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Woman shoved to pavement by cop during spring anti-racism protests battles pain as she seeks justice

November 5, 2020 Yoav Gonen and Eileen Grench, THE CITY
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It was the eight Naproxen she took in one day to relieve her chronic back pain that recently landed 21-year-old Dounya Zayer in the hospital.

But the protester whose victimization by police went viral — via a video showing a beefy NYPD officer shoving her to the pavement in Brooklyn during protests after cops killed George Floyd in Minneapolis — says the severe physical pain she endures more than five months later is nothing compared to her mental anguish.

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“This really opened my eyes to a lot, but I miss not really hating the world,” Zayer told THE CITY Tuesday in an hour-long interview.

“I liked thinking that this world was decent, and having hopes for the future and being happy — and I’m not,” she added. “And I don’t know how to get over that — especially when there’s no accountability.”

Officer Vincent D’Andraia was suspended without pay a week after the May 29 incident, according to the NYPD. His supervising officer at the time — Lt. Craig Edelman — was transferred from his post as commander of the 73 Precinct in Brownsville to a high-profile slot at a citywide gun unit.

Both officers, who were criticized for over-aggressive policing by some elected officials, reform advocates and community members in the neighborhood prior to the incident, were referred to the NYPD’s disciplinary unit in early June.

On June 9, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office charged D’Andraia with misdemeanor assault and other offenses. His next court hearing in the case, which could put him behind bars for up to a year, isn’t scheduled until April 30, 2021 — a pace that rankles Zayer.

“I just have to opt to sit back and like, watch as there’s absolutely no accountability,” said Zayer. “And I’m sitting here in pain and everything else just moves on.”

Living in fear

Zayer says she was a different person before being tossed onto Pacific Street by the cop.

When the former gymnast wasn’t walking on her hands, working out or going out, she was a social media influencer who shared videos of her ups and downs — including a battle with COVID-19 that began in late April.

“I had a pretty decent perspective on the world,” Zayer told THE CITY. “You can’t go through life thinking that bad things don’t happen, but you have to want to get over them because the good things are what’s worth it.”

All that changed, she said, the day she decided to stop cleaning her Queens apartment and run to join her first Black Lives Matter protest — and woke up in the hospital.

Her injuries, she says doctors told her, included four herniated discs, two pinched nerves and a sprained ligament in her back.

In the weeks after the incident, Zayer lost her job as an after-school childcare provider. She became worried she might get evicted from her Sunnyside apartment, which she shares with two kittens, a cat and a free-roaming bunny named Kiwi.

But the most difficult challenges she says she’s faced is a paralyzing fear that often keeps her from leaving the house.

Zayer told THE CITY that she is especially frozen by the notion that a police officer might recognize her and seek retaliation for her complaints about cops.

A recent hit-and-run accident on the highway she was involved in sent her spiraling into panic at the thought of calling the police as she and her boyfriend were stranded on a median during a rainstorm in Queens.

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Zayer. “But again, just the idea of me handing my license to a cop and them seeing my name or then just looking at my face and knowing who I was — it wasn’t going to happen.”

Now she doesn’t even move her car for street cleaning — the decades-old Toyota has been wracking up ticket after ticket on the street in front of her apartment.

So many, she said, that she just hopes it gets towed.

De Blasio video scorecard delayed

Zayer spoke to THE CITY as the police response to ”count every vote” protests intensified amid potential legal battles over the outcome of the presidential election — and with questions over the disciplining of alleged NYPD misconduct during the summer’s protests still looming.

A joint probe by the city Department of Investigation and the mayor’s counsel of the NYPD’s handling of the late May and early June protests that was due at the end of August remains unfinished — although the mayor this week said he expects the results within days.

From June 5 to 15, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea publicized the suspension of four officers and the sidelining of a fifth for misconduct during the protests. But officials have not publicly identified any other personnel for potential discipline since.

D’Andraia and Edelman were two of the five cops referred for discipline in early June.

The others were an officer who pulled down a protester’s mask and pepper-sprayed him in the face, an officer who opened a moving police vehicle door into the body of a protester, and a probationary officer who unleashed pepper spray at a group of bystanders, according to Shea. All were involved in incidents captured on video.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks at a City Hall news conference, May 29, 2020. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In mid-July, even as de Blasio was praising the overall restraint of the NYPD in response to the widespread protests, the New York Times published a story with more than 60 videos showing use of force by police personnel during the early days of the protests.

