NEW YORK CITY — On Dec. 13, about 100 protesters splintered off from the #MillionsMarch in lower Manhattan — a huge, peaceful demonstration against police brutality — and headed up Sixth Avenue.
They turned east on 32nd Street, and passed right under the window of Tom Dilello, a computer programer who works for a large bank. At about 4:41 p.m., Dilello took an aerial video of the protesters, to capture a chant he heard, he told BuzzFeed News. He uploaded it to YouTube about six minutes later.
The chant in the video — "What do we want? Dead Cops! When do we want it? Now!" — has been viewed nearly half a million times and rallied critics of the protest, especially after a lone gunman killed two police officers on Dec. 20 in Brooklyn after writing "they take 1 of ours…. Let's take 2 of theirs" and "#RIPEricGarner and #RIPMikeBrown" on Instagram.
Indeed, the chant soon became central to allegations that the movement against police brutality, whose leaders have called for non-violent action, could not be as easily separated from the murders as its members would like. That claim has, in turn, has produced outrage from nonviolent protesters and their leaders.
But one group has been largely silent since lighting this particular match: the people who marched down 32nd street, chanting.
BuzzFeed News on Friday spoke to one person who participated in the Dec. 13 chant heard on the video, along with two other people who marched with other radical contingents involved in the protests that day. All of them claimed that, despite the literal words of the chants, they weren't actually advocating for the murder of police officers.
"There's this sense that the lives of people who get killed by cops don't matter," the person who participated said. "The chants express that those people's lives matter just as much as the lives of cops or anyone else."
The unplanned chant, the person said, was to distinguish a more radical message from the vast majority of the protesters. "The larger march ... had a liberal, reformist agenda. The people who wanted a broader transformation, they were gravitating toward whatever chants could express that," the person said.
"In that moment of outrage, the chant was the only way to express that we wanted to separate ourselves from people who just want to get a guy fired," the person added. "We wanted to see the police disbanded."
The person asked not to be identified for fear of being arrested. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton have called on people to report "information that there might be an attack on our police, there might be an act of violence directed at any police officer."
The person who participated in the chant is affiliated with the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee (TMOC), a loose collective of radicals that advocates for an end to what it calls racist police practices. (In a statement to the Daily Beast, the Martin family said it had not authorized TMOC to use Trayvon's name).
Like many radical groups, TMOC has no leaders, no formal membership, and no uniform political platform — but people who are its affiliates share an anarchist outlook. The group said some of its "comrades" have surrendered to the police in relation to the alleged assault of two officers in the Brooklyn Bridge on the day of the chants.
The Daily Beast was the first media outlet to suggest that TMOC was the group chanting in the video.
"The chant started earlier that day, before we even left Washington Square Park" — nearly 1.5 miles from where the video was shot, the protester who was there said. "It started organically. It wasn't a conspiratorial group who planned to start" a "dead cops" chant, the person said.
Many commentators have denounced the chant, saying it has no place in the public discourse, regardless of the intent. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called it "horrible." Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island said it's contributing to dangerous "anti-cop rhetoric."
But some TMOC affiliates said that the intent of the chant is being misrepresented and that it was not meant as a call for violence against individual police officers.
"I don't think people wanted dead bodies," the person who participated in the chant said. "It was not bloodlust. Some people were laughing when they were chanting it — there was a humorous element to it. Everyone is a human being, and I don't think any of us wants to see someone suffer and die."
Another person who is not affiliated with TMOC but participated in a separate anarchist march on Dec. 13 with some of the group's affiliates — this person did not witness the "dead cops" chant — told BuzzFeed News that the group wouldn't plan such a statement.
"It's almost certainly not a 'group' in the sense that people conventionally mean," the second person said. "It wouldn't be the sort of group that would have, you know, a pre-action meeting where they decided to chant an agreed-upon slogan."
And a third person who marched in anarchist protests on Dec. 13 — who would not say whether he or she participated in the "dead cops" chant — told BuzzFeed News "the notion that some group was devilishly sitting around, plotting to use chants (chants!) to bring about anti-cop counter-violence is insane."
Rhetorical calls for violence against the police are nothing new, the third person argued.
"Death to cops chants have populated protests since the '90s and beyond!" the person told BuzzFeed News. "Blaming TMOC is a mess, and a dangerous one for sure, especially considering that fighting cops is so entrenched in popular imagery," including popular rap music.
In a phone interview on Friday, Dilello, who shot the video, told BuzzFeed News that he posted it to YouTube because, "I had never heard a group of people chanting that kind of crap in my life," he said. "It was totally unacceptable, especially in my street."
After a FOX affiliate in Baltimore aired a video on Dec. 21 purporting to show another group chanting for dead cops — it turned out the video was edited inappropriately — many commenters on news sites like weekly Rockland Times and NBC News said they thought Dilello's video was doctored. Some protesters suggested to BuzzFeed News that Dilello was a plainclothes police officer. He denied both ideas, adding that he had received threats since posting the video.
"I am not a cop, I don't know any cops, nobody in my family is a cop," he told BuzzFeed News. "People think I manipulated the audio. I had a full six minutes from the time I took it to when I uploaded it."
To verify the authenticity of the video, BuzzFeed News asked George Papcun, a forensic audio analyst who is an expert in altered recordings, to listen to the video. (Papcun has provided testimony in several high-profile cases. When George Zimmerman was on trial for the death of Trayvon Martin, Papcun's testimony was ultimately beneficial to Zimmerman.)
"I have listened to [the recording] with sophisticated audio equipment," Papcun said. "Beyond a reasonable doubt, in my opinion, leaders chant, 'What do we want?' The crowd responds, 'Dead cops.' Then leaders chant, 'When do we want it?' The crowd responds, 'Now.'"
Papcun said that he had been able to isolate one more phrase in the muddled audio at the beginning of the recording: "Shoot back."
Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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