When the NYPD Rioted

(updated March 4, 2024 to include quotations from Black newspapers)

In New York in 1992, about 10,000 off-duty police officers and their supporters protested and about 4,000 of them rioted against then-mayor David Dinkins (who is Black) for his advocacy of an all-civilian review board to monitor police misconduct. Rioting police broke down police barricades, damaged vehicles, and blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for an hour. Several rioting police verbally accosted and used the n-word at a Black City Council woman and Black news reporter. Others verbally abused a woman trying to get across the bridge because she needed to care for a sick child, mocking her and saying “call the police.” The non-rioting main body of about 6000 members of the predominantly-White Police Benevolent Association and their supporters chanted slogans like “No justice, no police” and “The Mayor’s on Crack.” Some of the non-rioting police protesters used the n-word or other racial epithets or held “racially provocative” signs like those depicting the Mayor with a large Afro-style haircut and swollen lips or another that referred to Dinkins as a “washroom attendant.” Many of the non-rioting police protesters hung out in bars or drank beer from cans inside paper bags during the rally’s speeches, which vitriolically attacked the mayor. Among the vitriolic speakers was Rudy Giuliani, who had lost to Dinkins in 1989 and was planning another (ultimately successful) run in 1993. Dinkins accused Giuliani of inciting to riot; Giuliani accused Dinkins of trying to inject race into the issue. (See note 1 for New York Times news stories describing this event.)

Breaking through the barricades, jumping on and denting vehicles, and blocking traffic are all illegal acts that would often get you arrested at a New York protest, but the 350 on-duty police made no effort to stop the violence and in some cases were observed encouraging it. A tactical error in deploying forces led to leaving the bridge unguarded, but it isn’t clear on-duty police would have successfully defended the bridge even without the error. When the on-duty police at the scene finally called for backups, it was 90 minutes before any showed up. Nobody was arrested at the scene and nobody was ever charged criminally, even for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Later New York Times stories said that 42 of the several thousand law-breakers were later identified from witness accounts and visual images and faced disciplinary hearings with possible penalties ranging from docked pay to loss of job. News reports said two had been suspended and the penalties for others were not known.

According to New York Times stories, defenders of the protesters said that they’d gotten out of hand, but their anger should be understood. In addition to not wanting a civilian review board, they objected to investigations of corruption, not providing them with semi-automatic weapons, expressions of sympathy to families of people killed by police, and a delay in sending in a large police force to quell rioting in Washington Heights earlier that year. Washington Heights residents had been protesting a police killing in the area and several hundred people had started fires and damaged cars after police blocked a peaceful protest. (See note 2)

This absence of police control of a protest is especially striking if you have (as I have) been reading news accounts of New York protests where the ratio of police to protesters is much higher and police often attack or arrest people who push past police barricades. For example, the news accounts of a 1997 march protesting the police torture and rape of Abner Louima describes about 7000 angry but non-violent protesters flanked by 2500 police in riot gear. (note 3)

Although the 1992 NYPD riot is the most violent pro-police protest I have encountered in my research, it is relatively common for the police to respond to protests about police violence with their own pro-police protests. As one news reporter asked, who polices the protest when the protesters are the police? The answer appears to be, no one.

The New York Times provided typical “balanced” coverage, which described the riotous behavior of police and quoted people condemning it, but implied the main problem was drunken revelry and quoted people sympathetic to police complaints. New York Black newspapers provided less “balance” in covering this police riot. The New York Voice, Harlem described the same violent and aggressively racist actions as the New York Times, but drew different implications: “They came from suburbia to City Hall last Wednesday, September 16, with the blessings of their Grand Leader, Phil Caruso, to protest the Mayor’s plan for an all-civilian Civilian Complaint Review Board. Once there, in front of the eyes of the world, they proceeded to exhibit exactly why such a Review Board is absolutely necessary. . . . It was obvious to all that this protest stemmed from something other than the fact that they Mayor wanted an all-civilian Civilian Complaint Review Board. . . . The rage that the Police Officers vented showed their hatred for David Dinkins because he is an African American who dared to be elected Mayor of this city. . . . If these individuals have absolutely no respect for anyone colored regardless of who they are in society, how then can they possibly police minority communities without coming into conflict with residents?” (note 4)

In an unsigned article on September 26, the Amsterdam News said:  “Fascists, stormtroopers, criminals, miscreants and worse laid siege to City Hall last week. They were 10,000 said-to-be-off-duty police officers who mutinied, stormed the steps of City Hall, breaking down barricades, knocking uniformed police officers out of the way while they attempted to bring their message of hatred, racism and intimidation straight to the guts of Mayor Dinkins.” (see note 5) In the same issue, a signed article by J. Browne Zamgba quoted local activist ministers:

Rev. Al Sharpton Tuesday demanded the immediate arrest of Phil Caruso, head of the Patrolmen’s Benefit Association (PBA), and also Rudolph Giuliani for leading “a band of hoodlums and racist cops on a wilding’ at City Hall last week.”  . . . [Rev. Herbert] Daughtry said what makes last Thursday’s riot so different is that it was directed specifically at Dinkins. “Drunken cops, who were armed, hurled racial insults at the mayor, ” he added. “The action is tantamount to an attempt to overthrow a government,” he continued.  . . . The Rev. Calvin Butts compared the behavior to Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror over Nazi Germany. “It was a drunken orgy of hatred that was a disgrace not only to New York City but the entire  country,” Butts declared.

Note 5

Black newspapers also include “not all police” sections, urging police who disagreed with these tactics to resign from the Police Benevolent Association and repudiate other police. They also tended to emphasize the suburban residences of most of the rioting police. But Black newspapers, unlike the New York Times, emphasized that the riot was encouraged and coming from the top, and represented both a threat to orderly government and a hatred of Black people in power. With thirty years’ worth of hindsight, Black newspapers’ perspectives on the riot might be seen as prophetic.


Note 1: Stories about the 1992 police protest

Note 2. News account of the Washington Heights riot, which involved scores of people overturning and burning cars and setting fires after several days of protests about a police killing in the area. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/07/07/nyregion/angered-by-police-killing-a-neighborhood-erupts.html

Note 3: “Chanting “NYPD-New York Plunger Department,” an angry but non-violent crowd of about 7,000 people marched here Friday to protest the alleged police torture of a Haitian immigrant and demanded an end to what they said was an alarming pattern of police brutality. About 2,500 police officers, many standing sullen-faced and clutching riot gear as some protesters taunted them for being “perverts” and “racists,” lined the route of a march called by local Haitian leaders in response to the Aug. 9 assault on Abner Louima in the bathroom of a Brooklyn police station.”   https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1997/08/30/marching-new-yorkers-protest-police-brutality/bc5f9b88-b464-4091-9857-a4a1181fb850/

note 4: Anon. 1992. “NYC Police Department Shamed And Dishonored By Handful Of Bigots.” New York Voice, Inc. Harlem USA, September 30, 1.

note 5: (1) Anon. 1992. “The New Police and Political Fascism, Starring Giuliani…: With Bit Parts Being Played by Molinari and Caruso…and 10,000 New York Cops as Extras.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-), September 26, 12. (2) Zamgba, J. Browne. 1992. “Sharpton Demands Arrest of Phil Caruso and Giuliani: Rev. Butts, Other Ministers Blast Racist Cops.” New York Amsterdam News (1962-), September 26, 1.

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