On Thursday night, Twitter user DataInput posted a short video of a car driving through a Times Square anti–police brutality rally. The footage shows a car pausing in front of two bicyclists standing within the crowd before speeding directly through them, stopping again, and then taking off, with protesters screaming and following behind. About an hour later, as the protesters marched to Columbus Circle, another car was seen stopping near them, with the driver apparently waving a gun.
No one seems to have been seriously injured, and many protesters were able to get out of the way. However, concerns immediately arose that they had been targeted: Protests over police brutality have increasingly been met with violence by vigilantes and police officers alike. Thursday’s rallygoers were speaking out against the treatment of Daniel Prude, who ended up in the hospital after being suffocated and detained by cops in Rochester, New York, in March. Raw police footage was released Wednesday, showing cops placing a mesh hood over Prude’s head, pushing him to the ground, and holding his head down for two minutes, before later administering CPR.
New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea says police are still investigating whether a crime was committed in Thursday’s collision. But some observers and activists, including the video’s original poster, alleged that the car was an undercover police escort for Trump supporters. The car did not appear to have any visible NYPD branding, and the department itself denied that it belonged to the NYPD. However, a video posted by Twitter user @haram_drip shows men in U.S. flag merchandise and red caps entering what appears to be the same car moments before the collision, surrounded by NYPD officers in masks. [Update, Sept. 5, 2020, at 9:06 a.m.: Gothamist has confirmed that the NYPD interviewed the car’s six passengers—all pro-Trump counterprotesters—and released them without charges, although an NYPD spokesman says the incident is still under investigation. One of the passengers told Gothamist that she “felt threatened by the protesters and feared for her life.”] Shortly after the boarding, the car is seen going off into a Times Square crowd, and soon afterward, screams are heard as the crowd devolves into chaos and the same officers initially guarding the car run into the protest to ostensibly check out the situation. An NYPD spokesperson told Gothamist that the car was full of counterprotesters who were being ushered by police through a hotel parking lot, but “missed the turn.”
Another video posted by @haram_drip shows police standing guard for Trump supporters, reportedly before that same car had arrived. DataInput, the first video’s reporter, noted the license plate number of the car and wrote a thread based on an eyewitness report with claims that would seem to back up the allegation by @haram_drip. According to Gothamist, the plate number matches that of a pro-NYPD activist named Hakim Gibson, who had reportedly joked that because of additions he had made to his car, people have mistakenly identified him as a cop.
The suspicions that the attack was aided by the NYPD are not entirely unfounded. If an NYPD vehicle was indeed used against demonstrators on Thursday, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in May, shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an NYPD SUV was captured on camera running into a large group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Brooklyn, striking two. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responded at the time by condemning the protesters, berating them for “surround[ing] a police vehicle and threaten[ing] police officers.” He scolded the police a couple days later, saying, “There is no situation where a police vehicle should drive into a crowd of protesters or New Yorkers of any kind.”
Regardless of whether the NYPD was involved, the attack is part of a troubling pattern of responses to protests against police brutality. From May onward, vigilante drivers acting of their own volition—and, often, of their own fury at anti–police brutality protesters blocking streets, as well as with racist motives—have driven through crowds of protesters in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, injuring and in tragic (but rare) instances even killing people. And despite public outrage, the frequency of these rammings is growing.
Before this year, the murder of Heather Heyer during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the most prominent killing by a counterprotester in a car in the U.S. Yet even before that, right-wingers—including cops and state legislators—had long fantasized about running over Black Lives Matter protesters who block streets to bring publicity to their cause. This year, that twisted dream is coming true: By early July, there were at least 68 vehicle attacks on BLM rallies.
And there’s no sign that this particular form of violence will stop anytime soon. Even as awareness of racism in policing and domestic militarism has grown, many political leaders have hesitated to condemn violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, or even defended the aggressive drivers. After all, police unions still have major political clout even in Democrat-run cities and states. Despite growing calls to “defund the police,” few cities have even considered such a measure. And as seen in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, anti-BLM protesters are growing even more militant, while local police departments stand by and watch.