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People In Brooklyn Were Setting Off Fireworks. Then Police Showed Up In Riot Gear.

Monday’s incident is a sign of the tension between police and the community after officers violently broke up peaceful protests around the city weeks before — and tension around gentrification in the community itself.

Posted on June 17, 2020, at 4:32 p.m. ET

Seth Wenig / AP

Brooklyn, New York, on May 30.

Just over two weeks after the NYPD violently suppressed peaceful protests around New York City, police early Monday morning responded to reports of illegal fireworks in a Brooklyn neighborhood with dozens of officers in riot gear — who blocked off a street, threatened anyone who was outside with arrest, and stormed inside an apartment building.

Fireworks aren’t unusual in the summer in Flatbush, though even lifelong residents say there have been a lot more this year. What was alarming, those residents told BuzzFeed News, were the police helicopters circling overhead as officers — wearing helmets, shields, batons, body armor, and holding Tasers — pointed flashlights into apartment windows. As residents watched nervously from their porches, some livestreamed the event from their phones. Police took at least one person into custody, as captured by a cellphone video.

Monday’s response came as three dynamics in Brooklyn, some brewing for years, seemed to converge: the genuine increase in the amount of fireworks, possibly out of solidarity with Black Lives Matter demonstrations; police frequently rolling through the streets in riot gear after this month’s protests; and people on Facebook, primarily white gentrifiers, complaining about the level of noise and demanding that the city responds.

“The deployment of riot gear is a sign of a police department in total crisis that has no idea what they're doing, and has completely lost any connection to the community,” Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who wrote The End of Policing, told BuzzFeed News. “And this is going to just make tensions between the police and the public worse.”

The NYPD’s “response, beyond just these fireworks is escalating so that someone's gonna die over here this summer,” Flatbush resident Brandice Taylor-Davis told BuzzFeed News.

There were 1,680 complaints about illegal fireworks in New York City between June 8 and June 15, according to open data from the city, compared to just 12 for the equivalent period last year.

“I'm not denying that the fireworks are excessive and can be a nuisance, but they are nothing new,” one lifelong Flatbush resident told BuzzFeed News. “I have lived in southern Brooklyn all my life, and it's just a feature of summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I wouldn't consider calling the cops, and I especially wouldn't given the current political climate.”

Some nights, fireworks are a part of everyday neighborhood celebrations. On Saturday, the day before the police response, people on Ocean Avenue sang “Happy Birthday” to their friend after a few hours of setting them off.

But other times, fireworks have accompanied larger attitudes of resistance. Imani Henry, an organizer at the community aid and anti-gentrification activist group Equality for Flatbush, told BuzzFeed News that he sees the increased amount of fireworks as a show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests that have been sweeping the city and the nation.

“I was hit several times on my calf and knees,” Henry said, referring to a protest on May 30. “But then the fireworks went off right on Church and Bedford, and it really was this moment of power and resistance, because people have been beaten up and fighting the cops all day. It lifted our spirits. This was 10 or 11 at night, and it was beautiful.”

The fireworks on Ocean Avenue on Sunday evening started like most of the previous nights that weekend, soon after the sun went down.

But then, police vans, with their sirens blaring, started to close off a street in Flatbush at around 11:40 p.m. An off-duty police officer had called the police, the NYPD said.

Neighbors stood on their porches and fire escapes and watched, until about 12:30 a.m., as officers twirled their batons and shone their flashlights at people.

Police huddled around a van, discussing whether they should approach a group of Black men standing outside their apartment building. They seemed to suspect that these men were the people setting off illegal fireworks.

One officer spoke out. “I’m not going in,” he said. “One firework, and this whole thing is on fire. [We’d be] sitting ducks.”

At 12:40 a.m., about a dozen officers entered an apartment building. As I captured it on video, one officer shone a flashlight at my camera, obscuring the footage. Another officer walked up to me, holding a Taser, and said, “You’re gonna end up getting hurt. Back up.”

Police seen here walking down the street and trying to enter an apartment building. They shone a flashlight at my camera and told me to back up. “For your own safety”

Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the NYPD, said the officer in the video told BuzzFeed News to stay back because people were throwing fireworks at police. BuzzFeed News, which was on the scene the whole night, never saw anyone throw fireworks at police.

When asked if the NYPD had any evidence to support the claim that people were throwing fireworks at police — like body camera footage, social media posts — the spokesperson did not respond.

At about 1 a.m., police drove a van down Ocean Avenue, announcing through a megaphone: “Everyone in the street has to disperse. There have been illegal fireworks. If you don’t disperse, you will be subject to arrest.”

Police are going down a side street + repeating the message: there have been illegal fireworks, if you don’t disperse, you’ll be subject to arrest. Per their message, police are just looking for anyone that’s outside. The only people I’m seeing are people watching the police

McRorie told BuzzFeed News there were “no arrests and the investigation is ongoing." But in a video shared with Equality for Flatbush, which was taken in the same location that same night, one man in handcuffs can be seen entering a police car. McRorie did not respond to BuzzFeed News’s request for clarification.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted a curfew on June 2, police officers around the city used it to violently attack and arrest people who were peacefully demonstrating. Protesters were struck and pushed with batons, shoved to the ground, and handcuffed with force. Even essential workers delivering food, whom de Blasio promised would be exempt, were arrested.

