News & Politics

Busted for Peace


After a couple of hours in the cold at the recent anti-war rally, Annie Stauber, 59, felt she’d had enough. Confined to one of the crowd-control pens on First Avenue, she couldn’t see a way to maneuver her wheelchair back to the street. She rolled, instead, right into a blue wall of obstinacy, the latest manifestation of the way the war on terror is corroding the right of New York to be its obstreperous self.

The myriad tales of police hostility that have gushed forth since February 15, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest a U.S. war against Iraq, extend far beyond a few cops’ bad-egg excesses. The police, the courts, the city itself seem to have turned on New York’s own residents, as government agencies scramble for security in a perpetual code-orange climate. Rather than providing orderliness and safety, city responses to the demonstration at every level—from courts denying demonstrators a permit to march, to cops blocking people’s way to the rally—created chaos and confusion. They cast Americans exercising their democratic rights as, at best, a nuisance to be contained and controlled, and, at worst, as potential terrorists.

As Stauber recalls, “I told a police officer that I felt sick and needed to leave, but she said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I told her I’m diabetic and need to check my blood sugar, but she wouldn’t let me out.” When Stauber tried to steer over to a corner where there might be an opening, the officer, she says, grabbed the chair and “flung me around,” leaving the wheels askew and bending the chair’s control stick so far out of Stauber’s reach that she couldn’t drive.

Nadia Taalbi, 20, a New School student from Wisconsin, was excited to be going with a few friends to her first political demonstration ever, but was thwarted at every turn. “We couldn’t get through all along Second Avenue,” she explains. “At 51st Street, a police officer told us to walk uptown. Then at 53rd, another told us we had to go downtown.” So they stood on the corner for a few minutes trying to decide what to do. Soon “this huge group started coming across 53rd toward Second Avenue and we got pushed toward the cops. This officer just turned around and full out shoved me. I’ve always had good experiences with police officers. But I felt like I was being attacked. He yelled right in my face, ‘You have to start moving!’ I said, ‘There’s nowhere to go.’ He grabbed my arm and my leg right under my butt and picked me up—my feet were off the ground—and started to push me into the crowd. Then he turned around and shoved an old woman and she fell to the ground. Then he got out his stick and started pushing me under my armpit.”

Nancy Ramsden, 68, came to the rally with her church group from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and found herself terrified as she was crunched up against a store window next to a woman with two small children when mounted police officers drove their horses into the crowd. Cheryl Mantia, 23, a senior at NYU, was arrested for stepping into the street when the sidewalk could not hold the flow of demonstrators, and was held until 7 a.m. on Sunday. She was frightened by the whole ordeal, but most disturbed, she says, by an officer who called her a “cunt.” When she objected—”Hey, I have rights, you know,” she said—he replied, “Yeah, the right to suck my dick.”

Stories like that have poured into the New York Civil Liberties Union—according to executive director Donna Lieberman, hundreds of people e-mailed within 48 hours of a call for accounts of their experiences—and many of them will be related Tuesday at City Council hearings investigating the city’s handling of the rally: A woman doing her damnedest to follow orders and stay on the sidewalk was picked off and arrested when her foot slipped from the curb. A man trying to explain to thrusting police that there was nowhere to go received the retort “Go to Iraq.” Meanwhile, footage collected by New York’s Independent Media Center captures cops spewing pepper spray into a crowd from inches away, and using metal barricades as weapons to press protesters—including elderly people—back.

Police spokesperson Mike O’Looney dismisses such alarming scenes: “You don’t see what led up to them, what provoked them.” One thing only, according to people who went home with bruises and stinging eyes: the effort to exercise their constitutional right to protest by assembling on First Avenue.

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg defended the city’s refusal to grant protesters a permit to march across Manhattan, telling the Voice‘s Wayne Barrett, “It doesn’t seem to me you’re sacrificing so much as long as you can assemble.” But tens of thousands of people—maybe more—couldn’t assemble. Cops wouldn’t let them get through, and then attacked and arrested them for trying.

O’Looney insists that the NYPD did a fine job—they’d handle things the same way again, he said, when asked whether hindsight offered some suggestions for an improved approach—and many with criticisms put the failures down to management mishaps. “This is not a yahoo police department,” says NYU law professor Jerome Skolnick, a specialist in police behavior. “But it’s common when you have tens of thousands of people to have communication breakdowns. People being told to move north want an explanation. Police are not in a position to explain. They just want to tell you to go here or go there, and tempers fray.”

