Copaganda Watch: How Local NYC Media Has Helped Turn Public Space Into a Police State

New York City’s Washington Square Park has become a flashpoint in a struggle over public space recently as images of NYPD cops in riot gear shoving, beating, pepper spraying, arresting, and even chasing park goers spread widely on social media earlier this month. During a recent neighborhood meeting put together by police officials (where hundreds of members of the public were locked out, including a group of park-goers who held their own meeting outside), police and some local residents demonized park-goers, defended the NYPD’s tactics, and even called for a permanent curfew for the famous park.

This saga began with affluent residents of the neighborhood calling the cops on park-goers with complaints of noise and drug use. But when confronted with cops in riot gear trying to force them out of the park, park-goers resisted, resulting in images of the NYPD’s brutality going viral and cops backing away from enforcing the curfew ever since.

But throughout this battle over the park, one head of the Hydra currently terrorizing park-goers has gone unnoticed and unrecognized. Local mainstream media outlets, especially the notorious New York Post, have acted as the de facto public relations department for the police department and the wealthy local residents. Local media has both laid the groundwork and also provided post hoc justification for police violence against people using the park. Those efforts include repeatedly portraying park-goers as “violent” and “rowdy” while either omitting the cops’ violence from their coverage or minimizing and/or doing apologetics for it.

The recent NYPD-run neighborhood meeting, itself a tool NYPD uses to manufacture consent for its violence, was dutifully covered by local media. ABC 7 (6/16/21) portrayed the meetings as police meeting with “the community” to discuss “chaotic” parties along with “crime and violence at Washington Square Park.” PIX11’s (6/16/21) headline was “Community, NYPD respond to continued controversy in Washington Square Park.” And of course, both ABC 7 and PIX11 glossed over the fact that a group of young park-goers had been excluded from the meeting and protested outside. The New York Daily News (6/16/21) at least acknowledged that “the meeting also drew demonstrators” and at least mentioned the NYPD’s brutal tactics for clearing the park, but they also ultimately gave the article’s last word to an older local resident who compared Washington Square Park to a “Roman orgy” and claimed that the “park is just out of control” and needed to be “restored to order and civility.”

Though the public and NYPD had already clashed at the park earlier this year and late last year, my first time witnessing cops in riot gear violently clear the park this year was on May 22nd. Days before, copwatchers had reported that cops were violently arresting people for playing music and maintaining a large presence at the park. By 11:20pm on May 22, cops with helmets and batons were already lined up on the north side of the park. Just before midnight, cops began playing a PSA on their controversial Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which they recently agreed to limit after a lawsuit, commanding people to leave the park or else be arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly.”

Police officers wearing body armor and wielding bikes formed a line and physically pushed people out of the park. Behind the line of cops on bikes were helmeted cops on foot wielding batons. After being physically pushed out of the park, some groups of people maintained a presence on the sidewalk outside of the park. Before long, the cops didn’t even allow them to stay outside the park and began pushing and pursuing people until they were blocks away from the park. Later that night, cops continued chasing people a block away from the park and made violent arrests.

Despite videos on social media showing cops in body armor using their bikes to push people away from the park, local mainstream news outlets didn’t report on what happened at all the next day.

The next night, the NYPD actually waited until after the park’s midnight closing time to send in cops with helmets and batons to violently clear the park. The cops again pushed people out of the park and even followed them until they were at least a block away from the park.

It wasn’t until late on May 24 that a mainstream local news outlet finally said anything about what happened over that weekend. CBS 2 New York (5/24/21) worked with police to portray park-goers as drunk, rowdy, dangerous people in order to justify police actions while showing as little footage as possible of their violence. CBS 2 showed B-roll of young people jumping on cars after being pushed out of the park and made it seem as if cops were only responding to it rather than causing it – flipping cause and effect for their audience. 

Police were also the main sources of information for CBS coverage, with the only exceptions being interviews with local residents of the affluent neighborhood complaining about young people partying in the park. And even though cops chased park-goers and made arrests a block away from the park, CBS 2 chose to omit that and reported that cops “did not make any arrests at the park on Saturday night.”