In response, the mayor promised a video-by-video scorecard of which officers were disciplined for misconduct and which had been cleared.

Asked Wednesday about the issue, de Blasio said the effort to publicize those decisions was delayed because of an ongoing lawsuit filed by police unions seeking to block the city from releasing police disciplinary records. A state law shielding those records from public view, known as 50-a, was repealed in June.

Late Wednesday, the NYPD’s press office provided an aggregate tally of the department’s investigation of the conduct captured in 64 of the videos featured in the Times — which resulted in 10 cases where allegations of misconduct were substantiated and discipline meted out.

Officials said 23 allegations raised were unsubstantiated — meaning it couldn’t be established whether or not an officer committed misconduct. Meanwhile, 20 officers identified on the videos were exonerated, meaning the action they took was found to be appropriate by internal investigators.

Five cases were deemed unfounded, meaning the alleged misconduct was determined not to have happened, four were partially substantiated and two investigations are still open, police officials said.

Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said the “unacceptable” behavior was limited to a handful of the department’s roughly 35,000 uniformed officers.

“There is no room in the NYPD for misconduct or misbehavior of any sort and our departmental leaders take allegations about such actions by its employees seriously,” she said. “We have moved quickly to investigate possible misconduct, issued swift discipline where appropriate and continue in our tradition of providing the highest public service possible.”

‘Indiscriminate brutalizing’ of protesters

The results of a separate probe of the NYPD’s handling of the city protests by state Attorney General Letitia James are pending, after her office released a preliminary report in July that made some recommendations for reform but drew no conclusions regarding police misconduct.

Since then, Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on the NYPD’s crackdown of a June 4 protest in Mott Haven that accused the department of “serious violations of international human rights law.”

NYPD officers swung batons at protesters in Mott Haven, Bronx during a June 4 protest. Photo: Gregory Berg/

The Sept. 30 report documented at least 61 injuries, as well as 21 incidents of police beating protesters with batons, 19 cases of police “slamming, tackling or dragging” protesters — and at least two incidents where police restrained protesters with a knee in their face or upper neck.

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 protesters against the NYPD for its rough handling of the May and June protests — characterizing police tactics as the “indiscriminate brutalizing of peaceful protestors.”

“The violence by police officers against the plaintiffs and other protesters at demonstrations and rallies in support of Black Lives Matter and against police violence were not isolated instances,” reads the Oct. 26 federal court filing. “Rather, the challenged practices were so widespread and frequent as to constitute a custom and usage of the NYPD.”

A larger quest for justice

Zayer’s lawyer Tahanie Aboushie, who is running for Manhattan District Attorney, told THE CITY she plans to file a lawsuit against D’Andraia and Edelman, following a notice of claim submitted in July.

The lawsuit will also include the officers who marched by as Zayer suffered from a concussion on the pavement in Brooklyn.

For Zayer, her quest for justice is not limited to punishing the cop who shoved her or his supervisor.

“If they really want to show to me that they’re trying to change, don’t just fire Vincent D’Andraia, don’t just fire commander Craig Edelman,” she said. “But fire every single officer that walked by — who saw an officer assault me and just walked by and [did] nothing.“

Stephen Worth, D’Andraia’s lawyer, declined comment.

Zayer also wants justice for other protesters injured at the hands of police — including cases that, unlike hers, were not captured on video and posted online, drawing media attention.

After months of avoiding social media, Zayer said she recently found something positive to share with her followers on Snapchat: a newfound love for cooking.

She also has a new job caring for two toddlers, a sometimes difficult task with her injuries. The physical demands, Zayer said, is one of the reasons she wound up taking too many painkillers.

“They were dancing, they asked me to jump with them,” she said. “I couldn’t even do that. I’m 21 and I literally was like, ‘I can’t, I’m sorry.’”

But despite the hurt of constant bending and moving, her job caring for children helps keep her going, Zayer told THE CITY.

“One of them told me they love me for the first time that day,” she said. “Oh my God — it made me so happy.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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