NEW YORK – Street protests spiraled into New York City’s worst day of unrest in decades Saturday, as fires burned, windows got smashed and dangerous confrontations between demonstrators and officers flared amid crowds of thousands decrying police killings.
A day that began with mostly peaceful marches through Harlem and neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens descended into chaos as night fell.
Demonstrators smashed windows, hurled objects at officers, torched and battered police vehicles and blocked roads with garbage and wreckage. A handful of stores in Manhattan had their windows broken and merchandise stolen.
Officers sprayed crowds with chemicals, and video showed two police cruisers lurching into a crowd of demonstrators on a Brooklyn street, knocking several to the ground, after people attacked it with thrown objects, including something on fire. It was unclear whether anyone was hurt.
It was the third straight day of protests in the city over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, a remarkable outburst after most New Yorkers spent the past two months stuck inside as the coronavirus devastated the city. A night earlier, several thousand people faced off with a force of officers on the streets around a Brooklyn sports arena.
The NYPD said at least 120 people were arrested and at least 15 police vehicles damaged or destroyed.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, blamed the destruction on a small number of agitators who he said “do not represent this city” and were purposely trying to incite violence against police.
“We appreciate and respect all peaceful protest, but now it is time for people to go home,” de Blasio told reporters outside the city's emergency management headquarters just after 11:30 p.m.
“What we’re seeing is people coming in from outside, a lot of them are purporting to speak about the issues of communities of color, but a lot of them are not from communities of color,” de Blasio said on the local cable news station NY1.
Elsewhere in the state, the mayor in Rochester declared a state of emergency and a 9 p.m. curfew after demonstrators destroyed police cars, setting one on fire, and officers responded with tear gas canisters. Albany police used tear gas and rode horses in efforts to quell demonstrators throwing objects. In Buffalo, numerous storefronts had their windows smashed and a person tried to start a fire in City Hall.
The protests in each city were all held in defiance of a statewide ban on gatherings imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is bigger than the pandemic,” said Brooklyn protester Meryl Makielski, referring to the outbreak that, until recently, was killing hundreds of New Yorkers each day. “The mistakes that are happening are not mistakes. They’re repeated violent terrorist offenses and people need to stop killing black people. Cops seem as though they’ve been trained to do so.”
Earlier in the day, de Blasio had expressed solidarity with demonstrators upset about police brutality, but promised an independent review of demonstrations Friday night in which a mob set fire to a police van and battered police cruisers with clubs and officers beat people with batons.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had asked the state's attorney general, Letitia James, to lead an inquiry and make a public report.
The mayor said he was upset by videos of confrontations “where protesters were handled very violently” by police, including one that showed a woman being needlessly thrown to the ground.
But he defended officers in the streets, saying they were being subjected “to horrible, vile things.” Of the video of officers driving into a crowd Saturday, de Blasio said it would be investigated, but that the officers acted because they were being attacked.
Violence early Saturday resulted in federal charges against three people suspected of building and throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles in two separate incidents in Brooklyn.
The U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn said Samantha Shader, 27, of Catskill, New York, admitted under questioning to throwing her device at a van occupied by four officers. It did not ignite and the officers were unharmed, police said. Shader’s sister, Dorian, was also arrested and will face charges in state court, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office said.
Colinford Mattis, 32, and Urooj Rahman, 31, both of Brooklyn, are accused of targeting a police van. They were charged under a federal statute regarding the use of fire and explosives to cause damage to a police vehicle and each face 5 to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Information on their lawyers was not immediately available.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said more than 200 people were arrested and multiple officers were injured in Friday night's protests, including one who lost a tooth.
Asked to comment on videos that showed officers shoving peaceful protesters to the ground and hitting people with batons, Shea said those acts would be investigated.
But, he said, “It is very hard to practice de-escalation when there is a brick being thrown at your head.”
“It is by the grace of God that we don’t have dead officers today,” he said.
In a peaceful gathering Saturday afternoon, the Rev. Al Sharpton addressed several hundred people in Staten Island at the spot where Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer in 2014. He was accompanied by Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr.
Sharpton noted that Floyd, who died Monday in Minneapolis after an officer pressed his knee into his neck, had also fallen unconscious gasping for air.
“Right at this spot is where we heard Eric Garner say what six years later was said by George: ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Cuomo noted that Floyd's death was just the latest in a long list of similar deaths, and he said he shared in the outrage over “this fundamental injustice.”
“But violence is not the answer. It never is the answer," he said. “The violence obscures the righteousness of the message and the mission.”
Associated Press writers Karen Matthews, Jennifer Peltz, Michael R. Sisak, Tom Hays, Maria Sanminiatelli and Robert Bumsted in New York, Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut, and John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this report.