Bored presumably by the sort of establishment speakers it has often invited in the past — Steve Forbes, Jeb Bush, warriors battling the oppressions of the estate tax — the Metropolitan Republican Club presented Gavin McInnes, the founder of the far-right Proud Boys, to its members on a recent Friday night. Listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Proud Boys (“known for anti-Muslim and misogynist rhetoric,” the center has written) typically attract the attention of detractors wherever they show up.
The violence that erupted Oct. 12 between them and the protesters outside the club in Manhattan has elevated the controversy surrounding the police’s response to political demonstrations. An early video that circulated on social media showed members of anti-fascist groups being attacked as a police officer stood by doing nothing. A subsequent video released by the police aimed to provide a different view. But it hardly disproved the prevailing claim that the police had administered consequences selectively.
Initially three people, all leftist protesters, were arrested. Only after police officials received widespread criticism — from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, among others — did they vow to seek out nine members of the Proud Boys for detention. By the end of this week, one suspected member had been arrested.
This chapter is the latest in the Police Department’s long, unbroken pattern of aggression toward the left — a narrative that tells us how little has really changed since the 1960s, when law enforcement seemed to reflexively mistrust every hippie with a Sharpie and some poster board.
After Occupy Wall Street consumed the country’s attention in the fall of 2011, several scholars from institutions including Harvard, Stanford and Fordham produced a report, “Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street,” on the ways the police reacted to the demonstrations fighting income inequality.
The researchers studied thousands of news reports and hundreds of hours of video about the protests in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. They documented egregious uses of force against peaceful protesters, violent late-night raids on quiet encampments, arbitrary rules enforcement and baseless arrests.
As a journalist covering the movement in New York, I witnessed some of this firsthand.
The police pursued these approaches as if the lessons of history had not suggested alternatives.
Seven years before Occupy, the department was censured for its treatment of those who protested the Republican National Convention, which was held in New York in 2004. Demonstrators were caged in on sidewalks, and hundreds were sequestered in a dirty former bus depot, with few toilets, on the West Side for more than 24 hours.
Former Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly later described the department’s conduct as one of its “finest hours.”
In 2012, a federal judge ruled that the department’s mass arrests of demonstrators were illegal. Two years later, the city wound up paying nearly $18 million in damages to settle related civil rights claims. And earlier, during the Iraq War protests in 2003, mounted police charged into groups of protesters unprovoked; civil liberties groups took notice.
According to the police, groups like the Proud Boys — of which the department is “aware,’’ according to a spokesman — and others espousing far-right ideologies are tracked by the Major Investigations Unit of its Intelligence Bureau, but it is unclear how prepared the department is to deal with virulent fanaticism. Last year, a white supremacist from Baltimore traveled to New York specifically for the purpose of killing black men; he turned himself in after fatally stabbing Timothy Caughman, 66, with a sword in Midtown Manhattan.
In the second quarter of this year, felony assault complaints categorized as hate crimes nearly tripled over the first quarter, to 14. And during the summer, a white supremacist group known as Identify Evropa unfurled a banner in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, calling for an end to immigration. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who represents the largely Dominican district, held a vigil a few days later after that rally.
He told me that he could recall no police presence at the original event.
Incursions from groups like Identity Evropa or the Proud Boys are a relatively new phenomenon in New York. But Portland, Ore., for example, has been trying to quiet the frequent and violent clashes between these groups and anti-fascist protesters for some time.
There, too, the question of police bias has been intensely debated. On Monday, Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, told local reporters that during a political demonstration in August, the police found members of an extreme-right group known as Patriot Prayer on a rooftop parking lot before a protest downtown. They were armed with rifles, the police said, but no arrests were made.
The police argued that permits were held for all the firearms they found and that the members of the group complied with their directives.
And yet a city review of how the Portland police dealt with a pair of demonstrations months earlier revealed that officers viewed activists on the left as more threatening and less “mainstream’’ than those on the right.
When I asked Phil Walzak, a spokesman for New York’s police department, how long the Proud Boys had been on its radar, he wrote me that when Mr. McInnes spoke at New York University last year, “he was maced I believe by counter-protesters.”
In fact, once the Metropolitan Republican Club confirmed Mr. McInnes’s appearance, the Proud Boys were brought in from the fringes and handed a political legitimacy that could have easily supplied the police with a justification for how they managed things. It was not as if Kirsten Gillibrand was having drinks with masked anti-fascists at the Colony Club 20 blocks away.
What ought to stand out for investigators is that given access to mainstream power channels, the Proud Boys did not say thank you and recede. They remained just as angry.
Authorities must review these videos immediately and make arrests and prosecute as appropriate. Hate cannot and will not be tolerated in New York.
Here's a message from a Queens boy to the so-called 'proud boys' – NY has zero tolerance for your bs. https://t.co/xGxIqeZumm
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) October 13, 2018