Target: Dissent

When cops play peacekeeper, free speech too often becomes the enemy

By all indications, Daniel Gross was singled out. What remains unclear is how long they'd been watching him.

Gross, an organizer of the first ever Starbucks workers union, was arrested on Saturday, August 28, during a heavily policed march outside the café where he works. To be more precise, Gross was seized by a police captain after the peaceful sidewalk march concluded, just as he was about to thank everyone and say goodbye. Out of the crowd of approximately 200, only one other person was arrested—Anthony Polanco, another union organizer.

"It's interesting to consider the possibility that these were targeted events," Gross said, choosing his words carefully. "A legal observer came up to me later in the week at St. Mark's Church, after I was released, and said, 'I was at the march, and from the outset the captain who later ordered your arrest had his eye on you. He said [to some officers], "Keep your eye on that one. If he steps one foot off the curb, collar him." ' "

Starbucks organizer Anthony Polanco, arrested last month
photo: Shiho Fukada
Starbucks organizer Anthony Polanco, arrested last month

Unlike most of those arrested during the Republican National Convention, Gross has his own lawyer, and he's pleading not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. His attorney, Leonard Weinglass, has championed activists since he became famous for defending Tom Hayden in the Chicago Seven trial. Gross hopes his case will challenge the constitutionality of applying misdemeanor statutes to political speech and assembly.

"We want to take a principled stance against the criminalization of dissent in general," Gross says. "And also, I'd like to avoid being caged up in jail."

One thousand, eight hundred twenty-one arrests—more than during any political convention in our nation's history. Yet the widely reported figure is a measure not of the strength of the protest movement, but of the very real chill on activists like Daniel Gross and, indeed, anyone who voices an unpopular belief in public. The actions that became grounds for arrest during that highly charged week included walking down the sidewalk during a march, riding a bicycle virtually anywhere in the city, and in the case of those arrested inside Madison Square Garden, expressing an opinion different from those around you.

For bicycle riders, the climate continues; the 1,000-strong Critical Mass ride on Friday, an event usually tolerated by and even escorted by the police, instead led to nine arrests and the seizure of 40 bicycles, their locks sawed through.

In the coming weeks, as activists have their days in court, these dangerous precedents will be on trial as well.

The vast majority of those arrested during the convention were rounded up before any identifiable offense was committed. "There was a smell of preemption" to many of the NYPD's actions during the week, said Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU. She said police acted "in many cases appropriately," giving half a million people the opportunity to march peacefully on Sunday, August 29. Nevertheless, both the Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild are actively preparing for civil litigation over what they call indiscriminate arrests, lengthy detentions, and perhaps the conditions under which people were held. "Hundreds of people were caught up in the sweeps with orange netting for doing nothing wrong," Lieberman said. "The police used a bait-and-switch operation in a couple of instances to arrest about 300 people each time."

Christy Pardew, communications coordinator for the School of the Americas Watch, was ensnared that way. On the afternoon of August 31, her group was marching two abreast on the sidewalk, without a permit, toward Madison Square Garden, where around 50 of the 500 or so marchers planned to lie down in the street in a staged die-in. Before they could carry out their civil disobedience, Pardew and over 300 others were surrounded and arrested half a block from ground zero, their march hardly begun. "I think the police were quelling dissent, quieting voices of demonstrators so that things didn't get covered," she said. "A lot of people felt the arrests were really unfair."

The NYCLU and the National Lawyers Guild are also concerned with how people were held—in pens on the filthy floor of Pier 57 and in the basement of 100 Centre Street for a total of 30 to 60 hours, in what some defense lawyers called "illegal preventive detention." Although the legal efforts to speed their release included a writ of habeas corpus, a post-midnight State Supreme Court judge's order, and a $1,000-per-head fine for contempt of court levied by another judge the next day, ultimately those who were detained were at the mercy of the system for those two days of their lives. It remains to be seen whether they will receive any redress. The city has been granted a stay on a contempt-of-court hearing, originally scheduled for September 27. Now the fines will not be argued until November 23.

Now that the arraignments have begun, many have arrived in court to find their charges inflated, with bicyclists often seeing charges of "parading without a permit," or perhaps with a count of "obstructing governmental administration." OGA in the second degree, a mystifying charge to many of those arrested, is a class-A misdemeanor, which basically means getting in the way of a working cop. "When you see a charge of OGA, it's the type of offense that gives rise to some suspicion about the validity of the arrest," said Earl Ward, an attorney who is a former member of New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board. "Years ago, the police used to have a saying that you take the person down the ROAD: Resisting, Obstructing, Assault, Disorderly conduct. OGA is much more serious than disorderly conduct; it could lead to a conviction on someone's record."

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