The Waiting Game

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

Michael Arrington, 52, arrived at the criminal court building in Manhattan early last Thursday, determined to find his brother Peter Hinds. By now, Hinds, 54, had been locked up for a day and a half. Arrington and Hinds are both Vietnam veterans, visiting New York City from Philadelphia. Two days earlier, they'd been watching an anti-war protest on East 16th Street, just east of Union Square, when the cops sealed off both ends of the block. "We weren't demonstrating," Arrington says. "We were just standing on the sidewalk."

Like everybody else, the two men were cuffed, put on a bus, and taken to a grimy former bus depot at Pier 57. Later, they were brought to 100 Centre Street to be fingerprinted and photographed. Arrington had been released the day before, after 18 hours. He worried he might have nerve damage; a cop had put plastic handcuffs on him so tightly that one thumb was still numb. Yet he was even more worried about his brother. Peter Hinds, who received a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, had been locked up for 38 hours.

"Something happened here I thought would never happen," Arrington says. "You expect it in the former Soviet Union, or Saudi Arabia maybe. But New York City? It's like they took the Bill of Rights and threw it in the trash can. To be arrested for standing on a sidewalk for disorderly conduct? It's beyond ridiculous. It violates people's rights. I'd have never believed it if you told me this would happen in the middle of New York City."

Late Thursday afternoon, the park across from 100 Centre Street was packed with friends and family members of people who had been arrested. The police had made nearly 1,800 arrests at protests related to the Republican National Convention, and most of them had occurred on Tuesday. Two days later, hundreds of people were still locked up, despite the fact that New York City has a "24-hour rule," which requires the city to arraign defendants within 24 hours of their arrest. Attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild and elsewhere had filed writs of habeas corpus that morning to try to expedite the prisoners' release.

Around midday, furious family members held an impromptu press conference. The speakers included Marie Carlucci, who had been standing in the park since 5:30 a.m., waiting for her 26-year-old daughter, a nursing student. "It's like having your child just disappear and not knowing where she is," Carlucci said. "I'm going crazy here." Her daughter had been picked up by the police at 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday. "She wasn't out protesting," Carlucci said. "She was on her way home from work."

Sebastian Licht stood outside the courthouse with a sign that said: "I was held hostage for 41 hours." On Tuesday, Licht had come to Manhattan from Stony Creek, Connecticut, with a friend. The two had planned to go out drinking to celebrate Licht's 22nd birthday. Instead, they'd inadvertently been caught up in a protest near Herald Square. The police circled the crowd with orange mesh netting. Licht managed to escape through the blockade, but when he turned around, he saw his friend was still inside. Licht ran back to join him.

According to Licht, his friend is mentally ill and needs to take antipsychotic medicine daily. By now two days had gone by with no medication. At the end of the press conference, Licht started screaming: "My friend is borderline schizophrenic! He needs his medication!" The shouting didn't accomplish much. As the hours passed, Licht was still outside the courthouse, still waiting. The irony of the situation, Licht said, was that his friend "likes Bush. He agrees with his foreign policy."

Even having political connections did not seem to do much good. Elaine Brower, who works for City Comptroller William Thompson, had been out here since Tuesday evening. She'd slept only two hours in the last two days, ever since her 20-year-old daughter, Tanya, had been arrested at a protest near the New York Public Library. Brower, 50, had already called everyone she could think of—Thompson, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Al Sharpton—and she hadn't had any luck.

She has NYPD connections, too. Her son is in the police academy and her husband is a retired lieutenant. Her husband had come down here Wednesday night, but that hadn't done any good either. "I'm incensed that our system allowed this to happen," Brower said. "Last night they were yelling that they were freezing."

At 12:52 p.m., a celebrity finally did arrive. Not Mayor Bloomberg or Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. It was Andre 3000, looking dapper in a red bowtie with tiny white polka dots, a red-and-blue checkered shirt, and a black vest.

"We love you, Andre!" somebody shouted.

"Andre from OutKast?" another said. "That's so cool!"

Andre 3000 had come with Michael Schiller, who had been working on a film for HBO about which candidate Andre is going to vote for in the upcoming election. On Tuesday night, Michael and an intern had been out filming a protest (minus Andre), when they were both arrested. He'd been released after 28 hours, but the 21-year-old intern, Shana Rigby, was still locked up. The last time he'd seen her she'd been crying on the street, plastic cuffs binding her wrists together. Tuesday had been her first day of work in the field.

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.)

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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