Honoring the Constitution Could Save
By Emmaia Gelman
Emmaia Gelman is making a documentary on human rights in Israel and Palestine.
She is an activist for AIDS, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
May 16, 2003
Last week I went to jail. Just for a day -- it was a little message from the New York Police Department: Dissenter, beware. I had been demonstrating at the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (formerly known as the INS) alongside activists from immigrant and minority groups.
We were protesting the government's new special registration requirement for Muslim immigrants, a big-brother mechanism not seen since the government decided that Japanese-Americans were "dangerous persons" in 1942. Under this new policy, some registrants who've checked into the bureau have been unable to check out - they've been caught up in what is called "administrative detention," where they have no date for release or trial.
So last Monday, 42 of us sat down to block the doors through which so many have disappeared. Civil disobedience: a small, time-honored gesture of objection. We sat on the ground with arms linked. Police threw us onto our stomachs, planted boots in our backs and wrenched our limbs in directions they're not supposed to go. Our wrists were cinched with plastic cuffs until our arms were blue.
At the precinct we gave fingerprints and identification to our arresting officers, and were marched out singly for intelligence-gathering interviews. Cops had written up summonses for about a third of us when the process suddenly ground to a halt. No more tickets were issued, so we spent the next 31 hours in jail, waiting to be arraigned on minor charges, such as disorderly conduct, which rarely send people to prison even if convicted. Could that be legal?
No. Last year the city paid me and 13 other
New Yorkers $469,000 in damages for a similar violation of our
rights. In 2000, with New York City still at war over the Amadou
Diallo shooting, we had been demonstrating at the Police Academy.
We wanted to make sure cadets learned the difference between a
wallet and a gun.
At the precinct, cops were writing up our summonses for future arraignments when they halted. So we spent the next 26 hours in jail, waiting to be charged with minor violations.
Our 2000 lawsuit charged that, in cases of political protest, the NYPD abused its discretion by jailing protesters without trial. City lawyers did not dispute the allegations and eventually even turned up an NYPD document outlining the police policy in writing. In addition to paying damages, the city agreed permanently to rescind the policy that had held protesters overnight.
But in 2003, protesters against the war in Iraq and the repression at home have encountered the same phenomenon: protesters arrested regardless of whether they've violated a law. Demonstrators held overnight on minor charges that carry no jail time. Dissenters charged with seemingly random violations often thrown out of court later. These are the practices of a police force actively chilling dissent, deliberately raising the cost of protest from hours to days.
Activists had hoped that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would not perpetuate the expensive failed policies of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, especially if the city faces such an enormous budget crunch. Giuliani's trademark dissent-squelching practices are under scrutiny in federal court - again. The NYPD is litigating another set of "punishment of dissent" lawsuits, this time facing off against me and nearly 400 other protesters illegally detained between 1999 and 2001. Once again we find ourselves in court to make the cops respect civil rights.
There's no sign that the NYPD plans to pull back from the national trend of assaults on dissent. Worse, it seems to be gambling that the current lawsuit will yield a new legal precedent allowing the NYPD simply to preempt the First Amendment. The city already faces a raft of new lawsuits arising from anti-war demonstrations and protests against the targeting of Muslims, Arabs and immigrants. The NYPD is already charged with false arrest of protesters and bystanders, excessive detention, violence against demonstrators and curtailing protest rights. The Bush administration isn't finished making war on selected enemies for political ends, or forking out billions in war contracts to its corporate friends. And the Republican Convention is just around the corner.
So there's a lot of dissent yet to be repressed. And the price of protest keeps rising. How long before we just can't afford to speak out?
If the city goes to trial and successfully spins protesters as a "threat to homeland security," it can get 400 litigants off its back and at the same time muzzle the right to speak out. Unchastened by the millions of dollars paid so far to protesters abused on Giuliani's watch (more than $1 million for the Matthew Shepard and Diallo protests alone), the Bloomberg administration seems willing to do the same. The city's lawsuit payout budget has been increasing annually. For 2003, they've budgeted $5.2 million. Of course, not all of it is for paying off protesters, but certainly a more constitutional policy regarding the right to free speech would save the city money. Then maybe it could be funding libraries and schools instead of jails.
How the NYPD Harassed the Protesters
by Alisa Solomon . The Village Voice . February 26 - March 4, 2003
When Cops Play Soldier, Protesters Become the Enemy
. ACT UP member 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 Village Voice Stories:
"Cops Stop Photo Ops: Photogs Allege Police Aggression at Rally" by Cynthia Cotts . [see below]
"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
see also further important coverage by. NYC IndyMedia Center .| .IndyMedia Streaming Webcasts .[quicktime]
by Cynthia Cotts . The Village Voice . February 26 - March 4, 2003
Cops Stop Photo Ops
Photogs Allege Police Aggression at Rally
Daily News photographer Susan Watts was knocked down on the job at the February 15 anti-war rally.
See all the photos here.
