They fought the law and the law won

Anti-Bush protesters were tough and resilient all week. But in the end it was the NYPD and City Hall with the upper hand.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published September 3, 2004 11:13PM (EDT)

On Thursday evening, during the waning hours of the Republican National Convention, 61-year-old Tom Roderick stood outside the Criminal Courts building in lower Manhattan, keeping vigil for his missing teenage daughters. Anne Marie, 16, and Emma Rose, 19, had been arrested 46 hours earlier during a roundup of protesters marching with the War Resisters League. It was about 24 hours before Roderick and his wife even got a phone call, and as far as he knew on Thursday, his daughters still hadn't spoken to a lawyer. Emma Rose has asthma but the police wouldn't let Roderick deliver her medical supplies.

"The Republican National Convention has trumped the Constitution, the laws of New York state and common decency," said Roderick, a thin Manhattanite with graying temples, dressed in khakis and a dark blue polo shirt. "This is not supposed to happen in the United States."

As Republicans inside Madison Square Garden praised the NYPD for keeping order, grim stories of preemptive, arbitrary arrests, filthy jail conditions and long detentions without access to attorneys circulated among protesters, lawyers and quite a few ordinary New Yorkers who were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In order to thwart a few demonstrators who promised to torment delegates and cause chaos, the police adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward un-permitted action most of the week. Whenever groups of activists gathered, row upon row of riot cops would surround them with orange plastic netting and often arrest everyone inside, including journalists and bystanders. Police then defied state law by holding many people well over 24 hours without access to attorneys.

During the four days of the convention, a few dozen protesters managed to make it into Madison Square Garden, including two who interrupted Bush's speech before being dragged away by Secret Service.

Outside, though, the police largely kept control, much to the relief of city officials and Republican delegates. Protesters succeeded in dogging the visiting Republicans almost everywhere they went and in staging impromptu marches and street parties, but the cops were often right behind them, ready to swoop in and shut them down. "The police were fantastic," enthused Jennie Motheral, a delegate's wife from Texas who compared the protesters to spoiled children.

Friday, the New York Civil Liberties Union acknowledged in a press release that he police generally treated demonstrators at permitted rallies and marches very well. "Even with regard to some of the spontaneous or non-permitted demonstrations, the police responded with the necessary flexibility and cooperation that is essential to free expression," the NYCLU said.

But Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director, said that on several occasions, the police overreacted and civil liberties were undermined. "We're deeply distressed at the number of sweeps that have gone on, especially on Tuesday, when hundreds were snared and arrested for doing nothing wrong," she said. During the convention, the NYCLU operated a storefront in midtown. "People would come in and ask, 'Where can I go to protest lawfully and not get arrested?'" said Lieberman. "We had to say to them that those are two different issues. You can protest anywhere lawfully on the sidewalks of Manhattan, as long as you don't block the sidewalks or use amplified sound, but that's no guarantee against arrest."

The mainstream media rarely takes protesters' complaints about police mistreatment seriously, in part because activists are notorious for crying wolf. Besides, many protesters announced their plans to break the law ahead of time, which left the city feeling justified in locking them up. Kevin Sheekey, president of the RNC host committee, was quoted in the New York Times praising the NYPD for proving that "New York City had the only police force to deal with a modern anarchist threat."

In dealing with that "threat," though, police also came down hard on many nonviolent people, including some who weren't breaking the law. Several journalists saw this firsthand when they were caught, literally, in the NYPD's net. Many reporters, including ones from Slate and Newsday, were detained during the demonstrations. At least one journalist was detained inside Madison Square Garden, apparently on suspicion of opposition to Bush.

Author Irene Dische was covering the Bush speech for the German paper Die Zeit. Dische said she was sitting in the press stands with the artist and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman when police removed them both from the press stands and questioned them about their T-shirts. Spiegelman's T-shirt said "Pray for a secular society"; Dische's featured the word "Bush" and Chinese characters. She convinced police it said, "I love Bush" (it meant shit on Bush and flush him away) and was allowed to return to her seat. On her way back, an usher handed her an American flag and told her to wave it. When she refused to take it, she "immediately felt a hand on my shoulders," she said, and police quickly ushered her off the convention floor and into a station set up inside the Garden. They called immigration officials to check on her American status and questioned her for over an hour. She also convinced them to Google her on the Internet to prove that she was a legitimate writer. When she called her daughter, Emily, and spoke to her in German, one detective barked, "You don't speak in a language we can't understand here." Finally she was escorted to the street, with the police, Dische said, "trying to make nice the whole way."

Writing on the Christian Science Monitor's convention blog, journalist Tom Regan seemed shocked by what he'd witnessed at a midtown protest on Tuesday, the day organizers called for direct action and civil disobedience through the city.

"These protesters, while certainly noisy, had obeyed police instructions down the entire length of the street," he wrote. "Now they were being treated as if they had gotten wildly out of control, but they hadn't ... At some point the police would just start picking people out of the crowd and arresting them. From what I saw, there was often no rhyme or reason behind who they picked to arrest."

Indeed, some people were arrested on the mere suspicion that they might be protesters. Ever since thousands of protesters on bicycles snarled traffic last Friday, bike riders have reported being singled out by the cops. On Wednesday, Kenneth Scott Kohanowski, a lawyer, was riding home on Fifth Avenue from his office to his neighborhood in Chelsea when he was arrested for reasons still unclear to him.

