It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the 87th annual Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting. But things were far from merry at a few chaotic intersections.
Those who arrived late watched from blocks away, braving the cold, attempting to trudge through immovable crowds and encountering police officers who, some said, extended anything but courtesy. In hectic spots, officers were seen pushing, shoving, and yelling at pedestrians in their attempts to direct the crowds.
“If you don’t show up early, it’s not going to work out good for you,” said Javier Pardo, 27, an electrician who said his family’s experience included a physical altercation with an officer.
Pardo said that while he, his mother and his sister were crossing Fifth Avenue at 47th Street, an officer forcefully grabbed his mother’s arm to pull her back to the sidewalk. Pardo said he immediately reached over to try to pull his mother away from the officer before getting grabbed himself. “I pleaded more than four or five times to let us go,” said Pardo. “That’s not the way that you treat people that are just crossing the street, just trying to get a glimpse of the tree.”
A nearby officer stepped in, Pardo said, letting them proceed.
Thousands of those hoping to get a good view of the musical performances and the lighting showed up hours before the three-hour event kicked off at 7 pm on Dec. 4. Barricades cordoned off sections of the surrounding streets to direct the flow of pedestrians.
According to Sgt. Mary O’Donnell, a police spokesperson, with crowds this large, trying to maintain order is a challenge for officers on the scene. “You can’t just have people walking willy-nilly around the street,” she said. “Whatever we do, it’s for safety and crowd control.”
O’Donnell said the NYPD has not received any complaints from pedestrians about being mistreated at the event.
This year, the city expanded pedestrian space in the area by blocking vehicles from the streets closest to the tree, aiming to “alleviate the crush of foot traffic” throughout the holiday season.
The new arrangement was not enough to keep things calm. “I was really scared,” said Pardo’s sister, Sofia, who had traveled with her mother from Westchester, more than 50 miles away. “It’s something I’ve always feared happening in these types of crowds.”
Maurice Carter, 30, another out-of-town visitor, was among those at 50th Street who said officers shoved and screamed at them as they tried to keep people moving. “It’s not worth it, especially not the police—they’re pushing people out,” said Carter.
Some in the crowd took out their phones and began videotaping the officers.
“They’re putting their hands on people, and there’s kids here,” said Taylor Benson, 27. “I 10 out of 10 would not recommend.”
The tree stands as a “holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike,” as described on the Rockefeller Center website. Crowd control and safety concerns present persistent issues. NYPD security measures for the tree lighting night included K-9 units and heavily armed officers posted on street corners and rooftops.
We're excited to kick off the holiday season tonight by rocking around the iconic @rockcenternyc Christmas tree as it lights up NYC. To the millions of NYers & visitors, remember that we are the safest big city because of our partnership – if you see something, say something. pic.twitter.com/gurT2rw48D
— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) December 5, 2019
Anyone planning to attend next year’s tree lighting should show up early, Pardo said.
“I love New York City for what it is, but sometimes stuff like this can paint a messed-up picture.”