NYCLU Grades Policing Of Protesters
At The RNC
September 3, 2004 -- The New York Civil Liberties Union has taken a good look at NYPD practice regarding protest during the Republican National Convention and has given the Department a mixed grade. Despite the difficulties in negotiating permits -- most notably with regard to Central Park -– virtually all the groups who sought permits received them.
The police generally did a fine job protecting protest at the permitted events so that hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to demonstrate loudly and peacefully around the RNC. Even with regard to some of the spontaneous or non-permitted demonstrations, the police responded with the necessary flexibility and cooperation that is essential to free expression. However, there were far too many problems, particularly at the non-permitted events when the police swooped in and illegally arrested hundreds of law abiding protestors.
“The pre-emptive arrests; preventive detentions and dangerous conditions at Pier 57 and massive surveillance of law protest activity undermined the right to dissent,. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating on the streets and sidewalks of New York throughout the course of the week,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “The NYPD had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to policing during the RNC. The department’s practices were inconsistent and its standards were unclear from day-to-day. As a result, perfectly lawful actions could result in an arrest on any given day and time. That stifles dissent and political debate.”
The NYCLU particularly notes several questionable actions by the NYPD.
* Pre-emptive arrests: On a couple of occasions, massive arrests followed right on the heels of a negotiated agreement on the terms for a lawful march
* Indiscriminate arrests: The NYCLU has received reports from members of the press, legal observers, medics and even passersby who found themselves caught in the Spiderman-type orange mesh netting the police used to make arrests.
* Dangerous tactics: At one demonstration, the police suddenly charged into the crowd with metal barricades and a squad of plain clothes officers later drove their scooters into the crowd. Some arrestees and bystanders reported being kicked, punched or hit with batons by police. Some reported the incidents to local precincts and had their bruises photographed by police officials.
* Dangerous conditions at the Pier 57 detention facility: Having announced for months that it was prepared to handle over 1000 arrests a day during the RNC, the City chose to detain arrestees in this dank, filthy bus depot where people had to sit or lie on the floor covered with soot and quite possibly toxic automotive fluids. The conditions left many with rashes and respiratory problems during their detention stay and after they were released. The NYCLU is in the process of testing a sample gathered by a medic who was part of a sweeping arrest, although he was doing nothing more than monitoring a protest event.
* Excessive delays in processing arrestees: The criminal justice system ground practically to a halt as people – including hundreds whose arrests the police know were unlawful -- were routinely held for 36 hours or more on minor offenses before receiving desk appearance tickets or being brought before a judge.
* Pervasive police surveillance: The pervasive videotaping and use of surveillance cameras to record lawful protest activity raises the specter of a return to the bad old days of the “Red Squad” and the keeping of political dossiers on critics of our government. A number of activists with a history of lawful protest activity also report being followed by individuals who appeared to be government agents. These practices appear to be designed – and certainly have the effect—of intimidating people from exercising their right to dissent.
The NYCLU is concerned that practices that punish and intimidate people for exercising their right to dissent cast a lasting pall on our democracy. Unlike our Attorney General, who refuses to distinguish between lawful, peaceful protest and terrorism, the NYCLU knows that dissent is patriotic.
In the weeks and months to come the NYCLU will:
* Continue to collect reports from individuals about police practices, including misconduct. Complaint reports are available here.
* Publish a report, based on these complaints and on the reports from the NYCLU’s team of over 150 trained legal monitors, on what went right and what went wrong in the government’s response to protest at the RNC;
* Develop a campaign of reform, including litigation, legislative activity and public education, to address the problems that arose during the RNC.
* Urge the City Council and our state Attorney General to conduct a full blown investigation of police practices at the RNC.