"I stopped and asked the officer why we couldn't go down Fifth Avenue," he wrote in an e-mail. "He told me to keep on moving and I insisted on knowing why I couldn't proceed toward my apartment. At that point, he shoved me ... then threw me against a magazine kiosk. A dozen other officers then jumped on top of me. They then arrested me and booked me for disorderly conduct ... I have never been arrested before. The police in this city are out of control with the RNC in town."

On Thursday evening, a freed protester would walk out of the Criminal Courts building every few minutes to cheers from a crowd of several hundred supporters. Many of those released were caked with grime; their reports from inside did little to calm worried parents. Protesters, they said, were being held for up to 24 hours in pens at Pier 57, a parking garage on the Hudson River. The floors were covered with dirt and motor oil. Several arrestees said they sustained chemical burns from sitting or lying on the floor.

Julia Gross, a turquoise-haired 20-year-old from Philadelphia, had been held for 29 hours, 13 of them in a small pen at Pier 57 with 40 other women. Because there was only one bench, most of them sat on the floor when they grew tired of standing. "I was lying on the ground and I started getting welts," Gross said. "The next day they started erupting and pussing out." There are two sores on her arm. One is largely scabbed over. When she pulls back the bandage on the other, it's leaking blood and some hideous yellow fluid. She was wearing a miniskirt when she was arrested and there are more sores on her legs. "Imagine that one but huge and bubbling," she said.

Asked about conditions at Pier 57, Jason Post, an NYPD spokesperson, insisted that protesters were spreading misinformation. "It's not the kind of place you want to go for a week of vacation but the conditions were fine," he said. On Wednesday, he acknowledged, the police installed carpeting, suggesting that there was a problem with the floors earlier in the week. But, Post said, "Conditions were adequate prior to that." So where did the protesters' oozing sores come from? "You'd have to ask them," he said.

On Thursday, worried friends and relatives demanding the release of their loved ones weren't calmed by police assurances. Eva Buchmuller, a Hungarian-born East Villager, held a yellow handwritten sign saying, "Free My Daughter Rebeka." Rebeka, she said, had been detained for more than 48 hours. Elspeth Schell was waiting for her 22-year-old daughter Phoebe, who'd also been arrested with the War Resisters.

On Tuesday, the War Resisters had planned to march from Ground Zero to Madison Square Garden, where they were going to lie down in the middle of the street in a symbolic "die in." They planned to get arrested, just not before they broke the law. Instead, they were rounded up near Ground Zero as they marched two abreast down the sidewalk.

It was preemptive. "I was at the march on Sunday and thought the police were pretty restrained," Schell said. "But this is looking more and more like a South American Republic."

That may be an exaggeration. But the kind of mass arrests and long detentions protesters were subjected to this week aren't supposed to happen in New York. In 1991, a state court of appeals ruled that prisoners in New York must be processed within 24 hours or released. On Thursday, State Supreme Court Judge John Cataldo ordered the release of 550 protesters who had been held too long without seeing a judge. When the Police Department failed to let them go, he issued fines to the city -- $1,000 per protester still held by 5 p.m.

The NYPD said that it was simply overwhelmed with the number of convention-related arrests -- around 1,200 on Tuesday alone, and about 1,700 in all. That excuse struck protesters' attorneys as preposterous, given how long the department had been preparing for the demonstrations. "We believe the city of New York improperly and illegally detained protesters," said civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel Thursday night. "We believe the city's plan is to keep protesters detained until George Bush leaves the city tonight. Some people have been held more than 60 hours."

Ordinarily, Siegel said, people arrested during demonstrations take less then 10 hours to go through the system, and sometimes as little as two hours. But he claimed the city has developed a pattern of holding people for prolonged periods during multi-day protests in order to keep them off the streets. As to the city's contention that the large number of arrests on Tuesday created a backlog, Siegel pointed out that people arrested for civil disobedience during the previous five days were also subject to extended detention, even though there weren't enough of them to jam up the system.

Siegel is currently representing 33 people in a lawsuit against the city stemming from the demonstrations against the World Economic Forum in February 2002. Then, as now, protesters were detained for 40 or 50 hours. "We allege in that lawsuit that the purpose was to detain people so they couldn't come back to demonstrate," he said.

When he started getting calls about the RNC arrests, the parallels struck him as obvious. He got involved, he said, when the mother of a 17-year-old Trinity High School student named Richard Prins called him at midnight on Tuesday, saying she couldn't find her son and feared he'd been arrested. The next day Prins' mother called central booking to find out when her son would be released. According to Siegel, "she was told that all the detainees are going to stay until President Bush leaves."

Thanks in part to Siegel's intervention, almost everyone ended up being released by Thursday night. And in the end, the arrests didn't stop thousands from marching from Union Square to Madison Square Garden on Thursday to show, once again, their opposition to the president and his agenda. "I'm still here," said Angela Coppola, a 25-year-old anti-RNC organizer who was arrested Tuesday during an impromptu street party in Union Square and held for 28 hours. "None of us inside had any intention of going home after being released."

Still, standing outside the courthouse, Coppola admitted to a certain sadness about how everything had turned out. "The true tragedy of the RNC," she said, "is that people were arrested for just contemplating saying how much they hate Bush -- while the Republicans are in my city celebrating how successfully they've robbed us."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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