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Tuesday, August 31 – The day protesters had designated as "direct action" day certainly lived up to its billing, but not as they had planned. As the second day of Republican convention speeches dragged on a few blocks away at Madison Square Garden, an extremely aggressive New York Police Department pre-empted protest actions, trapped marchers in no-escape cul de sacs, and surrounded groups and individuals in orange netting as though they were capturing schools of fish. Police arrested hundreds (the New York Times reports at least 900), perhaps more than 1,000. Most of the arrested were young people who were merely exercizing their right to free and peaceful assembly.
Early police skirmishes broke out on the steps of the Public Library at 42nd street and 5th Avenue at around 5:45 PM. This spread to Herald Square in front of Macy's, to Union Square and to areas around Madison Square Park near 26th Street and Park Avenue. In some cases, cops arrested large numbers, while in other cases they kept protestors hemmed in, immobile, for hours. Sometimes dispersal warnings were given; often the police didn't bother before pulling out the handcuffs.
Starting at about 6 PM, the area of mid-Manhattan from 42nd Street to 14th Street was transformed into a wild zone of racing motorcades of cops in all manner of vehicles – bicycles, scooters, vans, big black Ford Crown Victorias for carting the top brass, and huge Black Chevy Suburbans with tinted windows. There were also separate squads of plain-clothes bicyclists and scooter riders.
Protesters, Republican delegates, and New Yorkers alike had to deal with the throbbing sounds of hovering helicopters, a constant cacophony of sirens, and grid-locked traffic as vehicle hordes roared up and down the streets, rushing from spot to spot in a real-life version of a high-action video game.
Protestors tried to move too, but they were on foot and often trapped behind police lines. More often than not, the demonstraters were overwhelmed by the sheer number of police surrounding them. One New Yorker, an older woman who was walking by hundreds of police lined up along 42nd Street outside Bryant Park, commented at the sight of cops outnumbering the protesters by perhaps 2-1: "I can't believe they are spending so much taxpayer money on this."
Earlier in the day at a press conference at Union Square, symbolically in front of a Gandhi statue, protest leaders spoke of their desire to use non-violent civil disobedience to strongly protest a Bush administration they feel has an agenda of "greed at home and war and empire building abroad." Their grievances were many and comprehensive as Raenne Young, a Mills College Student explained: "Our actions will spotlight symbols of the callous disregard by this administration for the lives of Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, for the ecology of the planet and for the poor of the country." And the protest leaders had reason to believe that New York residents were behind them, as 68% approved of non-violent civil disobedience, while 70% disapproved of Bush, in a recent poll.
But clearly this had no effect on the NYPD's tactics for dealing with the protesters.
The NYPD strategy on Tuesday is analogous to the recent Iraq war's display of overwhelming and sometimes unnecessary force on a largely peaceful populace. By all accounts, police action on Tuesday was intent on trying to stop protests before they began. They broke up gatherings of people on the street without cause, often making a bunch of arbitrary arrests, perhaps intended to scare the more timid demonstrators off the streets. And police drove away the remaining crowds by physically pushing them down streets, along with threats of arrest for those who wouldn't budge.
This approach to law enforcement was in evidence early on in the day, as a group of veteran pacifists and protesters from The War Resisters League and School of Americas Watch attempted to march a distance of three miles at around 4 pm from Ground Zero, the scene of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, to Madison Square Garden, where they planned to conduct a symbolic "die in." The march was stopped before it started, as police arrested 200 people near Ground Zero.
At around 5:45PM there was a gentle crowd on the front steps of the Public Library, checking out the eclectic array of banners with messages relating to topics from ecology to Che Guevera. Nothing too wild was going on. But then out of the blue, a group of cops jumped on several protestors with no warning of their advance and mayhem erupted. Here the cops were true bullies. They threw an elderly man to the ground and handcuffed him, arresting perhaps 10 people overall. Dozens of police reinforcements arrived and continued to rough up the crowd, with some of the cops using their bicycles as body shields. The cops cleared the Library steps and then threatened to arrest anyone who remained on the sidewalk by the library for disorderly conduct. The relatively small group of several hundred protestors and onlookers was then pushed down 42nd Street, where a convoy of police coming from the other direction trapped a bunch of them and arrested at least a dozen more.
The pattern of pushing protestors in a specific direction and trapping them was repeated on a number of occasions; one example was a group of young people who were walking down 17th Street from Union Square toward Fifth Avenue, when they were trapped by police at the other end. "The whole group of more than 30 stood silently with their hands in the peace sign. This was one of the saddest arrest scenes," said Beka Econopoulos a protest observer and organizer for United for Peace and Justice. "They were just standing there so quietly."
The police on some occasions did not restrain themselves from committing senseless violence as well. Alison Ramer, a student activist, who starts school today at Leslie College, said she was marching down Park Avenue from 36th to 26th streets at around 8 pm with a group of close to 200 students. According to Ramer, "Some of the kids knocked down some of the orange cones, but we were generally peaceful. Suddenly about 300 cops charged us, much more than the number of people in the march, and I was whacked hard in the back with a police club. I started crying as I huddled in a doorway. People were being arrested all around me. I think about 55, all students. A cop pulled me out and asked me if I was all right, which ended up with my avoiding getting arrested." Ramer added that another two people were hurt and taken away by an ambulance, and that she had a big welt across her back from the clubbing.
The skirmishes continued into the night, as large numbers of police assembled at Union Square around 10 pm, while marchers made protest runs toward Madison Square Garden.
Some activists were worried about adverse publicity from the direct action protests. It is too early to tell whether there will be extensive negative coverage, especially with the evening being dominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech, along with that of the First Lady. Early TV reports mentioned "how brave the cops were in the face of some bottle throwing," and there were reports of a trash fire or two.
In a city the size of New York, where a few murders a day are commonplace, such minor vandalism can't possibly justify the millions of dollars spent to keep protestors at bay. And it is hard to imagine that some of the cops and top brass don't realize how ridiculous it is to use overwhelming presence and firepower on a bunch of scruffy, backpacked kids. The protesters weren't the type to instigate the mayhem that police had prepared themselves for.
Ironically, the protesters and the NYPD may have both gotten something they wanted out of the protests – numbers. The NYPD seemed intent on some big arrest totals to show what a good job they were doing keeping the delegates safe. Meanwhile the protesters could be happy with big numbers as well, which demonstrated how deep their anger with Bush administration policies runs – evidenced by the many people willing to spend a night in the apparently dreadful conditions on an old pier, which has been jokingly referred to as "Guantanamo lite."
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.