On January 12, about eight protesters dropped to the floor of Grand Central Terminal to protest police violence. They were staging a “die-in” by reenacting the seven minutes Eric Garner lay unconscious on the ground after an altercation with police.
It was a surprising turn of events, since just one week earlier, MTA officials had released a statement many interpreted as a ban on die-ins, a form of demonstration in which protesters lie on the ground, unmoving, as though they are dead.
“We can no longer tolerate them violating the rule against sitting or lying on the floor,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said in a statement on January 6. The statement came after a 24-hour vigil that included the display of placards with the names of victims of police brutality. About eighteen hours into the vigil, officers started picking up placards and making arrests.
The Voice asked Lisberg, who was at Grand Central observing the January 12 demonstration, why the ban on die-ins was not being policed more vigorously, just one week after the agency announced plans to enforce the longstanding rule against lying on the ground at the station. About 40 protesters were there, about five of whom lay down on the floor of the terminal before being told by MTA police to stand up. “The rules are unchanged, but part of policing is discretion,” Lisberg said. “You tell me, what part of justice would be served by locking people up for lying on the floor for seven minutes?”
Lisberg said that the group on January 12 had been careful not to block pedestrian traffic while staging the die-in, which allowed Metro-North passengers to get to their trains without any problems. “We would not have allowed a group to block access to transportation,” he says. “They weren’t preventing the terminal’s intended use…we were able to accommodate all uses of this majestic public space.”
The MTA had relaxed its ban on die-ins in December when protesters began demonstrating in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer whose chokehold maneuver is said to have led to Garner’s death. But demonstrator Jose LaSalle, who films police for CopWatch, an organization that observes police activity, says the protesters weren’t “blocking anything before” the MTA announced its intention to enforce the ban once again.
“People were able to walk around,” LaSalle says.
— Keegan Stephan (@KeeganNYC) January 12, 2015
According to police and the MTA, a 24-hour vigil held between January 5 and 6 was disruptive, and became the deciding factor in reinstating the ban on lying on the ground. That demonstration involved protesters placing on the floor several placards bearing the name of individuals who have been killed by police. The cards were arranged near the stairs of the terminal’s Grand Concourse, which could be a hazard for commuters. Two were arrested, including professional protester Reverend Billy Talen.
Shortly thereafter, the MTA announced that it wouldn’t put up with protesters breaking the rules. And since that statement, a small group has gathered daily in Grand Central, continuing to stage protests even though its short die-ins have regularly been interrupted by police telling demonstrators to get up.
LaSalle says last night he was approached by an MTA official who acknowledged the die-ins were expressive activity: “He said, ‘Dying in, protesting, we don’t have a problem with that, but sitting down, we can’t have that.’ ”
Lucy Sun, an activist who has taken part in many of the Grand Central protests that have been held over the last month, announced during a January 11 demonstration the day prior that she was filing a lawsuit against the MTA for what she described as an infringement on her constitutional rights. “This is not legal, to break up a peaceful protest,” she said. “I believe we as a nation have forgotten how free speech works.”
Lisberg says the relaxed enforcement was not in response to Sun’s complaints, as he hadn’t heard of them until they were brought to his attention by media. “The rules against sitting or lying down on the floor are not based in content,” he says. “They’re there for safety, so we don’t have to go around tripping over everyone.”