But protest organizers, lawyers, and scores of demonstrators say they witnessed problems that run far deeper—and that are far more troubling—than the rudeness, overzealouness, and occasional violence from individual officers that often surface at demonstrations in New York City. They see a pattern—and even a policy—of civil liberties infringements that does not bode well for a democracy, especially in a time of unpopular war.

“I’m not given to conspiracy theories,” says Leslie Cagan, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, which organized the rally. “But the denial of the permit to march, the refusal to let us set up portable toilets, the requirement that we get a building permit to put up a backstage tent, the insistence on using the pens, the difficulty of negotiating every detail, which I’ve never experienced in more than 20 years of doing this work—with all this I can’t help but think they wanted to deter people from demonstrating.”

In more obvious ways, those who braved the confusion and obstacles and demonstrated anyway seem to have gotten subsumed into the city’s anxious efforts in the war on terror. Among the hundreds arrested (police put the number at 272; attorneys count 342), most were kept for eight, 12, 15 hours—far longer than is usually required to process those accused of minor violations. Demonstrators recounted that while they were in custody, police asked them not only their names and addresses, but what organizations they were affiliated with and where they were located. Some say they were even questioned about their opinions of the 9-11 attacks. (O’Looney says he was unaware of that kind of questioning.)

Bruce Bentley, co-chair of the Mass Defense Committee of the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, couldn’t even get into 1 Police Plaza the night of the arrests, and gave up trying after almost two hours of waiting outside in the cold. “Did they try to keep lawyers out to continue these interviews?” he asks. “I can’t prove it.” But he does reckon that a recent court decision lifting the so-called Handschu restrictions for police spying on activists played a role. “The Handschu ruling was a signal to go ahead with this,” he suggests.

Norman Siegel, a veteran defender of protesters, was permitted to see only 10 people in three hours down at 1 Police Plaza. “The denial of access to lawyers was more severe than anything I’ve seen before,” he says. NYPD spokesperson O’Looney replies, “We went out of our way to make arrangements for people to meet with their clients.”

Out on the streets, protesters met with Big Brother. Josh Roberts, 23, a carpenter from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, attending his first rally, pulled a bandana out of his pocket when the wind off the East River got to be too much, and wrapped it over the lower half of his face. His friend did the same with a tan handkerchief. “We were just hanging out watching the speakers on the television monitors and out of the blue this guy in plain clothes hops over the railing next to me and tells a cop to come over by the railing and they order me to show them my ID. I showed him and so did my friend, and we saw he was writing our names and license numbers down on this sheet of paper.” At the top of the page, printed in sharp black letters, Roberts saw the title “Counterterrorist Intelligence.” Roberts asked him what it was all about “and he’s like, ‘I can’t tell you that.’ I said, ‘Hey, don’t you think this is harassment?’ and he said, ‘If you want to see harassment, I’ll pull you over this barricade and kick your ass in front of your girlfriend.’ ”

Research conducted several years ago by Skolnick and his colleague James Fyfe—now deputy commissioner for training for the NYPD—showed that police-community relations erode when police departments take on a war footing. They argued that such programs as the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime” encourage cops to regard citizens as enemies rather than as people they are meant to serve and protect. Is the war on terror doing the same?

Skolnick says that not having been at the rally, he cannot assume the cops were thinking like soldiers that day.

But those who were in attendance certainly didn’t experience the police as facilitating the event.

If anything, police are becoming ever more militarized. Frank Morales, a researcher for Covert Action and other publications, has chronicled how “civil disturbance training” of military units and law enforcement has been under way for years, and was stepped up in response to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Since 9-11, he says, the blurring of boundaries between military and police operations “is more consolidated and out in the open.”

That’s not always how police were meant to function. Indeed, urban policing came into being in the 1820s, when Sir Robert Peel formed the British “bobbies” precisely to shield protesters from a military that was violently putting down peaceful demonstrations of the unemployed, rallying for jobs. But today, local police are being drawn ever more fully into the endless global war on terror. Who will protect the dissenters now?

Related Stories:

Cops Stop Photo Ops: Photogs Allege Police Aggression at Rally” by Cynthia Cotts

Why Bloomberg Banned the March” by Wayne Barrett

New York City Labels Anti-War Marchers a Security Breach” by Sarah Ferguson

New York Rally Shows Mainstream Opposition to War” by Alisa Solomon

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 25, 2003

Archive Highlights