By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
It was a late August afternoon in 2004, and as Michael Schiller backpedaled on Fulton Street filming the mostly older crowd with his Super-8mm camera, it struck him that this might be the most boring political protest of all time. There was nothing going on, he thought; it was dead quiet.
It turned out the War Resisters League was staging a "silent march" to culminate with a "die-in" as close to the Republican National Convention floor at Madison Square Garden as a pack of old pacifists could get. Schiller laughed when he learned that later. But at the time, all he knew was this quiet march wasn't making it onto the HBO documentary he'd been assigned to work on about the efforts of OutKast's André 3000 to get out the youth vote. HBO was looking for action: raucous crowds, arrests, dramatic conflict. The War Resisters were all negotiation, calm, and compliance. A waste of time, or so it seemed.
It started benignly enough with a police inspector laying the ground rules through a bullhorn. "This is a march without a permit. You must comply with all the rules or else you will be subject to arrest. You have to walk in either a single file or a double file so that you do not obstruct pedestrian traffic. If you obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic, you will be subject to arrest. I ask your cooperation so that everybody has a safe march."
With that, a chunk of the crowd ambled across Church Street and began slowly shuf fling up Fulton Street. Schiller, already across the street, figured he'd get a quick shot and then head up to the Union Square or Public Library protests, which were rumored to be more happening.
Just over a minute later, the march suddenly stopped. When Schiller looked up from his viewfinder, he noticed a police officer behind him blocking the way.
"What's going on here? Are we being placed under arrest?" Schiller asked the New York City cop.
"Nooooooo, no, don't worry about it," the officer replied. "Don't worry about it."
But Schiller couldn't help but worry a few minutes later when a phalanx of bicycle cops pedaled in and formed a line along the sidewalk against the wall of St. Paul's cemetery. Minutes later, cops unrolled an orange net around the crowd.
Schiller tried to explain that he was a journalist and showed the officers his business card and the HBO release forms his interviewees had to sign. He was told only those with NYPD-issued press cards could go free. So he pleaded with the cops to at least release his assistant, an 18-year-old NYU freshman who had started her internship that very day. No dice, they said.
What Schiller didn't realize then was that this wasn't like the other days of protests leading up to and during the RNC. This was "A31," August 31, 2004the day police expected the shit to go down.
Searched, handcuffed, and with property seized, the bewilderedSchiller among themwere transported to a makeshift detention center so filthy that 40 cops assigned there would later file medical complaints. It was the start of what would be, for the average protester, a 33-hour incarceration misadventure. No phone calls. No lawyers. Not knowing the charges until the very end.
The arrests were so wobbly that five weeks later Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, with the aid of the footage taken by Schiller and crew, flat out dismissed all 227 cases.
An NYCLU report later called the Fulton Street roundup "the most egregious example of unlawful mass arrests" at the RNC.
Perhaps, but on A31, Fulton Street was just the beginning.
While the last War Resisters demonstrators were being hauled off, police sent a throng of singing and dancing protesters into a trap on East 16th Street, where they, and anyone who happened to be on the block, were ultimately squeezed into submission by converging lines of cops. Simultaneously, another 100 to 150 were corralled near the Public Library.
All told, close to 800 people were arrested in about four hours on August 31, 2004. The total that day ran to 1,187. To give that astounding number perspective, it's about the combined number of arrests at the overwhelmingly more violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999.
Two and a half years later, the city is now defending itself against a flood of lawsuits stemming from the chaos that unfolded on A31. At the end of January, over the objections of the city's lawyers, a judge ordered the city to release about 900 pages of RNC-related police documents and 29 videotapes and DVDs to the NYCLU, which is challenging the legality of the NYPD's mass-arrest tactics.
Added to the piles of documents already compiled by civil rights and defense lawyers, the new information, including depositions of the NYPD's key RNC officials, arrest footage, training manuals, and some previously confidential reports, provides the most thorough accountand drives this narrativeof the events that unfolded on what demonstrators called the "Day of Direct Action" and police pegged as "The Day of Rage."