Activists Push Back at NYPD

Rescuing Protest Before Bush '04

"It's interesting to hear white, middle-class protesters talk about how unbelievable it is to them that they were not treated humanely. People of color daily deal with police brutality, and they resist it routinely—that's what the Diallo protests were about," she says.

Indeed, the city's protester population has recently burgeoned with additions from across the political spectrum. The numbers promise a rowdier convention than the several Democratic gatherings the city has hosted in the past.

"Back then, we were pretty laid-back," says Miami police chief John Timoney, who commanded NYPD operations during the 1992 Democratic convention. He notes that nothing like the September 11 attacks haunted police then, and the issues and the candidate were less controversial. There was no preemptive war on Iraq, no suspicions of political lies about weapons of mass destruction, and there was no great anxiety over losing civil liberties to a White House-led war on terrorism.

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.

The traditional convention-protest area, Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets, holds a maximum of about 5,000 bodies, says Timoney. Bush policies have propelled hundreds of thousands into city streets this year.

"People are going to be as angry or angrier about the Bush administration as they are now. The fact that there is some possibility of getting rid of this guy will draw a lot of people," predicts Leslie Cagan, lead organizer of United for Peace and Justice. Accused by police of not planning its February 15 anti-war demonstration far enough in advance, UFPJ has already submitted two permit requests for a march and a rally during convention week.

The NYCLU asked the police a month ago to begin negotiations for convention protest, says executive director Lieberman, and a meeting is expected as early as July. She says the NYPD's response to current criticism of its protest tactics is a key indicator. "The refusal to acknowledge mistakes will be the single biggest cause for pessimism as we move ahead."

The mass arrests and political questioning have already had a chilling effect, according to some activists. Liem says immigrants, especially, find themselves weighing their desire to demonstrate against the risk of detention and even deportation, to themselves and, by association, family and friends. No one, says ACT UP/NY's Milano, should have to "be afraid just to come out to a street protest."

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