Street protests spiraled into New York City’s worst day of unrest in decades Saturday, as fires burned, windows got smashed and dangerous confrontations between demonstrators and officers flared amid crowds of thousands decrying police killings, despite a plea for calm the mayor.
A day that began with mostly peaceful marches through Harlem, around Manhattan's Union Square and through neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens descended into chaos as night fell.
Demonstrators smashed windows, hurled objects at officers, set numerous fires, torched and smashed police vehicles and blocked roads with garbage and wreckage.
Dangerous confrontations flared repeatedly. Video showed two police cruisers lurching into a crowd of demonstrators on a Brooklyn street, knocking several to the ground, after people attacked it with thrown objects, including something on fire. It was unclear whether anyone was hurt.
In numerous flare-ups, officers sprayed crowds with chemicals. The NYPD said at least 120 people were arrested and at least 13 police vehicles destroyed.
Videos showed protesters dancing on top of a smashed police van, its lights still flashing.
The protests, among many around the country over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, came a day after several thousand people faced off with a force of officers on the streets around a Brooklyn sports arena.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, blamed the destruction on a small number of agitators who he said “do not represent this city” and were purposely trying to incite violence against police.
“Anyone who is a peaceful protester, it is time to go home. The point has been made,” de Blasio said on the local cable news station NY1. Of the people setting fires, he said they have "a very warped ideology,” he said.
“What we’re seeing is people coming in from outside, a lot of them are purporting to speak about the issues of communities of color, but a lot of them are not from communities of color,” de Blasio said.
Earlier in the day, the mayor had expressed solidarity with demonstrators upset about police brutality but promised an independent review of demonstrations Friday in which a mob set fire to a police van and battered police cruisers with clubs and officers beat people with batons.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had asked the state's attorney general, Letitia James, to lead an inquiry and make a public report.
The mayor said he was upset by videos of confrontations “where protesters were handled very violently” by police, including one that showed a woman being needlessly thrown to the ground.
But he defended officers in the streets, saying they were being subjected “to horrible, vile things.” Of the video of officers driving into a crowd Saturday, de Blasio said it would be investigated, but that the officers acted because they were "surrounded by people who were attacking that vehicle.”
One demonstrator in Friday's confrontations, Samantha Shader, 27, of Catskill, New York, was arrested on an attempted murder charge after police said she tossed a homemade firebomb at a vehicle occupied by several officers. The device did not ignite and the officers were unharmed, police said. Police also arrested her sister, Darian Shader, 21, on charges of resisting arrest and obstructing police.
They were in custody Saturday and it wasn't immediately clear whether lawyers had been appointed to represent them.
City police said in a Twitter posting Saturday evening that federal charges were expected to be filed against “multiple” people for incidents involving homemade bombs.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said more than 200 people were arrested and multiple officers were injured Friday, including one who lost a tooth.
Asked to comment on videos that showed officers shoving peaceful protesters to the ground and hitting people with batons, Shea said those acts would be investigated.
But, he said, “It is very hard to practice de-escalation when there is a brick being thrown at your head.”
“It is by the grace of God that we don’t have dead officers today,” he said.
Elsewhere in the state, the mayor in Rochester declared a state of emergency and a 9 p.m. curfew after demonstrators destroyed police cars, setting one on fire, and officers responded with tear gas canisters.
The protests were all held in defiance of a statewide ban on gatherings imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is bigger than the pandemic,” said Brooklyn protester Meryl Makielski, referring to the outbreak that, until recently, was killing hundreds of New Yorkers each day. “The mistakes that are happening are not mistakes. They’re repeated violent terrorist offenses and people need to stop killing black people. Cops seem as though they’ve been trained to do so.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton addressed several hundred people gathered in Staten Island at the spot where Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer in 2014. He was accompanied by Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. The crowd held a peaceful demonstration outside the local police precinct.
Sharpton noted that Floyd, who died Monday in Minneapolis after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes, had also fallen unconscious gasping for air.
“Right at this spot is where we heard Eric Garner say what six years later was said by George: ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Cuomo noted that Floyd's death was just the latest in a long list of similar deaths, and he said he shared in the outrage over “this fundamental injustice.”
“But violence is not the answer. It never is the answer," he said. “The violence obscures the righteousness of the message and the mission.”