Politics

A State Politician Describes Getting Pepper-Sprayed by the NYPD

And explains how he helped lead the charge on police reform.

Zellnor Myrie stands at a lectern and speaks into a microphone, with people in face masks behind him
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie speaks at a June 4 press conference in New York City calling for the passing of police accountability legislation. Scott Heins/Getty Images

In Brooklyn, New York, the protests that have taken over the streets have also included elected officials, like state Sen. Zellnor Myrie. Back in May, and before the curfew had initially been imposed, Myrie attended a gathering at the Barclays Center. Soon, the cops started roughing up protesters, and Myrie was pepper-sprayed.

He was stunned to have such a frightening encounter with the police just blocks from his district. He’d never had that kind of experience before, and he knows a lot of police in his part of Brooklyn. So the very next day, he was on the phone with his colleagues in the state Senate. He went back to Albany and helped pass 10 separate police reform bills, including legislation banning chokeholds and repealing 50-a. Myrie and his fellow lawmakers had been trying to do this for years—but protesters handed them a mandate.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Myrie about what it took to get some big reform laws passed in New York, and the complications around our ideas of the police. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Tell me about what happened.

Zellnor Myrie: I remember choosing the attire I was going to wear and very intentionally picking my neon yellow-green shirt with my name and title on the back, in case things escalated. I was hoping to be a force of de-escalation if things were to take that course. At Barclays, it was all good until about 8 p.m., when the cops started to forcefully move people away from the protest. I remember we were obeying the orders. In fact, I was talking to some of the other protesters saying, “Let’s move back, let’s not have a confrontation here.” And while doing that, I started getting hit in the back with the bicycles some of the officers had in their hands. I turned around and said, “Look, we’re doing exactly what you have asked us to do.” It was at that moment that I got pepper-sprayed directly into my eyes. As I’m crying out, I hear a number of officers say, “Cuff him, cuff him.”

This is what was going through my mind: In that moment, any wrong move that I made could have had disastrous consequences. Anything that could have been interpreted as me being resistant or me being threatening could have resulted in serious injury or, even worse, the loss of my life.

How do you get out of that situation?

One of the higher-ups recognized who I was when they took me to be processed and then pulled me off the line, cut my zip ties, and gave me medical attention. You know, it was an extraordinary moment of despair but also of privilege, because I was only pulled off that line because of who I was. There were people getting processed who were right next to me, peacefully protesting, who did not have that same privilege.

You’ve been talking about police reform since you were running for office. Does it shock you that all of a sudden you were able to do so much in a couple of weeks?

It was not only shocking—it was sobering to experience how years of advocacy could hinge on one particular moment in time to get things across the line. I think it speaks to how unprecedented this time in our history is, where people require more than lip service. They expect you to do something if you’re in a position to do it.

You’re a Brooklyn native. Can you recall your first experience learning about police violence?

I went to school in Crown Heights. When I was very young, a lot of people knew what happened during the Crown Heights riots. A lot of the focus on that, historically, is about the relationship between the black and the Jewish communities. But there was also a response to what was going on in Crown Heights that flooded our neighborhoods with police officers.

What did that look like?

I was very, very, very accustomed to heavy police presence all over. I would walk home from school and it was part of the scene for me. We also had a lot of gang activity. My mom got mugged. There were some rough times.

You’re drawing a complicated picture. I’m wondering if, as a kid, you had a sense of who the good guys were.

It’s complicated. There’s a level of safety you might feel, certainly, as a child if there were cops around. Then you had to square that with what you were seeing on the news about police brutality. When I was younger, we were seeing what happened to Anthony Baez and Amadou Diallo. It was very hard for me to reconcile those two things because I just couldn’t understand how the folks who were supposed to protect us were also some of the same folks brutalizing us.

That was complicated even further because when I was growing up, a lot of the adults encouraged the police presence and wanted to feel that safety. Then you have a generation like mine that grew up with these stories of brutality without consequence. We have a different take on how things look.

I know you live with your mom now. Do you have those generational conversations in this moment?

My mom was, of course, mortified to see what happened to me. And she agreed we should be protesting brutality but said the rioting and looting took away from the message. She also doesn’t think we should defund the police, and she has some complicated views around stop and frisk as well. My mom is very representative of my district: She’s an older black woman. So it’s complicated when I try to communicate fairly.

With the community writ large, there are those of us who feel very strongly—and I count myself in that—that there needs to be a fundamental overhaul of how we do policing here in New York, and certainly around the country. And there are folks who don’t feel as strongly about that, who lived through a different era in NYC and equate public safety with the type of policing we’ve seen. So I think we have to have a serious conversation and not a dismissive one. It’s not dissimilar from the general divide we have in the Democratic Party.

From the very beginning of your 2018 campaign, you were talking about repealing 50-a as part of your platform. That law has shielded police from accountability in New York, making it really hard to get hold of disciplinary records for individual officers.

I wrote an op-ed as a candidate back in 2018 calling for the repeal of 50-a. Before that, as a lawyer, I’d had two pro bono cases that dealt with 50-a directly, one in which the gentleman basically had his head stomped out by officers. We were trying to get the disciplinary records of those officers to determine whether they had a propensity for this type of violence, and the city utilized 50-a to deny us.

It was an incredible moment to see the repeal passed last week. It is not a panacea, but it is certainly a first step for transparency. And I’m hoping now there will start to be increased measures of accountability for police departments.

The repeal of 50-a was recommended by a court-appointed facilitator in the wake of NYC’s grappling with stop and frisk. So why was it so hard to do?

Not only had the facilitator made that recommendation—the Civilian Complaint Review Board was in strong support of the full repeal. The NYPD has an inspector general who’s made several recommendations regarding the disciplinary process, including making records more publicly available. But all of that was met with staunch opposition by the police union. That has proved to be the main obstacle to police reform forever, not just with 50-a but historically. To see 40 Democrats in the state Senate vote in support of repeal is something you wouldn’t have seen even a few years ago because people would’ve been afraid of the backlash from the police union.

After the protests where you were pepper-sprayed and lots of other people found themselves in clashes with the NYPD, 50-a was quickly repealed. Do you know how many days it took from that protest to getting it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk?

Approximately 13 days. Which is remarkable.

You made a speech when this legislation was passed, talking about what happened to you when you were in this confrontation with police.

I thought it was important for us to get it on the record that police brutality is not the chatter of the day. This isn’t just a movement of restless people trying to get out of their house and make noise. Police brutality has been happening since the beginning of policing. I thought it was important for us to go through some of that chronology and talk about my own experience.

I get emotional just thinking, Wow, we did it—and not just we, the senators, but we, the families of the victims, the people who were on the streets, the people who’ve given to the movement. Weeks ago, you couldn’t have told me that we would be at this moment.

This weekend, Cuomo held a press conference and said to protesters, “You won.” He sort of implied it’s time to get out of the streets and come to the table. I wonder what you thought about that sentiment.

Not a single person is in a position to tell the protesters what to do. The reason we’ve taken to the streets, and the reason people continue to take to the streets, is because the government has not been responsive enough. The government has not instituted the trust that it needs to do. So it’s not going to be the government that decides when it’s time for people to stop protesting.

I agree that you protest in order to get some changes made. And we saw changes in the Legislature, some really good starts. But they’re just that: the beginning. The Freedom Riders in the ’60s, they were at it for seven months before bus rides were desegregated. This is not a short-term thing. This is not something you can put a time limit on. I think people should continue to protest until they see the changes they want to see. And after taking some time to process, I’m probably going to be right back out there protesting alongside with them.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.