Social Distancing Doesn’t Matter When It Comes to Racist, Aggressive Policing

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have implored New Yorkers to keep respectable distances from one another, with the hopes of stopping the spread of the virus. The state’s and city’s economies were grounded to a halt as all kinds of businesses were ordered to shut their doors. Schools have been closed since March, and de Blasio recently announced that they will remain closed for the remainder of the year. Court affairs are being conducted remotely. Colleges have transitioned to distance learning. Across the state, there has either been a drastic slowing down, or a complete stoppage of almost all operations and activities in the public and private sector.

Yet the one organization determined to carry on with business as usual is the New York City Police Department (NYPD). New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea declared that the NYPD would not slow down operations during the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, the police business of oppressing Black and Brown people cannot stop, not even in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Not even when a fifth of the entire department has been calling out sick for several weeks. Not even when police officers have gotten sick and died from COVID-19. For these officers, arresting a Brown child for selling candy is more important than flattening the curve.

Moreover, police are selective when it comes to enforcing the city’s social distancing directives. Mayor de Blasio has been ordering people to refrain from gathering in public spaces. Yet, civilians (many of whom are white) continue to congregate in city parks in defiance of those orders. NYPD officers do not hassle and arrest these individuals. Around the country, heavily armed white men and women participated in anti-lockdown protests, without any reports of aggressive policing. This type of policing is reserved for Black and Brown communities, especially in New York, where the NYPD have pepper sprayed, harassed and arrested unarmed civilians in t neighborhood parks under the guise of failing to social distance. Even during this health imbroglio, discriminatory policing is a constant.

In a video that has gone viral, several police officers are shown in the subway manhandling a child for the vicious crime of selling food on the train. The child was crying and trying to break free from the officers’ firm grasp. The child’s mother was present and tried to defend her son. Several bystanders attempted to appeal to the officers’ consciences by repeatedly stating the obvious: “He’s a little boy!” None of it made any difference for the several officers that were present; they refused to let him go or cut him a break.

This is not an isolated incident; this is a reflection of how the NYPD — and police departments across the U.S. — treat people of color. Throughout history, the U.S. has taught its citizens that the lives of Black and Brown people do not matter; and be it through broken windows policing, gang policing or other law enforcement endeavors, NYPD loyally abides by this rule.

That there was a Black officer involved means nothing; the department’s racist policies and practices are dictated from on high, and those who choose to wear that badge will either fall in line or risk alienation within the department. Society has taught the police who they can oppress and abuse with impunity; NYPD officers know whom they can plant contraband on, whom they can assault without provocation, whom they can give false testimony against in court, and whom they can even kill, without fear of retribution. If this child were white, “New York’s Finest” would never have bothered him.

As this incident also demonstrates, rules don’t apply to city cops. One of the officers involved was seen trying to kick the snacks the boy was selling onto the tracks before a private citizen rushed and gathered them up. So much for not littering in the subway station and possibly causing track fires. And so much for social distancing: The officers were not adhering to the city’s recommendations.

The worst part about all of this is that we know nothing will come of it by way of meaningful punishment. De Blasio might pay this particular incident lip service, but he certainly won’t do any more. No one in state government will do anything productive either. One would be foolish to expect a worthwhile response from them; as the recent bail reform rollbacks showed us, city and state governments bow to the law enforcement lobby. These officers likely won’t even be chastised for not abiding by the social distancing guidelines.

Racist policing happens across the U.S., and it will only escalate during the COVID-19 crisis. Just as we are seeing increased racism in health care due to the pandemic, we will also continue to witness blatantly discriminatory policing of Black and Brown communities. In San Diego, the local NAACP documented an incident of biased COVID-19 enforcement when an elderly Black man with dementia was aggressively stopped by an unmarked police van. If the police are willing to engage in this type of behavior with our elderly for taking a walk, and with our children for selling candy, we can accurately predict that racist policing will increase during this pandemic.

As a public defender, I’m wary of expanding police presence and powers. I’ve seen the deadly and destructive role that racial bias plays in police investigations and arrests. We can’t allow COVID-19 social distancing rules to be applied discriminatorily. We do not need more police presence, especially in Black and Brown communities. We must make sure the police are held accountable for their COVID-19 policing decisions. So, we take the time to denounce this incident because we see it for what it is: an act of bullying, plain and simple. Grown adults entrusted to enforce the law — and the rules of social distancing that they obviously were not following — physically mistreated a child in the presence of his mother and a number of bystanders, because they could. I would say that the NYPD should be ashamed of itself, but we know the department will not care.