The NYPD described mourners at the funeral of Patrick Dorismond as a bottle-throwing melee, but legal observers claim that cops were the real disruptive force, provoking civilians at every turn. “Police joined the march in uniform and from the beginning created a tremendous amount of tension,” says Michael Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. Witnesses say the presence of riot police, cops on horseback, and a police attempt to redirect the crowd of thousands to use only part of the street set the tone for that day’s disruptions.
“The police spend a lot of time trying to facilitate people at most cultural events,” says Legal Aid Society lawyer Mimi Rosenberg. “But in this instance they were all about trying to control it, limit it, and harness it. The police acted with contemptuous ignorance of a people’s cultural expression of pain and bereavement and they ignored the frustration felt in a community that believes it is being discriminated against.” She says legal observers begged police to take down the metal barriers and pull back several times throughout the funeral. “It was clear there was no threat to property or to individuals except by the police.” But their pleas were ignored.
The day after 27 mourners were arrested, Mayor Giuliani was quick to assert that a small, nameless group of political organizers incited mourners to riot. But witnesses say it wasn’t Giuliani’s unidentified organizers who were arrested, but rather heartbroken members of the Haitian community angered that cops were penning them in with metal fences and barricades. Mourners, who already felt under attack by police, were arrested if they resisted being surrounded and controlled by cops. An 80-year-old man was allegedly arrested while standing on his stoop. (So was his daughter, who attempted to protect him from police.)
The mainstream press dutifully reported the mayor’s praise of the police for showing tremendous restraint that day. But listeners to WBAI on Saturday afternoon heard the police “restraint” in action when a producer was arrested during a live report. Longtime producer Erroll Maitland was calling in stories to the station via cell phone when he was pounced on by police. He was still broadcasting through the phone: ” . . . I have been pushed by a police officer and he’s attacking, he has just been told [by another officer] to fuck me up, and—he just told him to fuck me up and I’m down on the ground. . . . ”
Attorney Rosenberg (who produces a labor and community affairs program on WBAI) was standing near Maitland when he was arrested. She said that though Maitland showed no sign of resistance, an officer grabbed him from behind, put him in a choke hold, and wrestled him to the ground. “He was kneed several times. He was face down. Officers were on top of him.” Maitland was taken to the 72nd Precinct and charged with disorderly conduct, then to a hospital where he was handcuffed to his bed while an officer outside his door prevented him from being seen by anyone but his immediate family and lawyer for 24 hours.
Claims of excessive force were a theme throughout the day. Witnesses report that police appeared to be in a frenzy, pouncing on people two and three at a time, then hustling them to the ground. As one young man was tackled and wrestled to the ground, he inadvertently fell on the wrist of the arresting officer, injuring it. He was charged with felonious assault of a police officer. In another case, according to Rosenberg, a cop was cut by glass, not from being hit by a bottle but after tackling a person he was arresting and landing on a broken bottle on the ground. Seventeen-year-old Chantel Sams, who is pregnant, says she was kicked in the stomach as police pulled her to the ground and arrested her for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Witnesses say Albert Williams, who is 80, was asked to move by police, and when he didn’t respond quickly enough he was pushed to the ground and arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
And the arrests didn’t stop there. Last Wednesday, Dachka Souffrant entered the 67th Precinct to file a civilian complaint about an injury she sustained at the funeral. Her attorney, Michael Warren, says the 23-year-old Haitian American was caught in a crush caused by police and her hand became mangled in a metal barricade; part of her finger had to be amputated. But when she filed the complaint, police interrogated her for hours, asked her to identify people on videotape, put her in a lineup that included at least three women Souffrant had seen in uniform working at the 67th Precinct, and charged her with felonious assault of a police officer.
To Warren, Souffrant’s story is but one more case of police criminalizing the victim. “It’s all part of the process the mayor and police use to hurt communities of color,” he says. “There is the criminalization of people grieving for the death of Patrick Dorismond by calling them out of control, there is the attempt to criminalize Dorismond after he died by releasing his sealed juvenile record, there is an intent to criminalize Erroll Maitland by saying he didn’t have a visible press pass. It’s a strategy used by authorities to justify their own illegal actions.” Souffrant and several others arrested on March 25 will be back in court on April 13.
41 Bullets and Counting…: The Voice archive on NYPD brutality.