Activists Push Back at NYPD

Rescuing Protest Before Bush '04

Sharpshooters will man the rooftops. Counterterrorism agents will patrol in civilian guise. Bomb squads will case subway tunnels. At least this much will be certain when the Republican National Convention comes to Madison Square Garden next year, say two former NYPD officials who helped oversee previous conventions there.

And while he won't divulge specifics, police spokesperson Michael Collins says plans are forming more than a year in advance to ensure "the highest levels of security this city has ever seen" when President George W. Bush arrives to be renominated in September 2004.

For the NYPD, in concert with the Secret Service and a slew of federal agencies, maintaining order will be a daunting challenge, and not just because of the obvious terrorism concerns. The Bush administration's policies have roused hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to some of the most heated agitation the city has seen in decades.

Police arrest a demonstrator during Bush's most recent visit to New York.
photo: Michael Appleton
Police arrest a demonstrator during Bush's most recent visit to New York.

Angry protesters have claimed police are meeting these demonstrations with new heights of repressiveness, amounting to a pattern of unfounded arrests and abuses. Now, with an eye to the near future, they are pushing back. A look at the activist scene today reveals a number of challenges that together form a multipronged effort to free the streets. New Yorkers want their right to protest to be as firmly entrenched as the police presence will be come 2004.

Fifteen activists were set to file a federal lawsuit July 1 claiming the NYPD trampled on their civil liberties at the massive February 15 anti-war demonstration near the United Nations. Accusing police of interference and abuse—including arbitrary arrests and blocked access to the rally—the complaint will seek damages and a declaration that police violated the constitutional rights of a potentially huge class of participants from the year's biggest protest.

The ranks of the wronged could include "everybody who was denied access to the demonstration site that day because police were blocking off the streets," says William Goodman, former legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the plaintiffs along with police brutality lawyer Jonathan Moore.

Police refused to issue a permit for a march past the UN, citing security concerns, and instead approved a stationary rally, ultimately located at 51st Street and First Avenue. But to get there, an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 people, of all ages and backgrounds, packed First, Second, and Third avenues, inching along in the frigid cold for hours. Cops wearing riot gear, at metal barricades, in the crowd, and on horseback, tried to shift bodies en masse, mostly away from the side streets. A great many who showed up that day complained of being unable to reach the rally site. Some 300 were arrested.

At minimum, Goodman argues, police robbed legions of their rights to assemble and express their views—through decisions ranging from the denial of the march permit to the handling of the crowds.

Then there are the folks like plaintiff Sara Parkel, a 31-year-old freelance artist from Brooklyn, who was arrested and held overnight, although, she says, "I wasn't doing anything wrong."

"I was always under the assumption that you would be arrested if you did something wrong, like threw a rock," says Parkel. "I wasn't even in the street." Knowing protesters were supposed to stay on the sidewalks, she says she was among the minority who managed to do so. But on a sidewalk on West 39th Street, "I was trapped," she says, when a small army of police pressed the throng around her against a building and began making arrests.

Parkel was locked up with 13 other women in the back of a paddy wagon for approximately four hours, she says. "People were peeing in the back of the truck," because "overloaded" police ignored their pleas to use the bathroom. They also ignored her three or four requests to use the phone once at the Seventh Precinct, where she was held overnight. "Around 1:30 or two in the morning, they called us all in individually," she says, to question the arrestees about their political affiliations and views. "I grew up knowing you're supposed to be read your rights, which we weren't, and you're supposed to be allowed one phone call, which we weren't."

None of the plaintiffs arrested that day was convicted. Says Goodman, "People were arrested in the hundreds, not as a method of legitimate law enforcement, but as crowd control."

The 40-page complaint mentions other wrongs, including people being injured by police horses, manhandled by cops, and denied food and water for many hours. Similar charges appear in a New York Civil Liberties Union report based on a much larger number of complaints from that day, over 300. NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman knows of about 35 charges from that day that were dropped outright.

Says Parkel, "The arrests were a tactic to discourage people who were talking out against our government." She signed on to the class action "to fight against intimidation." Goodman hopes the lawsuit will make the NYPD more protest-friendly by convention time. "If they get away with it once, they'll do it again," he says.

But police blame the disorder of February 15 on the rally's organizers. The NYPD's Collins says leaders failed to adequately inform people how to get to the protest site and provided too few marshals to manage the crowd. Police acted well within reason, says Collins. "Thousands and thousands of people were not arrested," he points out, when asked about the legitimacy of the several hundred arrests.

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