(photo: Rob Bennett)
Mayor Bloomberg may love the way the NYPD handled the February 15 anti-war rally, but how do photographers who covered the rally rate the NYPD? Lensmen expect a certain amount of roughing up at rallies, even a broken lens or two, but some are calling this one too rough. Photogs from Britain and Maine felt disrespected and the Daily News complained that police mistreated two of its staff photographers. At times, police denied photographers access, forcing them into some areas and out of others, particularly when arrests were under way. Some cops viewed anyone with a camera as a target for verbal or physical aggression.
There is a smoking gun behind these allegations: photos of police pushing a Daily News photographer, taken by New York-based freelance photographer Rob Bennett. (One of Bennett's shots appeared on page two of the February 16 Daily News, and more of the photographs can be viewed here.) The News reported that staffer Susan Watts was photographing police making arrests at the intersection of 53rd Street and Third Avenue when, according to Watts, "a cop charged at me and put his hand over my lens and pushed me down to the ground." The accompanying photo shows a uniformed officer with his arm stretched toward Watts as she falls in the street. Watts was not hurt, but one of her cameras was ruined.
In a statement, News spokesman Ken Frydman announced that the paper has "complained in writing" to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly about how police treated both Watts and News photographer James Keivom. (Keivom was ticketed for disorderly conduct at the rally.) According to Frydman, Kelly has assured the News that "these incidents are being thoroughly investigated in two separate investigations." The News is "pleased" by the response so far and "does not believe these incidents reflect a pattern of behavior." Watts and Keivom declined to comment. NYPD spokesman Michael O'Looney confirmed that an Internal Affairs investigation is under way.
The police definitely used "rough tactics," said Peter Coltart, a 24-year-old photographer who traveled from Maine to New York to cover the rally. Coltart, who carries a press pass from the Lewiston Sun Journal, spent several hours in the packed blocks of the East Fifties, watching police push the demonstrators around. "Sometimes when I put a camera up, they'd be more careful," he said, "but other times if I tried to take a picture, they would either put their hand up or tell me to move along."
Coltart claimed that one officer knocked him down three times and another picked him up off the street and threw him. The first incident occurred at an intersection where protesters were densely packed on the sidewalk, facing a line of cops on foot and on horseback. The police were pushing people back so buses and cranes could come through. "I was standing there taking photographs," he recalled. "Me and the cop were facing each other and the cop said, 'You've gotta move.' " The next thing he remembers is, "I got knocked down by a police officer. I was on the ground, got up, and got knocked down again. I was knocked down three times and trampled on by other protesters."
Later, Coltart arrived on a side street where protesters had begun a mass sit-down. Police were telling people to get up and arresting them if they did not. "I saw this guy lying down getting arrested," Coltart recalled. "I ran out toward the street, got on my stomach in front of the guy, and popped off two frames. Then all of a sudden, I was floating. A big cop reached down-he must have weighed over 200 pounds. I weigh 150. He grabbed my jacket with one hand and picked me up. I kept shooting. He threw me back into the crowd. I don't think I landed on my feet."
The NYPD had its own photo staff at the rally, equipped with digital and video cameras. Indeed, one of Bennett's photos shows a cop with a video camera trained on Susan Watts. "They had complete freedom to take pictures of whatever they wanted," Coltart noted, "but when we took photos, they pushed us down."
For some cops, verbal harassment seemed to suffice, as when a member of the police press office ordered a newspaper reporter to leave a tense scene. The reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled he was standing on the sidewalk, talking on his cell with his NYPD press pass in full view, as police surrounded a group of protesters and forced them against a building. Suddenly an officer started yelling, telling him to get off the block. The reporter objected at first, then left. Moments later, he said, "the same officer came up and said, 'You'll never wear one of my credentials again.' "
Another target of intimidation was Paul Mattsson, a 42-year-old from London who contributes to the photo agency Report Digital. Mattsson, who has covered demonstrations for 20 years, said, "I've been hassled, beaten up, shot at, and arrested. I've had cameras smashed by police and protesters. But nobody has ever told me that I'm not allowed to do my job."
Two days before the rally, Mattsson went to the press accreditation office of police headquarters to apply for a temporary NYPD press pass. He showed two press cards, one issued by the British National Union of Journalists and recognized by the British police, the other issued by the International Federation of Journalists. But, he said, the man behind the counter looked at him and said bluntly, "You can't work here."
The day of the rally, Mattsson said, the organizers gave him credentials that allowed him to work in the enclosed area surrounding the stage. Then he saw the man he met at police headquarters doing a press check. Again the man told him, "You can't work." The man directed Mattsson to a police press bus, where other officers helped him get where he wanted to go.
Later, Mattsson asked for permission to cross a roadblock. He said that as he was taking out his international press card, one officer began tapping his baton and "gesticulating with it" in a threatening way, refusing to let him proceed. "Do you speak English?" the officer asked. Later, at other roadblocks, the police "kept giving me grief [about his credentials]. They would not tell me where there was a clear way around. I spent two hours going in a circle. . . . I missed a lot of the action I came to cover."
NYPD lieutenant Elias Nikas said the department does not issue temporary press passes, but British journalists did attend the rally and had their cards honored. As for Mattsson's being told, "You can't work here," Nikas said, "that doesn't sound right."
