Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The RNC's Aftermath: Dissent and Democracy Endangered in New York 

Those of us who stayed town in New York City during the Republican National Convention last summer were treated to what life is like in a police state. Outside the glossy national coverage in Madison Square Garden of the screaming Zell Miller, the smiling Arnold Schwartznegger, President Bush at his most charming and Vice President Cheney on the attack, there was another reality on the streets of New York City. Thousands of police and undercover operatives were clearing away the signs of antiwar and anti-Bush dissent. Phalanxes of riot-equipped cops were dispatched from a buffer zone around the Garden to break up every protest as it began. Police awaiting orders were massed, by the hundreds, on motorbikes, cycles, horses, and in vehicles in the West 30’s.

Bicyclists, part of a group called Critical Mass, were among the first swept off the streets, arrested for “parading without a license.” Hundreds of protesters and bystanders were wrapped up in orange plastic netting on sidewalks all over New York City, some before demonstrations had even begun. Many were taken to Pier 57, along the Hudson River on the West Side and kept huddled in an area the city used as an auto pool, amidst puddles of oil and asbestos hazard signs, awaiting arraignment for up to 36 hours on “desk ticket” charges. Desk tickets are used for charges so minor that the typical waiting period is 2 hours between arrest and discharge without arraignment.

Thousands of protesters who had come to New York to demonstrate against the RNC were told by Mayor Bloomberg that they couldn’t use Central Park, far from the site of the convention at Madison Square Garden, because the grass on the Great Lawn couldn’t handle the trampling. Never mind that concerts and charity events had managed to avoid destroying the park in the past, these protesters weren’t to be allowed. The city offered only an area far out on the West Side, on city streets that would be segmented by barriers and left without the audio amplification that would allow the demonstration to have a focus, a stage that participants could see and hear.

Last night on the Lower East Side, Norman Seigel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Jess Brown, a member of the New York Lawyer’s Guild, spoke to about fifty people about the suit they are pursuing against the City of New York in the aftermath of the crackdown on dissent last summer.

“Were looking at the criminalization of protest,” Brown told the group.

Seigel asked listeners to imagine what American history would be like if the preemptive arrests and political detentions used in New York had been used during the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.

“Think of my colleagues,” Seigel recalled, “blacks and whites, who went to sit-in at segregated lunch counters in the south. Under the preemptive arrest concept used last summer here in New York, they would have been arrested before they even got to the counter.”

Brown, who spent the week of the convention trying in vain to speak with clients who had been detained on minor charges without arraignment, noted that on the final night of the RNC, after President Bush had spoken and left the city, hundreds of detainees were finally bussed to court on Centre Street downtown. While she and other lawyers waited in vain to speak with their clients outside the court’s front door, would-be protesters were quickly issued desk tickets and then ushered out the back door by police, onto the side streets of the city they’d been swept off of 36 hours earlier.

Seigel echoed the clear intent of police and the city’s DA’s to hold protesters until the eyes of the world were off New York City. “A mother of one of my clients called the precinct to ask when her son might be released,” Seigel recalled. “She got a desk sergeant on the phone, who responded, ‘Ma-am, don’t you know what’s happening? Your son isn’t getting out till President Bush leaves on Thursday night.’”

The Lawyer’s Guild and the New York Civil Liberties Union have a hearing coming up later this month on criminal contempt charges the State courts have issued against the City of New York, resulting from the NYPD flouting the court’s order to release arrestees in a reasonable manner after arrests during the convention. We’ll be covering the progress of the case as it develops.

Meanwhile, the lack of major media coverage on this story has been deafening. “There’s a desensitization going on,” Brown noted last night. “This is the way people lose their rights.”

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