Day of Rage

Behind the scenes of the NYPD crackdown at the GOP convention

Jonathan Moore, an attorney representing 24 RNC arrestees, offered a more cynical explanation. "I think they simply made the decision they'll pay on the back end for order on the front end," he contended.

Whether the NYPD's beliefs were a good enough reason to suspend its own arrest policies and possibly violate state fingerprinting law is a question likely to be left to jurors, whose answer will shape how future protests are policed here and possibly cost the city millions.

"The Miami Model" deployed in New York City: surveillance, preventative mass arrests, and extended detentions
photo: Richard B. Levine
"The Miami Model" deployed in New York City: surveillance, preventative mass arrests, and extended detentions

As Ashley Waters approached Union Square Park, her gym clothes in a bag after a workout, she thought she was stumbling upon one of those only-in–New York scenes. A band, some members of which were dressed up like animals, was playing a very "strange style" of music, the likes of which she'd never heard before.

Waters, then 26, had spent the first half of that summer as an associate at Akin & Gump and the second half interning for then attorney general Eliot Spitzer. Soon she would be returning to finish her last year at Harvard Law School.

As she followed the group out of the park, she had no idea it was a protest.

When police forced the march onto East 16th Street, Waters slipped down the south side of the sidewalk, across the street from the group. A man who lives in a second-floor apartment on East 16th filmed the ensuing confrontation. That tape is now part of the case.

"Looks like a parade—there's actually a marching band," the man, who asked not to be identified, narrated into his camcorder.

The man's shot pans right onto a line of helmeted police officers, approaching shoulder-to-shoulder, holding batons in front of them. The police stretch across the street over both sidewalks.

As the police near, the protesters chant, "Whose streets? Our streets." But that clearly isn't the case. En masse the group members start a slow retreat. As they do, they run into a line of cops coming the other way. The converging police lines push the demonstrators into a ball in the middle of the sidewalk, then split the crowd in two, leaving two semicircles of protesters trapped against the building and surrounded. The same thing is done on the south sidewalk, ensnaring Waters.

The first arrests are made the hard way: white-shirted supervisors pointing into the crowd; two or three cops yanking the targeted out, then slamming them to the ground and wrenching on the plastic double flex cuffs.

Four minutes in, half a dozen cops plow into one of the semicircles and pull out the musicians who had been playing the whole time.

Within five minutes the orange nets appear and soon envelop the demonstrators, who lock arms and chant, "Let us go!"

Forty minutes and several hundred arrests later, the nearly empty street now lit by portable NYPD spotlights, two drag queen demonstrators in lingerie start singing "New York, New York" and doing a chorus line kick. Soon they are taken off too.

Like the 400 or so others arrested in the 16th Street roundup, Waters's complaint stated her arresting officer was "informed by Deputy Inspector James Essig that informant and other police officials warned said group that they were blocking vehicular traffic, had to disperse, and would be arrested if they did not disperse." In some of the arrests, like Waters's, Essig signed an affidavit attesting to this.

It's not what Essig, since promoted, said when deposed under oath.

"I went up to attempt to tell them to stop the march and that's when they interlocked arms," Essig said in his March 2006deposition. "A few put up their masks, music was loud, there was dancing in the streets." He said it was "apparent to me they were not going to comply with anything I had to say," so he ordered them arrested. The NYCLU asked the district attorney to open an investigation contending "many, if not all, of the 16th Street arrests" were based on false police statements and urging those responsible to be charged. Last week, Assistant District Attorney James Kindler sent the NYCLU a letter stating that after a review, "the evidence does not support or warrant a prosecution for perjury or any other offense."

Through the 1980s and '90s, demonstrations in the United States were predominantly policed through negotiation and accommodation, according to John McCarthy, sociology professor at Penn State, who has published a study on demonstrations in America. Basically, don't sweat the small stuff, he says.

But over the past decade and especially since the WTO riots in Seattle, which resulted in $2.5 million in property damage, many police departments have adopted a zero-tolerance.

This heavy-handed approach has become known among protest experts as the "Miami model," based on the response to the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in November 2003.

Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who has studied the policing of protests, summed up the "Miami Model" as "surveillance and infiltration prior to the event, lots of negative publicity targeting the demonstrators prior to the event, mass arrests that are usually preventative in the sense that they take place before any illegal act actually occurs, and then extended detentions." During that demonstration, Miami police responded to protesters, some of whom were throwing rocks and bottles, by firing rubber bullets, using mace, and arresting about 230.

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