New York City police commish Ray Kelly may be congratulating his Shea-honed troops on “a tough job well done,” but several activists and attorneys say policing of the World Economic Forum protests last week was a civil rights disaster. They cite baseless arrests, punitive detentions, and surveillance so aggressive it may have crossed the line even in this Ashcroft era.
It’s notable that the first major round of arrests, 36 in all, occurred on Saturday, during the weekend’s only permitted march. Kelly claimed police moved in on protesters wearing masks and carrying plastic shields based on “specific information” that they were about to attack the cops. But six eyewitnesses to the arrests, including one trained legal observer, described police charging into a peaceful, densely packed crowd of 2000 near the southeast corner of Central Park, with nightsticks swinging. Each of the witnesses placed the masked or shield-carrying protesters deep in the crowd, up to 30 yards away from the police line—well out of range for an attack—when the police charge began. None saw even a single shield thrown.
Charlie was among the group of New England college students who brought the colorfully decorated shields to the rally. The placards were hardly a sign of a unified plan, Charlie says, since he and his friends carried only three shields and randomly handed out the 16 extras to nearby protesters.
Police department spokesman Lieutenant Brian Burke defended the arrests, saying, “When we believe they’re going to engage in hazardous behavior, that is one of the legal tools we have available.” But advocates say the resulting minor charges don’t bear out the cops’ rationale for collaring protesters. “Where are the charges to support the police theory that these kids were going to move against them in a violent way?” asks Leslie Brody of the National Lawyers Guild.
Most of the weekend’s arrests took place the next day, at a free-form, unpermitted East Village march that began on St. Marks Place and ended with 91 arrests just four blocks north. Burke claims only those blocking traffic were arrested, but legal observer Mac Scott, watching from 12th Street and Third Avenue, saw around 50 protesters arrested who were marching exclusively on the sidewalk, not even blocking pedestrians. One, a journalist, was in the middle of giving a live radio report by cell phone; another had just left a game of frisbee to check out the arrests in progress. Brody, who arraigned about 20 of the day’s arrestees, saw at least two “parading without a permit” complaints where even the police version says the protesters stayed on the sidewalk.
New York Civil Liberties Union director Donna Lieberman says she fails to see why walking or running on the sidewalk would ever require a permit. “If the facts don’t bear out the charges,” she says, “the police may have engaged in civil rights violations.”
If the protesters’ charges were dubious, their detention was more so. According to Scott, who is tracking arrests with the People’s Law Collective, only about a dozen of the weekend’s 201 arrested protesters were issued desk appearance tickets (DATs); all the rest were held until arraignment—some for up to 60 hours. Leaving aside gratuitous cruelties that included holding a busload of protesters tightly cuffed for 10 hours with limited toilet access and no food or water, the very practice of punitively putting demonstrators through the system was officially abandoned by the NYPD last July after an NYCLU lawsuit. While Lieutenant Burke insists that “all those that qualified were DAT’d,” Scott says as many as 72 protesters should have been eligible—perhaps many more—because they offered photo identification, had no outstanding warrants, and faced extremely minor charges.
Rob Jereski was one of those detained overnight for minor charges. Ironically, just a few days after his release, he won damages from the city for being held overnight after a Diallo demonstration two years earlier—part of a settlement totalling $469,000 to 13 activists for damages and legal fees. At that rate, the 72 people Scott says should have been ticketed and released could end up costing the city almost $2.6 million.
Activists say legal challenges may go beyond the arrests. Ten people reported seeing police filming the crowd at Saturday’s permitted march well before any arrests occurred—a potential violation of the 1985 Handschu Agreement, according to Brody. Handschu came out of a 1971 lawsuit by the Black Panthers, who sought to bar the city from spying on legitimate political organizations, however radical. “Under Handschu, the police are not permitted to film people in the lawful exercise of their rights, because it has a chilling effect,” Brody says.
Undercover police were posted outside the apartment of Another World Is Possible member Eric Laursen for two days; at one point, four of his houseguests were tailed for blocks after they headed out. An organizer of the Intergalactic Anarchist Convention was tailed from Sunday’s East Village march by an officer who called him by name and followed him all the way out to his Staten Island home. Most disturbingly, a volunteer at the Independent Media Center, who signed a registration form as Timothy Janis (a document that included the line “I am not working for, and/or associated with, any law enforcement agency”), was later spotted by IMC reporter Ana Nogueira entering an unmarked police car parked outside their 29th Street office.
“Any intelligence gathering was obtained in a proper way, and in no way in violation of Handschu,” says Burke. But according to the NYCLU’s Lieberman, “What they did this time raises concerns. Many of us are worried about the police going back to the future, reverting to old, discredited tactics of police surveillance and infiltration of lawful protest activity.”