In the early hours of May 25, the day Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, officers from the New York Police Department beat the shit out of a homeless man on the subway.
“Beat the shit out of” is often an imprecise term, but if you watch the video of the arrest of Joseph T, a hairdresser who was experiencing homelessness in late May, there is really no other descriptor that fits.
The video below was first reported by The City on Tuesday. The site also revealed that Joseph — rather than the cop who struck him flush across the face while he was sitting down and then threw him onto the concrete subway platform — was being charged with felony assault. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who has presumably seen this footage as well, concluded that Joseph assaulted the cop when he kicked his hand away early on in the video. The cop, Adonis Long, suffered what a criminal complaint described as “sustained swelling and substantial pain to the knuckles of his right hand,” which Vance apparently felt must have been caused by Joseph T swatting it away and not from the two right hooks Long threw at Joseph’s face. (The DA’s office wound up dropping the felony charge on Wednesday after an outcry.)
Here is the body camera video. It is not pleasant to watch.
Four days after the NYPD sent Joseph to the hospital for the crime of taking up two seats in an empty subway car at 12:30 a.m., New York City erupted in widespread protests against police brutality. The police, like their peers around the country, erupted in widespread brutality.
This second point is undeniable, despite the best efforts of the NYPD’s slick press shop and Bill de Blasio’s sniveling cowardice from City Hall’s bully pulpit. The New York Times today has a compilation of more than 60 videos of the cops shoving, beating, tackling, strangling, macing, and crushing protesters and bystanders throughout the first ten days of the protests. What is striking is that they are now poised to get away with all of it, because as the video of Joseph’s arrest and the charges leveled against him show, the systems of power that enable this violence have not changed in the slightest.
In late June, New York State Attorney General Letitia James was tasked with evaluating the NYPD’s conduct throughout the George Floyd protests. After investigating hours of videos, news reports, and interviews with witnesses, James released a 45-page “preliminary report” that recommended a series of reforms but did not, crucially, include any evaluation of whether or not the many documented use of force cases were justified or in line with what a police officer should be doing.
From Gothamist’s article on the report last Wednesday:
"I don't know if we were tasked with the ability to judge the police," James told reporters on a conference call announcing the release of the report, which was ordered by Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 30th. "We were tasked with the responsibility of looking at the interactions between police and protesters during a certain period of time," James said. "This is nothing more than a preliminary report."
In hindsight, we all should have expected this. Across the country, when confronted with shocking evidence of police brutality in direct response to protests against police brutality, Democratic and Republican leaders alike have largely shrugged and said “well, we gotta keep our cops safe.” Bill de Blasio has been one of the largest (literally, tall-ass freak) offenders in this, repeatedly defending the NYPD in the face of overwhelming evidence of their blatant misconduct.
The cops, meanwhile, have been very shrewd. After the end of the arbitrary curfew that empowered them to make mass arrests in the second week of protests, the NYPD largely backed off from direct confrontations with protesters. For weeks, they allowed marches to proceed peacefully, focusing force only on pockets of dissent like Manhattan’s City Hall Occupation, where they staged raids in the wee hours of the morning when attendance was at its lowest and most reporters had gone home. This relative restraint succeeded in one major way: it re-established the status quo. It made it so that videos like the one of Joseph being brutalized on a subway train may not make an impact — because hitting a homeless person is business as usual, and he started it, remember?
What police also realized is they can get away with the violence, as long as it’s kept at a slow burn. This means picking their battles, which they are still doing. This is a video from this morning.
This is business as usual. De Blasio surely feels he’s done his part: like many mayors of liberal cities, he gleefully helped paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in giant letters on his streets. One of the New York City murals is on 5th Avenue outside of Trump Tower, a statement of resistance toward a president who has demonized protesters at every turn. But there’s another mural on Fulton Street, in Brooklyn, the site of dozens of marches through June and July, where cops charged crowds and slammed people into the street.
What Cy Vance’s charges against Joseph say is that the NYPD is already expects their crimes of the past month will be forgotten. Based on the response by elected officials thus far, it looks like this is the case. The NYPD can beat up some protesters, and they can punch a homeless guy in the face, as long as they keep the blood to a level that Bill de Blasio can cover up with a thin layer of yellow paint.
Update, 7:34 p.m. ET: This story was updated to reflect the Manhattan district attorney’s decision to drop the felony charges against Joseph T.