Convention Detention

For Bloomberg, a looming showdown over civil liberties and the right to protest

Among those Mayor Bloomberg would have "just plead guilty" to arrest charges stemming from the Republican National Convention is Alex Pincus, 28, who spent 27 hours in jail and suffered a dislocated shoulder—all while trying to get chicken soup for his ailing girlfriend.

A graduate student in architecture at Columbia University, Pincus and a friend rode their bikes over to the Second Avenue Deli at the corner of East 10th Street on Friday evening, August 27. In addition to the soup, they bought corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, latkes, and soda. As they were waiting, they saw that the block had filled with bicyclists. These, they later learned, were some of the 5,000 people who had taken part in the Critical Mass ride, pedaling through Manhattan streets shouting anti-Bush slogans. When Pincus and his pal, Isa Wipfli, 29, went to retrieve their own bikes, they found that police had cordoned off the block at both ends. Pincus approached a nearby officer. "I said, 'Hi. We're just here buying dinner. We're not involved. How do we get out of here?' " Pincus said the cop led them down the street and then called two other police officers over, and shouted, "These guys!"

Pincus and Wipfli were immediately seized. "We tried to show them the bags of food and the receipt. We said, 'Look, it's still warm.' They wouldn't listen." One officer took Wipfli's bag and looked inside. "He said, 'Mmm, sandwiches. Looks good,' " said Pincus. What Pincus was more worried about was his chronically ailing shoulder as cops pulled his arms back and placed him in plastic flex-cuffs. "I tried to tell them I can't put it in that position, that it will dislocate. Instead, they pulled my shoulder out of its socket. The pain was tremendous."

Taken to the improvised holding pens at Pier 57 on the West Side, Pincus pleaded with police to at least let him be cuffed in front to ease the pain. "I must've tried to explain to 10 different people until they finally took me to see a nurse. She didn't know what to do, so they took me to St. Vincent's Hospital." On the way there, an apologetic officer told him that under normal circumstances, Pincus would be out of jail already. "He said usually I'd be released within two, three hours. But they had decided to hold people overnight to keep them off the streets so that they'd get the message and not do it again."

On Sunday, Bloomberg insisted that there is not "one shred of evidence" that protesters were kept locked up longer than usual. But he has blocked all efforts to find out. Last week his administration boycotted a hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations called by Deputy City Council Majority Leader Bill Perkins, who was trying to get some answers about city arrest and detention policies during the protests. Perkins has vowed to issue subpoenas to city officials to compel their appearance, but no subpoena has been issued yet. Perkins said Council Speaker Gifford Miller is personally trying to reach an agreement with the administration to have officials appear before another hearing to be held in early October.

Just how Michael Bloomberg has handled the civil-liberties issues stemming from the convention—his refusal to allow an anti-war rally in Central Park and the controversies surrounding police treatment of protesters—would seem to be a likely issue for those eager to seek his job next year. But the top contenders have been mostly silent on the issue.

Miller, who has raised $3.3 million for a potential citywide race next year, is pushing the mayor to send representatives to the next hearing, aides said. But the council speaker declined to be interviewed about his own views on the subject of how the city handled the convention arrests.

He wasn't the only one ducking the issue. Comptroller William Thompson, another would-be Democratic mayoral contender, also begged off, citing the (largely administrative) role his office plays in overseeing legal claims against the city that will arise from the arrests.

In response to Voice questions, Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, another mayoral wannabe, said she was disappointed in the city's performance. "We all knew, almost a year in advance, that hundreds of thousands of protesters were coming to New York," she said. "We all made the assumption that this is what the police department and city were preparing to address—not violating civil liberties or keeping people locked up for more than 24 hours without being arraigned."

"Detaining people for over 24 hours for the equivalent of a parking ticket is way over the top," former Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer, a likely candidate in 2005, told the Voice. "The council is appropriately holding hearings, and the administration should appropriately answer questions. [Police commissioner] Ray Kelly is a good guy, but that doesn't give him immunity from answering in public."

Actually, as Perkins and several witnesses at the hearing pointed out, it's not that the mayor and Kelly aren't talking about the convention arrests; they're just picking their spots.

The two men authored a joint New York Post op-ed piece on September 10 hailing their own performance as a success, and insisting that Pier 57—where protesters said they were forced to lie down on oil-coated, rash-producing floors—"was run in a humane fashion and was well-equipped." Delays in processing arrestees had occurred, they wrote, "but not before nearly 1,200 protesters decided to break the law" on August 31 during a day of multiple demonstrations. Because of that upswell, "it shouldn't come as a surprise that waiting time [for release] may exceed the norm."

At the hearing, however, lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union produced a videotape of one mass arrest indicating that many of those jailed that day had not actually participated in civil disobedience. The tape showed police officials arresting more than 100 people who were peacefully walking near ground zero, heeding police orders to not block the sidewalk.

Kelly also told New York magazine's Robert Kolker that the Friday night arrests at which Pincus and his friend were picked up were part of a purposeful get-tough strategy. "Kelly admits now that he was sending a message," Kolker wrote. " 'It was clear,' [Kelly] says, 'that if they succeeded on Friday night, you were going to see a lot more of this when the convention kicked in.' "

If that was the direction that top police commanders issued to their troops, then it's little wonder that soup-and-sandwich-buying bystanders like Pincus and Wipfli got swept up in the nets. Last Friday, Pincus, wearing a suit and tie, showed up in Manhattan criminal court, where he pled not guilty to two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of parading without a permit, all violations punishable by up to 15 days in jail.

"I think Bloomberg and Kelly thought there would be a lot of praise for keeping the city quiet," said civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, who, along with Earl Ward, represented Pincus. "They'd floated the idea there was going to be all this violence, and they kept saying, 'We're prepared. Citizens can go about their business.' Well, what about this citizen?"

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