A police officer hit me in the stomach with a baton while I was covering last Tuesday night’s Ferguson protests.
On Nov. 24, a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed teen Michael Brown to death in August, sparking riots in the small Midwestern town and protests across the country, including some in New York that fanned out across the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The next evening, having heard protesters would be assembling in Manhattan’s Union Square, I headed far afield from my Carroll Gardens and Park Slope beat to see what would happen.
At 8 pm, an hour into one of the many marches that set out in different directions across the city, I was in a group of a thousand demonstrators as they attempted to swarm up the Williamsburg Bridge roadway from Delancey Street. A phalanx of police ran to wall off the two sides with barricades and I scrambled up onto a three-foot concrete median beside the bike path, following several other reporters to get a vantage point for a photo.
That was when an officer shouted “stay back!”
Less than a second later, before I could react to the command, he banged me in the gut with the his baton held lengthwise. I recoiled to avoid the weapon’s full force, but it had already knocked me off my perch.
“I’m press! I’m press!” I yelled as I fell backwards to the street.
I landed on both feet, but by the time I caught my balance the officer was gone.
The blow didn’t leave a mark, and it was not anywhere near the extreme end of the spectrum of NYPD protest experiences — I’ve heard of my peers spending the night in handcuffs for less, and protesters have famously been pepper-sprayed and beaten for doing nothing more than standing on a sidewalk with a sign — but it is worth noting.
I was not wearing an NYPD press pass, which officers can require to cross police lines and enter certain NYPD functions, but I wasn’t crossing any police lines, either. I was also not carrying a sign or wearing, say, a bandana over my face, or doing anything to indicate that I was a protester.
I was not entirely surprised, but I believe most people expect law enforcement agents to give commands before they follow them up with force. The violation of that expectation, seen for example in the police shooting of Akai Gurley in a dark East New York stairwell on Nov. 20, was what motivated several of the protesters I interviewed to take to the streets.
The baton hit was the only violence I saw all night.