This is big: the New York Civil Liberties Union announced today that the city has agreed to pay an $18 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the NYCLU after hundreds of protesters and journalists were arrested here during a single protest during the 2004 Republican National Convention. In addition to bringing an end to a ten-year lawsuit, this is a big deal for another reason: it’s the largest settlement paid in connection with a civil rights protest in U.S. history.
“No lawful protester should ever be treated like a criminal in New York City, or anywhere else in the United States,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement announcing the settlement. “This historic settlement must serve as a reminder to New York City and government across the country that the right to protest is a fundamental pillar of a fair and functioning democracy. And it is the role of government and law enforcement to not only tolerate protest, but protect and defend it.”
The RNC that year was held from August 30 to September 2 in Madison Square Garden, and President George W. Bush had been nominated for re-election not long before. The New York location, the general political unrest, and, oh yeah, the whole endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan thing resulted in an atmosphere where thousands of people ended up in the street, making their displeasure known. One of the larger protests was a march along Fulton Street on August 31; as we reported in 2012, videos of the action revealed that the protesters were following a white-shirted NYPD official’s orders to stay on the sidewalk and march two at a time. (Photographers and reporters, on the other hand, were not so good about following those instructions and spilled into the street several times.)
The NYPD “bottlenecked” the protesters, keeping them on a route that led them onto the less-crowded East 16th street. And that’s when the trouble started, according to our previous report:
The police boxed the protesters in on both ends of East 16th Street, initially from curb to curb, but as the march advanced, the police blocked off both sidewalks — preventing anyone from leaving.
The police moved most of the demonstrators onto the sidewalks, and continued to give inaudible commands to leave the area. A number of the plaintiffs who were arrested said they attempted to leave the area but didn’t know how. Some said that they weren’t trying to take part in the demonstration at all, and were just observing or merely passing by.
The NYPD arrested more than 600 people that day, some of them back at Fulton Street, others up at East 16th (more than 1800 people were arrested in total the weekend of the protest). The Fulton Street group was held, some for more than 24 hours, at a former bus depot next to the Hudson, Pier 57. (The NYCLU has variously referred to that bus depot as “Guantanamo on the Hudson” and “a filthy, toxic pier.”)
The NYCLU challenged the arrests in two separate lawsuits filed in October 2004. In 2012, when the cases finally hit a courtroom, city attorneys invoked the novel idea of “group probable cause” for arresting everyone in sight. According to the Daily News, city attorney Peter Farrell told a judge in Manhattan Federal Court, “Police made reasonable effort to believe that the people who were placed under arrest had engaged in unlawful conduct.”
A “reasonable” effort, though, is apparently not quite the same as a legal one. Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan ruled that the arrests were illegal, although he did reject an argument from the NYCLU that the protesters’ First Amendment rightst were trampled upon because the police opted to arrest them, rather than writing them desk appearance tickets and letting them go home.
In the East 16th Street case, the NYCLU, among other people, represented two women who weren’t a part of the protest at all, but merely had the bad luck to be passing by while it was going on, Hacer Dinler and Ann Maurer.
Per their release:
Dinler was a fitness and dance instructor from Brooklyn who was confined by police en route to dance class; she was not involved in the protest. After about two hours in confinement, despite repeated pleas for help, Dinler fainted and experienced convulsions. She was transported by ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she remained overnight for testing and treatment. Maurer, of Astoria, and several friends participated in the Union Square demonstration but deliberately sought to avoid conflict with the police by walking apart from the main group. NYPD officers forced Maurer, a legal assistant at the ACLU, and her friends onto 16th Street, where she was arrested, handcuffed and fingerprinted. Maurer spent almost a day in police custody before being released.
In addition to the monetary settlement, the city has agreed to drop all the appeals it filed after Judge Sullivan ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional.