to videos of the incident and accounts from bystanders.

“I wish the officers found a different approach,” de Blasio told reporters Saturday night, but he added that “the protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround that police car, period.”

He said the police had seen that tactic before in the past two days, and it could be “very, very dangerous to everyone involved.” He said the incident would be investigated.

One witness to the incident said the scene in Prospect Heights had, initially, been peaceful.

Ede Fox, 48, said she was sitting in her parked car on Flatbush Avenue when suddenly the protest turned chaotic when a police SUV sped down the avenue behind the crowd. “They only seemed to stoke the fires rather than de-escalate,” said Fox, who formerly worked in city government and ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2017. “When they pushed into the crowd, I was stunned.”

The New York Fire Department helps put out a vehicle fire in Brooklyn on 30 May. By Chang W Lee © 2020 The New York Times

The New York Fire Department helps put out a vehicle fire in Brooklyn on 30 May. By Chang W Lee © 2020 The New York Times

Soon protesters began to throw plastic water bottles and other items, including orange cones, at the vehicle.

Another police SUV arrived, moving through the crowd. The first vehicle, which was stalled in front of a barricade and a line of protesters, suddenly lurched forward at a high speed. People scattered, officers got out of the SUV, and a protester walked up to the vehicle and busted a window. There were no injuries reported.

In an interview on Sunday, Fox said she had become frightened. “To be honest, I thought this was a moment that the officers would start shooting or the protesters would start a fire.”

A protester jumped atop the SUV and appeared to be pleading with others to be peaceful, Fox said. “I think she was telling people to stop being violent,” she said.

Azi Paybarah and Nikita Stewart c.2020 The New York Times Company