After the curfew ended on June 7, police have continued to roughly handle and sometimes arrest protesters. And to some Flatbush residents, like Soraya Palmer, an organizer with Equality for Flatbush, the police’s response to the fireworks on June 15 was just the latest excuse to arrest Black and brown people. She believes they are “definitely retaliating the protests.”

“I was at the protest the first Saturday where they had kettled people on Bedford and Tilden — they blocked off the protests and just started beating people with batons, pepper-spraying people, and terrorizing people who were peacefully protesting,” she said. “I think that definitely, they are responding to the fact that they know, in some ways, the jig is up. There's less people that are publicly supporting them and defending them. And I think that there have been extra-violent responses.”

Vitale also argued that the police are retaliating against protesters. “I think this is partially driven by that fact that there have been so many protests in Flatbush in the past two and a half weeks,” he said. “This show of force can be understood as a counterprotest by the police.”

For some Flatbush residents, the show of police force on Sunday night and Monday morning wasn’t a surprise and was emblematic of growing tension in the community. For years, they say, white gentrifiers have discussed their issues in the community, like noise complaints, in private Facebook Groups.

Palmer said gentrifiers have gathered on social media instead of engaging with their new community. Two years ago, she said, she and several other activists of color raised concerns about posts in a Prospect Lefferts Garden Facebook Group, where people were complaining about local residents "playing music, or people 'loitering' or smoking weed,” adding they wanted to call the police. After these concerns were raised, she said, they were kicked out of the group.

“You're framing your neighbors as a problem — that's not peaceful, and I think that's still what the folks who created the page are not understanding,” Palmer said. “A lot of them will say you don't want people to get beaten by the cops. And you might not consciously want that. But you're not understanding that like the way you're going about it, that is what likely could happen.”

During the weekend leading up to Monday night, these posts reached a fever pitch. On Thursday, Flatbush resident Irina Manta — a white woman who described herself as “a law professor that moved to the neighborhood due to a serious noise nuisance in Manhattan" — posted in the Facebook Group “Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.”

She announced her intention to create a new group on the platform called “Peaceful Ditmas Park,” which she said was intended to be a "working group" to deal with the issue of fireworks in the area.

Dozens of people commented on the post, telling her that the neighborhood has "always had fireworks.” They said even so-called peaceful solutions like getting the city government involved would inevitably result in a police response that would put Black residents at risk.

"YOU DO NOT OWN THE SIDEWALK. YOU DO NOT OWN THE STREETS," one person commented. "People have a right to express themselves in different ways."

"Part of entrance to this group was based on agreeing both to follow the law and support others in that effort," Manta said in a comment posted to the new group. "The firework noise complaint is against the law and is an important reason this group was started."

In this new group, Manta posted a draft of a Change.org petition in which she encouraged de Blasio and several New York City council members to respond to the increase in fireworks in the area.

"Essential workers, young children, the elderly, and individuals sick with COVID-19 or cancer often cannot sleep until 4am," Manta wrote. "Not only is there a serious noise problem, but the fireworks have already caused fires and other risks to life and limb, and this will continue if left unchecked. That is unacceptable."

The draft says the cosigners are "vocal opponents of police brutality" and "urge that no harm come to the firework launchers."

Manta declined an interview, but told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message that “I did not call the police, the draft petition was never sent to any official, and any suggestion that I am responsible for the police coming is untrue.”

Brandice Taylor-Davis, who commented on Manta’s original post in the “Ditmas Park, Brooklyn” group, said she saw the petition and viewed it as gentrifiers rallying each other to call the police.

“Calling 311, writing letters, calling your assembly person — all of these things that you're suggesting is just gonna get someone else to call the police so that you can feel like you didn't directly call the police, but they're gonna actually call them anyway,” she said.

Taylor-Davis said she urged Manta to consider other solutions before petitioning the city or calling the police — like doing vigorous exercise before bed, using earplugs, speaking to her neighbors, or putting up flyers.

“When she didn't accept my first round, she was like, ‘Do you have any other suggestions?’” Taylor-Davis said. “She's asking for the suggestions and labor from people. But it seemed to me like she was asking just to be asking and not because she was actually interested in taking any of the suggestions.”

One woman commented on Manta’s post with the draft of the petition, and said she (the person commenting) had been calling the police regularly, and that she had ridden her bike to her local police precinct and urged them to act.

Another woman in the “Ditmas Park, Brooklyn” Facebook Group called the people using fireworks "assholes" and "exceptionally dumb," alleging that they caused property damage to a concrete wall.

"So no, I won't 'enjoy the show' nor stop calling 911," the woman wrote. "What's next, something blasts through my nursery window and lands in my 1-year-old's crib? My house catches fire?"

Facebook

Screenshot from the "Ditmas Park, Brooklyn" Facebook group.

On Sunday night, Equality for Flatbush called out Manta on its Instagram page. And after police swarmed on Flatbush on Sunday night, Manta deleted the new “Peaceful Ditmas Park” Facebook page.

BuzzFeed News asked Facebook whether, hypothetically, white gentrifiers rallying one another to call the police counts as inciting violence. The company declined to comment on the record, but pointed BuzzFeed News to its Violence and Incitement policy, which says the platform will take down posts that represent "genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety." When BuzzFeed News showed extracts from “Ditmas Park, Brooklyn” Facebook Group, Facebook declined to comment on the record.


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