Aside from CBS 2’s coverage, other local media was silent about the NYPD’s actions until May 28 when the Washington Square Park Conservancy, a group of wealthy residents of the neighborhood, announced on Twitter that “in coordination with [NYPD’s 6th precinct], [the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation] will close #WashingtonSquarePark at 10PM instead of Midnight (sic) for the next two weekends.”

On the same day, another group of affluent neighborhood residents, the Washington Square Association, also released a statement on “recent chaos and lawlessness in Washington Square Park” and admitted their formal partnership with the NYPD as well as their support for the police department’s actions. “As we saw last weekend,” the statement noted, “aggressive push-back from the partyers has required additional support from the NYPD.”

The next day, the New York Post (5/29/21) published a lengthy article, filled with quotes from cops and affluent local residents along with multiple photos of (mostly Black) people using drugs in the park, aimed at painting Washington Square Park as a dangerous “drug den.” The residents quoted in the article were also, coincidentally, Post readers who personally emailed reporters to complain about the park. And despite the article’s numerous photos of people using drugs, there were no photos of cops in riot gear violently clearing the park two nights in a row.

Soon, other local media also began parroting the NYPD narrative on Washington Square Park, which meant legitimizing the new 10pm curfew while obscuring and minimizing the NYPD’s violent tactics.

CBS 2 (5/30/21) once again repeated NYPD’s claims about “violent groups” in the park. Spectrum NY1 News coverage (5/30/21) on the 10pm curfew also basically repeated what NYPD told them and, much like CBS 2 coverage, made it seem as if cops in riot gear were responding to park-goers “jumping on vehicles,” “making threats to officers,” and “throwing objects such as bottles and other objects at police” when all those things happened only after cops pushed people out of the park. PIX11 (5/30/21) and NBC New York (5/31/21) did pretty much the same.

The New York Post’s editorial board then wrote a fear-mongering op-ed (6/1/21) complaining about “the cesspool-ization of Washington Square Park.” A few days later, Fox 5 NY (6/4/21) did their own coverage on the curfew that repeated the same talking points spouted by other local media. The day after that, ABC 7 (6/5/21) pointed to “violent groups” and “drug use” in a story that included pro-curfew soundbites from a white resident along with B-roll of him playing in the park with his two young daughters.

Then, on June 5, NYPD once again brought in a small army of cops to violently clear the park, and park-goers decided to stand their ground. Photos and videos of cops beating, pepper spraying, arresting, and chasing park-goers blocks away from the park then spread all over social media. Some of the candidates in the city’s mayoral race came out and criticized the cops. Even the frontrunner Eric Adams, a former NYPD cop who once described himself as “extremely conservative on crime,” expressed his disapproval of the NYPD’s tactics in this case.

All of this made it difficult for local mainstream media outlets to continue ignoring or glossing over the actions of the NYPD. Their coverage also began actually including some quotes from people critical of the cops and the curfew, but local media still continued trying their best to demonize park-goers.

On June 6, the New York Post (6/6/21), New York Daily News (6/6/21), NY1 (6/6/21), NBC New York (6/6/21), PIX11 (6/6/21), and Fox 5 NY (6/6/21) all published articles and packages finally acknowledging the brutal actions of the NYPD but still also framing NYPD’s violent crackdown on park-goers as cops getting involved in “clashes” with “unruly” and “violent” park-goers.

The next night in the park, there were a lot of reporters and cameras present, and park-goers had planned to stand their ground again. But the cops didn’t even show up. Park-goers celebrated, partied, and remained in the park long past the curfew.

So rather than framing the story as park-goers successfully reclaiming public space, CBS 2 (6/7/21) instead complained about the lack of enforcement of the curfew and reported on supposed “confusion” since “the curfew didn’t appear to be in effect on Sunday night.” PIX11 (6/11/21) did a similar article a few days later on the “confusion” and “uncertainty” surrounding the curfew. ABC 7 (6/7/21) also remarked that cops “opted to neither enforce the curfew nor close the Greenwich Village park at its normal midnight closing time” and that the “surprise decision allowed dozens of revelers to party in the park past midnight, one night after clashes resulted in eight injured officers.”

