When the NYPD Rioted

In New York in 1992, about 4000 off-duty police officers and their supporters 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 unruly protesters 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 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-violent 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 news sources 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 disorder 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 they would have successfully defended the bridge even without the error. When the police at the scene finally called for backups, it was 90 minutes before any showed up. Nobody was arrested at the scene, although 42 of the several thousand law-breakers were later identified from witness accounts and visual images and faced disciplinary hearings for possible misconduct charges (but not criminal charges) 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.

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. (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 this is the most unruly 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.


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/

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