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The NYPD’s history of police violence captured through photos

The NYPD has a long and sordid history of police violence and brutality, and photos have been there along the way to capture it.

From the Harlem riots in the mid-20th century, to the protests over police brutality in the summer of 2020, to MLK Day 2021, photographers have captured the NYPD acting flagrantly out of bounds.

Do we expect accountability? Not necessarily yet, though we demand it. Do we expect the NYPD’s brutal tactics to subside? That remains to be seen when De Blasio leaves office.

What we do know, is that photography gives the city, and the world’s residents, a glimpse into how the NYPD really acts. The NYPD’s history of police violence cannot go unnoticed, and it does not, due to the work of diligent photographers.

We appreciate every photographer that risks their life in search of the perfect photo.

Photographers capture the NYPD assaulting a group of peaceful protestors on MLK Day

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The groups calling for racial and social justice peacefully marched from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to City Hall where they were met with a large group of NYPD officers. (Cred: Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It made no sense other than to start with the most recent example of the NYPD’s police brutality. Peaceful protestors marched from the Barclays Center to City Hall, where they were confronted by the NYPD.

This photo shows the NYPD ready to take action, and take action they did. Except, the peaceful demonstration warranted no interference.

According to Jake Offenhartz of The Gothamist, protestors said they were corralled into the park, and then threatened with arrest if they refused to leave.

“I feel like the NYPD and any other police force, they were designed to do this. They were designed to capture Black people even on a holiday that celebrates Black icons, they don’t care. They don’t give a shit.”

Tameer Peak, a 25-year-old activist from Newark, said he was punched in the face by an officer while trying to film arrests. When he fell to the ground, Peak claimed another officer kicked him.

De Blasio may have said the NYPD will up its efforts to gain trust in NYC communities. But actions speak louder than words. This is unacceptable and extremely harrowing, and only due to photography and videos, do we know exactly what the NYPD has done.

Photography captures the NYPD using excessive force in the summer of 2020

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New York City police officers tackle a protester on May 30. Many officers were filmed using excessive force toward demonstrators.
(Cred: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

2020 is remembered for the protests against police brutality, and it always will be. Of course, the protests didn’t solely take place in big cities in the U.S., but all across the world.

Still, NYC, seen by many as the capital of the world, was under the microscope. And photographers were there to capture the NYPD and its brutal tactics firsthand.

In the photo above, NYPD officers can be seen acting in excessive force against a Black man. Also noteworthy in the photograph, only one of the five NYPD officers in the foreground is wearing a mask.

Noncompliance isn’t going to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But for us New Yorkers, we saw a whole bevy of NYPD cops maskless during the summer of 2020.

The police brutality was on full display in the photography of the NYPD in 2020. And as MLK Day’s peaceful protests showed, there is no accountability for these officers and the department just yet.

A photographer captures an NYPD officer using pepper spray in a clear case of police brutality

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NYPD officers spray pepper spray at protesters as they demonstrate about the arrest of George Floyd, who later died in police custody, in Brooklyn, May 30, 2020 (Cred: KEVIN HAGEN/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Let us not forget that chemical weapons were once internationally outlawed. And now police officers are allowed to use pepper spray against the citizens they are sworn to protect. Via The Gothamist, this photo shows the victim complex many NYPD (and other departments) have.

Though the protestor is clear yards away, out of the shot, the officer sprays his pepper spray. During a pandemic. Against the citizens he is supposed to serve.

The photograph and instances of police brutality are so sickening it almost brings me to tears. But alas, the world knows about these instances of NYPD police brutality because of the delicate photography taken on the streets in 2020.

This photograph of the Harlem riots of 1964 shows the NYPD’s violence is not new

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A Black man tries to defend himself against baton-wielding NYPD officers engaging in police brutality in Harlem, 1964 (Cred: unknown)

The Harlem riots of 1964 were harrowing and perilous. It all began in July when James Powell, a 15-year-old African American, was shot by NYPD Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan in front of Powell’s friends and about a dozen other witnesses.

In total, 4,000 New Yorkers participated in the riots before they were squashed.

There is something deeply sinister about the NYPD officer’s shooting of Powell. It was unwarranted, but the fact that he did it in broad daylight in front of so many people, meant he believed (and knew) he would face no consequences.

This also sounds deeply familiar to the capitol mob riots we witnessed last week, when white people, in some cases egged on by police, were so comfortable engaging in full-fledged treason, that they took pictures and live-streamed the entire ordeal. Two different Americas.

This photograph of the Harlem riots of 1964 shows how short we truly have come

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A steel-helmeted policeman wields his club on fleeing African American youths at West 125th Street during violence in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Demonstrators were protesting the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African American, James Powell, by a white police officer. (Cred: AP)

Photography of the NYPD and its immoral actions can be hard to swallow. It is not just the sheer terror on the faces of the Black youths fleeing. It is also the nearly-imperceptible smile on the face of the NYPD officer about to engage in police brutality.

The riots were violent, sure, and the NYPD needed to respond forcefully. But rather than think about why the protestors were protesting, the officers just responded with terror against Black communities.

And it shames me to say, it seems not much has changed.

Photography of the NYPD and police brutality should never feel normal

Images of protestors in dire situations should never feel commonplace. These images should make us angry, and we should then use that anger to take action.

Still, the photographers who have captured the NYPD engaging in (let’s not sugar coat it) domestic terrorism, risk their lives for a perfect shot.

These photos show the world what is truly going on with the NYPD, as in these clearly-undoctored images, there is no disputing what is taking place.

Stay safe everyone, and also thank a photographer when you get a chance. They have seen much more than we will ever know.

Want to see more photography of the 2020 #BLM protests in NY?