Meanwhile, the NYPD and the Police Benevolent Association, in a desperate attempt to draw attention away from the cops’ violence and to smear park-goers, began spreading a video of a man repeatedly calling an Asian cop a derogatory term and released statements to the media decrying anti-Asian racism (even though the NYPD and the PBA are both notoriously racist organizations).

The Post (6/7/21) gladly reported on the video in an attempt to portray the man as representative of the park-goers who were kicked out of the park despite the fact that the video shows the man yelling at cops on the north side of the park quite some time after park-goers were pushed out of the south side of the park. Buried at the end of the article, the reader was told it “was unclear if the man was part of the park-goers who clashed with cops as they forced them out of the park while enforcing a newly instated 10 p.m. curfew.”

On Friday, June 11, as park-goers partied and gave out free food and clothes, the NYPD again ended up not enforcing the curfew. The next day, NY1 (6/12/21) reported that the city parks department told them “that the curfew, for now, had been rescinded” and that the park’s closing time would once again be midnight. NBC New York (6/12/21) also reported that “city officials” confirmed to them “that the 10 p.m. curfew instituted two weekends ago with no expiration date, has indeed ended.”

However, in the days following the 10pm curfew being rescinded, instead of framing the story as park-goers winning their battle for public space, local media continued demonizing park-goers and defending the cops. Fox 5 NY (6/13/21), repeating what the cops told them, reported that “crime and violence are still an ongoing issue in Washington Square Park, just one week after clashes between protesters and the NYPD over a new 10 p.m. curfew in the park.” ABC 7 (6/14/21) had former NYPD Chief of Detectives Bob Boyce on to talk about the park and reported that “police continue to fight a rise in crime and violence at Washington Square Park, despite instituting a curfew a week ago.” ABC 7 claimed that “experts say it’s a few bad apples who recently pushed back against a 10 p.m. curfew.” PIX11 (6/15/21) quoted cops and local residents complaining about park-goers “smoking reefer” and “riding bikes and skates unruly.” Their headline claimed “violence [and] partying continues at Washington Square Park.”

The Post was especially angered by the 10pm curfew being rescinded. Michael Benjamin, a member of the far-right rag’s editorial board, complained on Twitter that the 10pm curfew being rescinded was “another retreat by [Mayor Bill de Blasio]” despite the fact that de Blasio had little to do with it. 

On June 12 alone, the Post published five articles ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]) aimed at painting Washington Square Park as full of “mayhem,” “chaos,” and “violence.” As evidence of the park being “overrun” with “violence,” they cited “anti-cop graffiti” on the Washington Square Park Arch and a fight that broke out during a party that resulted in 3 people getting minor injuries. In an attempt to inflate the amount of violence, the Post even tried to blame a fight at a diner a block away from the park on “the restaurant’s proximity to troubled Washington Square Park.” The Post and the rest of local media, desperate for any story to use to make the park appear overrun with violence, ended up having to wait until June 19 when a man allegedly threatened people with a taser at a party in the park. No one was tased but a woman tripped and injured herself as people tried to run away. ABC 7 (6/19/21), Fox 5 NY (6/19/21), and CBS 2 (6/19/21) all made sure to cover it. The Post unsurprisingly ended up doing two articles on the incident.

On June 13, the Post published three articles ([1], [2], [3]) aimed at demonizing park-goers and even devoted the front page to fear-mongering about the park. On June 14, they published three more articles ([1], [2], [3]), including an op-ed from the tabloid’s fascist editorial board, on the park. And on June 15, they again published three articles ([1], [2], [3]), the front page, and multiple letters to the editor (6/15/21) aimed at painting Washington Square Park as full of “chaos” and “mayhem.” Then, from June 16 to June 21, the Post published six more articles ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]), more letters to the editor (6/20/21), and two more op-eds (6/18/21 and 6/21/21) from the editorial board. One of the fear-mongering articles even ridiculously claimed that the Black Liberation Army, a well-known Black radical group from the 1970’s, was returning simply because a park-goer described themselves as a part of the “Black liberation movement.”

As of now, it doesn’t look like the Post, or any of the other local mainstream media outlets in NYC, will let up on their crusade against park-goers anytime soon. But they’ve at least made it very clear, throughout this whole controversy, which side they’re on.

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