Every journalist interviewed for this story
met some cops at the rally who were "very nice," "sensitive,"
and "down to earth." But that doesn't excuse the cops
who think it's necessary to control photographers with aggression.
August 8, 2003
New York Times
Judge Criticizes Police Methods of Questioning War Protesters
By BENJAMIN WEISER
A federal judge in Manhattan criticized police officials yesterday for the way demonstrators against the war in Iraq were interrogated earlier this year, and he made clear that civil liberties lawyers could seek to hold the city in contempt of court in the future if the police violate people's rights.
The judge, Charles S. Haight Jr. of Federal District Court, who recently eased court-ordered rules on police surveillance of political groups, made his comments after hearing evidence that the police had asked the protesters their views on the war, whether they hated President Bush, if they had traveled to Africa or the Middle East, and what might be different if Al Gore were president.
"These recent events reveal an N.Y.P.D. in some need of discipline," Judge Haight wrote, citing what he called a "display of operational ignorance on the part of the N.Y.P.D.'s highest officials."
In his ruling, Judge Haight cited comments in the news media by the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, that he and his deputy commissioner for intelligence, David Cohen, were unaware that the police were using what they called a "debriefing form" in the questioning.
"The two commissioners should have known," the judge wrote.
In February, Judge Haight agreed to modify a longstanding court order that had restricted the Police Department's ability to conduct surveillance of political groups. Police officials had said they needed greater flexibility in investigating terrorism, and the judge agreed to ease the rules, citing "fundamental changes in the threats to public security."
The original rules were known as the Handschu agreement, named for the first listed plaintiff in a 1971 lawsuit over harassment of political advocacy groups by the Police Department's so-called Red Squad.
Yesterday, Judge Haight did not impose new restrictions on the police in the wake of the interrogations, which first came to light after the New York Civil Liberties Union received complaints from protesters. Nor did the judge decide the issue of whether the interrogations violated the protesters' constitutional rights.
But he said he would formally incorporate the recently eased rules into a judicial decree, to make clear that lawyers could return to court and seek to hold the city in contempt if they believed that a violation of the rules also violated an individual's constitutional rights.
"This approach gives the plaintiff class an increased protection warranted by recent events without unfairly burdening the N.Y.P.D.," the judge said. The ruling, he added, should not "unduly trouble the N.Y.P.D., which I will assume is not engaged in thinking up ways to violate the Constitution."
Jethro M. Eisenstein, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the judge made clear "that these rules are not window dressing."
"They're actual rules, they limit what the Police Department can do, and if the Police Department goes beyond them, they face the risk of being held in contempt," he said, adding that contempt power can result in swift fines and imprisonment. "You don't have to start a lawsuit and reinvent the wheel."
Commissioner Kelly, who said he had not read the entire ruling, noted that the judge had not altered the recent modifications for which the Police Department had petitioned, "so it allows us to go forward."
"I think significant for us, the modifications that were made stay in place," the commissioner said.
Gail Donoghue, special assistant to the
city corporation counsel, said, "The city feels that the
decision has not adversely impacted on the N.Y.P.D.'s ability
to remain proactive in the investigation and prevention of terrorism."
Handschu Agreement Revisited from James Wagner Blog
The New York Police Department has been slapped for its "operational ignorance" and its threat to constitutional rights.
Charging he had lost confidence in the NYPD's methods of investigating political activity, a federal judge yesterday restored limits on the department that he had lifted only five months ago.
[In February the judge had agreed to ease the rules restraining police surveillance and interrogation excesses out of concern about heightened threats to security. The original rules have come to be known as the Handschu agreement. Handschu was the first listed plaintiff in a 1971 lawsuit which succesfully charged that the Police Department's so-called Red Squad harassed political advocacy groups.]
Blasting the department at its highest levels, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Haight reversed his March ruling in which he had accepted the Police Department's assertion that terrorism concerns justified an easing of the restrictions.
Haight said he changed his mind after the disclosure that on Feb. 15 the police had arrested 274 people protesting the war in Iraq and questioned them about their political beliefs, entering their responses on what the department called a "demonstration debriefing" form. Remarkably, the NYPD seems to believe nothing has really changed in the guidelines they must observe. At a news conference yesterday, [Police Commissioner Ray] Kelly said that Haight's ruling would "not change any modification made by the judge ... For me, the important thing is the modification ... continues to stand."
Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union said of Kelly's statement, "I don't know what the commissioner means since the judge clearly ordered that new restrictions will be added to the court order governing the department's surveillance."
The judge's ruling did not specify what restrictions would be imposed in initiating a probe. Neither the Newsday story nor the NYTimes account leave us with any clear understanding of the impact of the judge's ruling yesterday. Yesterday, Judge Haight did not impose new restrictions on the police in the wake of the interrogations, which first came to light after the New York Civil Liberties Union received complaints from protesters. Nor did the judge decide the issue of whether the interrogations violated the protesters' constitutional rights.
But he said he would formally incorporate the recently eased rules into a judicial decree, to make clear that lawyers could return to court and seek to hold the city in contempt if they believed that a violation of the rules also violated an individual's constitutional rights. [from the Times ]
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