The Waiting Game

City keeps hundreds in jail too long, chilling protests and angering families

As the hours passed, the crowd got larger, angrier, and more creative. Somebody bought markers, and signs started popping up. Ian Miller, 23, held up a large piece of cardboard: CALL THE POLICE. WE HAVE A HOSTAGE SITUATION. Elspeth Schell, who was waiting for her 22-year-old daughter, Phoebe, carried a hand-painted sign: FREE MY DAUGHTER. Other signs declared: LET MY HOUSEGUEST GO and FREE THE RNC 1500!

By mid-afternoon, the group had grown to nearly 500. Every time somebody was released from the courthouse, everybody cheered. Some just-released people thrust their fists in the air as they crossed Centre Street to join the crowd. One man did a cartwheel. Others staggered along in a daze. Friends rushed forward to offer hugs, sympathy, and cigarettes. Some people broke down and started sobbing as soon as they crossed the street.

In this crowd, it was easy to spot those who had been in jail. They were the ones whose T-shirts had filthy backs. The floor at Pier 57 had been covered with soot and grease droppings from the buses that used to park there. Some protesters spent the entire night at Pier 57. Anyone who tried to sleep was left with a dirty back. Sebastian Licht from Connecticut had removed his sandals and knelt on the ground. Now he had bandages on both feet. On the tops of them, he said, he'd gotten chemical burns. (Later in the week, after numerous complaints, city officials did put down carpets at Pier 57.)

Across from 100 Centre Street: Elspeth Schell waits for her daughter, Phoebe.
photo: Cary Conover
Across from 100 Centre Street: Elspeth Schell waits for her daughter, Phoebe.

Throughout the afternoon, the protesters' lawyers came outside to the park and gave updates on the status of their legal challenges. In court, attorneys for the city had argued that they were processing the detainees as quickly as they could. "We can't just open the jails of the city of New York and let everybody out," Michael Cardozo, the city's corporation counsel, told a judge. "We're doing everything humanly possible."

Lawyers for the protesters disagreed. "This has happened before," Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the crowd. "The pattern is becoming clearer and clearer to me. It's all by design."

Some people likened this current situation to what occurred in New York City in February 2002, when the World Economic Forum held a meeting here. Thousands of people protested. Two hundred were arrested and taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Some were held for two days. Their predicament received minimal media coverage, but several lawsuits have been filed against the city on behalf of the protesters, who insist that they were detained for longer than usual in order to keep them locked up until the WEF meeting ended.

Other people saw a parallel between the NYPD's actions this week and those of the police during the last Republican convention, held in Philadelphia in 2000. There, police arrested about 75 people on the second day of the convention, after infiltrating a warehouse where protesters were making giant puppets for their street events. The police insisted the warehouse was a staging area for illegal street demonstrations; they charged the detainees with misdemeanors. Ten of them opted for six months' probation. The district attorney later dropped the charges against the others.

Meanwhile, in New York City during this year's convention, Mayor Bloomberg had been publicly praising the police department for its performance all week long. Outside the courthouse, Siegel declared: "Politicians are making a huge mistake because this will resonate. It should be a major issue in the city elections in 2005. Bloomberg needs to be held accountable for the erosion of civil liberties."

Finally, the protesters' lawyers prevailed. A judge ordered the city to release more than 550 people. When they were not all released by 6 p.m., the judge announced that he would fine the city $1,000 for each person. "What the judge did is hold the city in contempt," Siegel told the crowd. "There will be a hearing next week to determine the amount. It will probably be in the ballpark of half a million dollars." The crowd roared.

At the start of the day, one or two people had been released every half hour or so. Now the pace sped up; people were walking out every few minutes. Members of a group called the Pagan Cluster blew on plastic horns to announce each new release. At 6:30 p.m., Elaine Brower walked out with her daughter Tanya, their arms around each other. Tanya wore ripped fishnet stockings and a T-shirt stating: Drop Tuition, Not Bombs. She ran over to her boyfriend and threw her arms around him.

Meanwhile, Michael Arrington, the Vietnam vet, continued to wait. At 8 p.m., Arrington was still there, standing in front, leaning against the metal barricade, chatting with the cops stationed nearby, applauding every person who was released. Finally, he decided to call his sister-in-law's house. As it turned out, his brother was already there. He'd been released at 1:30 p.m.—40 hours after their arrest.

Arrington left. Though his brother was finally free, Arrington knew their tangle with the New York City criminal justice system was not over. In his pants pocket was a crumpled piece of paper—a desk appearance ticket ordering him to show up in criminal court on September 27.

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