Vigil for slain cyclist Sarah Pitts ends with police aggression

Protesters march down Myrtle Avenue en route to McCarren Park during a vigil for Sarah Pitts on Sept. 11.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

Dozens of police officers aggressively shoved a group of mourners on Friday during a vigil for Sarah Pitts, an assistant district attorney who was fatally struck by a bus driver while riding her bike in Williamsburg last week, according to witnesses and video from the scene. 

“They tried to hit people and knock people down literally during a vigil — you have candles, food on tables, happening at the same time in the park. It’s insane and it’s the usual NYPD behavior,” said Manhattanite Nate Brown, who posted several videos of the confrontations on Instagram.

Attendees of the Sept. 11 event at McCarren Park — which also drew many Black Lives Matter protesters and safe streets advocates — say that tensions between cops and demonstrators boiled over when one white-shirted officer attempted to break through a line of marchers, causing the other Boys-in-Blue to follow suit in a chaotic scene.

One mourner lamented the officers conduct, saying they had behaved disrespectfully toward people at the event, which included Pitts’ family members and children.

“It was just a pathetic show of behavior, a waste of taxpayer’s money,” said Jasmine Anderson. “Playing guard like you’re the overseers, it’s not necessary.”

Hundreds of mourners dressed in white showed up for the somber ceremony, which started at Fort Greene Park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument before heading to McCarren Park.

Mourner Qween Jean at a combined Black Lives Matter march and vigil for Sarah Pitts at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park on Sept. 11.Photo by Caroline Ourso

Pitts, 35, worked at Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office and died after a bus driver struck her at the corner of Wythe Avenue and Williamsburg Street shortly after midnight on Sept. 7. She was active with Riders for Rights, an organization of cyclists that guided the thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters through city streets this summer, and which helped organize the vigil, according to fellow advocates.

Friends and family shared their memories of Pitts at the vigil, which ended in a guided meditation in the northern Brooklyn lawn.

Protesters march down Myrtle Avenue.Photo by Caroline Ourso

“She’s just so laid back, she makes jokes, and she just wants to put a smile on people’s faces,” said Anderson, who met Pitts at several protests this summer. “She was really a powerhouse, she really was, she was just so majestic. I wish I had the chance to get to know her more and ride out with her more.”

The police detail, which had been trailing the demonstration, formed a line around the perimeter of the Williamsburg park before advancing into the greenspace at around 1 am — the park’s official closing time — and aggressively attempted to clear the area, shoving protesters and eventually facing off against a line of marchers with bikes.

Video on Instagram then shows an official in a white shirt try to grab one of the protesters, after which the line of cops moves forward into the protesters with officers jostling them and pushing them to the ground.

“[Pitts’s] cousin had just given her speech, her living relatives are standing in the field that police are marching on,” said another witness, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of police retribution. “[The police] could have said something, they could have left, they could have made any other choice, but when that officer crossed over. They created the cause of their rush.”

Scenes from the demonstration.Photo by Caroline Ourso

In a statement, a police spokeswoman claimed that officers tried to disperse the crowd because of a group fight at the park not seen on any of the witness footage.

“In response to a group fighting at the location, police sought to disperse the group to ensure the safety of those present. Police were able to speak to an individual and disperse the group. There were no reported arrests, summonses, or injuries,” said Sergeant Jessica McRorie. 

Anderson said that the fracas caused several injuries and a stampede. 

“One of our members was hit in the face,” said the Bushwick resident. “Another member was trampled over and buried under a bike.”

Several protesters worked to de-escalate the situation, Brown said.

Update (Monday, Sept. 14, 5:33 pm): This story has been updated to include comment from the Police Department.