Busted for Peace

When Cops Play Soldier, Protesters Become the Enemy

After a couple of hours in the cold at the recent anti-war rally, Annie Stauber, 59, felt she'd had enough. Confined to one of the crowd-control pens on First Avenue, she couldn't see a way to maneuver her wheelchair back to the street. She rolled, instead, right into a blue wall of obstinacy, the latest manifestation of the way the war on terror is corroding the right of New York to be its obstreperous self.

The myriad tales of police hostility that have gushed forth since February 15, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest a U.S. war against Iraq, extend far beyond a few cops' bad-egg excesses. The police, the courts, the city itself seem to have turned on New York's own residents, as government agencies scramble for security in a perpetual code-orange climate. Rather than providing orderliness and safety, city responses to the demonstration at every level—from courts denying demonstrators a permit to march, to cops blocking people's way to the rally—created chaos and confusion. They cast Americans exercising their democratic rights as, at best, a nuisance to be contained and controlled, and, at worst, as potential terrorists.

As Stauber recalls, "I told a police officer that I felt sick and needed to leave, but she said, 'You're not going anywhere.' I told her I'm diabetic and need to check my blood sugar, but she wouldn't let me out." When Stauber tried to steer over to a corner where there might be an opening, the officer, she says, grabbed the chair and "flung me around," leaving the wheels askew and bending the chair's control stick so far out of Stauber's reach that she couldn't drive.

Nadia Taalbi, 20, a New School student from Wisconsin, was excited to be going with a few friends to her first political demonstration ever, but was thwarted at every turn. "We couldn't get through all along Second Avenue," she explains. "At 51st Street, a police officer told us to walk uptown. Then at 53rd, another told us we had to go downtown." So they stood on the corner for a few minutes trying to decide what to do. Soon "this huge group started coming across 53rd toward Second Avenue and we got pushed toward the cops. This officer just turned around and full out shoved me. I've always had good experiences with police officers. But I felt like I was being attacked. He yelled right in my face, 'You have to start moving!' I said, 'There's nowhere to go.' He grabbed my arm and my leg right under my butt and picked me up—my feet were off the ground—and started to push me into the crowd. Then he turned around and shoved an old woman and she fell to the ground. Then he got out his stick and started pushing me under my armpit."

Nancy Ramsden, 68, came to the rally with her church group from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and found herself terrified as she was crunched up against a store window next to a woman with two small children when mounted police officers drove their horses into the crowd. Cheryl Mantia, 23, a senior at NYU, was arrested for stepping into the street when the sidewalk could not hold the flow of demonstrators, and was held until 7 a.m. on Sunday. She was frightened by the whole ordeal, but most disturbed, she says, by an officer who called her a "cunt." When she objected—"Hey, I have rights, you know," she said—he replied, "Yeah, the right to suck my dick."

Stories like that have poured into the New York Civil Liberties Union—according to executive director Donna Lieberman, hundreds of people e-mailed within 48 hours of a call for accounts of their experiences—and many of them will be related Tuesday at City Council hearings investigating the city's handling of the rally: A woman doing her damnedest to follow orders and stay on the sidewalk was picked off and arrested when her foot slipped from the curb. A man trying to explain to thrusting police that there was nowhere to go received the retort "Go to Iraq." Meanwhile, footage collected by New York's Independent Media Center captures cops spewing pepper spray into a crowd from inches away, and using metal barricades as weapons to press protesters—including elderly people—back.

Police spokesperson Mike O'Looney dismisses such alarming scenes: "You don't see what led up to them, what provoked them." One thing only, according to people who went home with bruises and stinging eyes: the effort to exercise their constitutional right to protest by assembling on First Avenue.

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg defended the city's refusal to grant protesters a permit to march across Manhattan, telling the Voice's Wayne Barrett, "It doesn't seem to me you're sacrificing so much as long as you can assemble." But tens of thousands of people—maybe more—couldn't assemble. Cops wouldn't let them get through, and then attacked and arrested them for trying.

O'Looney insists that the NYPD did a fine job—they'd handle things the same way again, he said, when asked whether hindsight offered some suggestions for an improved approach—and many with criticisms put the failures down to management mishaps. "This is not a yahoo police department," says NYU law professor Jerome Skolnick, a specialist in police behavior. "But it's common when you have tens of thousands of people to have communication breakdowns. People being told to move north want an explanation. Police are not in a position to explain. They just want to tell you to go here or go there, and tempers fray."

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