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Protecting New Yorkers’ Right to Protest Safely
An Interview with Isabelle Leyva, Senior Organizer at the NYCLU

The NYCLU’s criminal legal reform work around the state encompasses everything from marijuana legalization and the rights of incarcerated people to police accountability and oversight. During the historic racial justice protests of 2020, we relaunched our protest monitoring program to document police misconduct at demonstrations. This vital effort to protect First Amendment rights quickly uncovered that the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group (SRG)—the primary protest policing unit in New York City—was consistently escalating violence on the ground by unjustly threatening, attacking, injuring, and mass arresting protesters. As a result, the NYCLU and a coalition of more than 70 organizations launched a campaign to disband the lawless, racially-biased unit and reinvest its $133 million annual budget in community programs that address mental health and housing. As the SRG ramped up its brutality during the May 2023 protests demanding accountability for the killing of Jordan Neely, so too did we increase our pressure for oversight to end these violations. In the fall, the NYCLU, the Legal Aid Society, and New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a settlement agreement that should transform the way the NYPD polices protests, cutting down on misconduct, violence, and unjustified detentions. Meanwhile, we continue to push for a complete disbanding of the SRG.

Senior Organizer Isabelle Leyva, who’s based in the New York City office, is instrumental in these efforts. A Manhattan College graduate with a degree in peace studies, Isabelle started at the NYCLU in 2018. An organizer from a young age, she has been a driving force in the development of the NYCLU’s protest monitoring efforts and the campaign to disband the SRG, which she has experienced as both a protestor and a monitor. She’s often spotted in the streets in her blue vest and blue hat documenting police conduct and educating other protestors on how to stay safe during arrest.

We spoke with Isabelle about the importance of protest monitoring, what’s next for the campaign to disband the SRG, and how her youth activism led her to criminal justice work.

NYCLU: How do you see the value of your role as a protest monitor in terms of protecting civil rights?

Isabelle Leyva: In 2020, I was on the ground as a protestor and kind of documenting on my own what was happening. I tried to raise the alarms within the NYCLU that this was something we needed to have eyes on. There was NLG (National Lawyers Guild), but their role is less about public accountability for the NYPD and more about specific cases. So we were really the only group functioning on the ground in the way that we were. We were collecting documentation and tracking patterns, and we were able to share that with the public and use it for our campaigns. I’ve always felt strongly that keeping our eyes on the police is one of the core ways that we can protect democracy. If the police can operate without accountability, then we’re not doing all we can to protect ourselves and our communities. I see protest monitoring as a way to show up for our neighbors and make conscious efforts to protect First Amendment rights.

The campaign to disband the SRG works to center the people of New York who are directly impacted. Why is that important when taking on an issue like this?

IL: When we talk about the ACLU’s or the NYCLU’s mission, things can be top-down, and the risk of that is not actually making the asks that the community wants. Being on the ground as much as I was and developing relationships with organizers and protestors, it was clear to me that the people who know best what protest policing should look like on the ground are the people who are protesting on the ground. Often, we get caught up in what’s possible and what’s reasonable instead of aiming as high as we can. So once we internally agreed that this campaign was something we could look at, we first had town halls where we invited protestors to come in and kind of pitched the campaign. We weren’t exactly sure what the demands would be and the overwhelming feedback we got was that there was no reform of this unit—protestors would not feel safe as long as this unit was policing protests, and that’s what solidified our ask for a full disbandment of the SRG. The goal is to keep the NYPD from simply rebranding this unit. We want to put an end to this unit by removing its funds from the NYPD’s hands and reinvesting those funds in our communities.

What does this settlement with the attorney general potentially do?

IL: The biggest piece that’s related to the SRG is that there would be a tiered system for the way they can respond to protests. Essentially, most protests would start at Tier One and the SRG can’t be deployed until it reaches Tier Three, which means that specific offenses have to be happening on the ground. Obviously, any kind of settlement is a win but we’re also realistic that litigation is merely one of many tools. The NYPD has been given many guidelines over the years, and we know that does not mean they’re going to follow them. To me, this settlement is primarily a way for us to be proactively holding them to a higher standard and better track what they’re doing.

Looking ahead to next year, where do you see opportunity for progress?

IL: We’re in a tough situation in terms of policing in New York City. The pattern we are seeing is that city services are being slashed, libraries are getting cuts, school budgets are being cut, but the NYPD is not touched. There’s an opportunity to galvanize people around that— to help people understand the way that our city is being defunded to fund the police even more. I have a lot of conversations with community members that I don’t think would say they’re pro-defunding the police, but when you break down for them that we’re spending $133 million on this protest policing unit while their local library is closed on Sundays due to budget cuts, that connection is more impactful than just the soapbox speech about how cops don’t keep us safe. So while I think we’re in a tough spot, there’s also an opportunity to give people the power they need to fight for their communities to be fairly funded. And that means divesting from things like the SRG and the NYPD.

What’s your background, and how did it lead you here?

IL: I was born and raised in New York City. My mother is from here, my dad is from Mexico. He immigrated here when he was 25. I’ve grown up all over the city, and then parts of my childhood I grew up in Mexico. I think I organized my first sit-in in high school when I was 15 or 16. It’s who I’ve always been. I originally wanted to be a lawyer and work on immigrants’ rights. I have the lived experience of my father—he’s the only one here, the rest of my family’s still in Mexico—and I’ve always been aware of the injustice of the immigration system in this country. In college, I worked at a shelter on the Mexico side of the border for folks recently deported.

It’s something I still care deeply about, but when I started at the NYCLU after college, part of my role was doing voter registration work. We would partner with organizations and bring volunteers to coordinate voter registration on Rikers. I always came to this work through a decarceral lens, but because immigrants’ rights was what I saw as my issue, that moment was really eye-opening for me because I realized how linked these systems are. I experienced firsthand that these things are happening at home too. So I became really involved in criminal justice work, and then the policing work happened kind of naturally through me being on the ground in community and then bringing that work to the NYCLU.

Activism can be exhausting. Are there things you do outside of your work for the NYCLU that feed or balance you?

IL: I foster kittens. That keeps me sane. This work is so much labor, and you don’t often see results of that labor for years. So, there’s something very satisfying about just caring for this tiny living thing, and all you gotta do is feed it and play with it and keep it happy, and that’s an accomplishment. That brings me a lot of joy.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Isabelle Leyva portrait