my pissant two cents

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

guantanamo on the hudson

the city of new york ought to get its checkbook handy. the fallout of the republican national convention is coming down, and it's going to get expensive.

about 1800 demonstrators were arrested during the rnc this past summer, many of whom were random passersby, uninvolved observers, and the proverbial innocent bystanders. the nypd engaged in some pretty dicey conduct, like corralling and arresting whole sidewalks full of people, locking them up in a detention facility that used to be a garage for bus repair, and keeping them in custody long after their 24-hour arraignment period had passed.

the national lawyers guild and the center for constitutional rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of 24 detainees, many of whom claim they continue to suffer ill health effects from their detention. the most common complaints are of skin disorders and respiratory problems, which the suit claims were caused by exposure to petrochemicals and asbestos in the holding pen on pier 57. worth noting is that most detainees, some of whom were held in excess of 48 hours, were arrested on very minor charges, most of which were dropped.

jonathan moore, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told the new york times it was like "little guantánamo on the hudson. all that was missing were the orange jumpsuits."

this is the latest in a series of police overreactions to mass demonstrations. the national lawyers guild, of which i am a proud member, has been at all of the major demonstrations of the past several years, including the w.t.o. in seattle '99, the philadelphia r.n.c. and los angeles d.n.c. in '00, the i.m.f. meeting in washington d.c. in '00, the f.t.a.a. meeting in miami '03, and the d.n.c. in boston and the new york r.n.c. in '04. in these and many smaller but equally significant demonstrations, in locations ranging from portland, oregon, to oakland, california, to sea island, georgia, the police reaction is almost perfectly uniform.

pre-event fearmongering (the anarchists are coming!). overwhelming, heavily armed response. pre-emptive and unlawful arrest of event organizers. mass, indiscriminate arrests of demonstrators. unprovoked threat or use of less-lethal weapons.

a word on these less-lethal weapons. i was shot by an lapd officer with a rubber slug at the democratic convention in 2000. it hurt like hell. i had a bruise that lasted for several weeks, and pain that lasted longer. i was shot while complying with a police order to vacate an area where they had improperly declared an unlawful assembly. i was non-violent, non-confrontational, and was in fact, walking away with my hands held high over my head. the indiscriminate use of these weapons, which can in fact kill (witness the college student in boston who died as a result of being hit in the eye with one while celebrating a red sox victory), clearly violates the civil rights of those who are hit or threatened with them.

and the end result of these police assaults is almost always the same: wildly expensive lawsuits. the cities that host these events end up paying through the nose for the misconduct of their police. the individual police officers and their superiors are almost never held responsible. but the taxpayer has to pony up the dough for the criminal acts of people in uniform. at a time when states, counties and municipalities are struggling to deal with budget shortfalls, this is irresponsible in the extreme.

i don't know whether this could rightly be called a conspiracy, but it should be noted that the police agencies involved in these events have been coordinating efforts, sending research teams to sites of other demonstrations and sharing intelligence. (much of this "intelligence" amounts to such grand pronouncements as "anyone wearing black is an anarchist." damn you, donna karan!)

what is not learned from these exercises in oppression is that the cost is never justified by the result. the millions of dollars these police agencies cost the taxpayer likely produce nothing more than the occasional failure to disperse, criminal mischief, or vandalism conviction. sometimes they result in no convictions at all. but with the millions of dollars available for homeland security, police are only too happy to gear up for the onslaught, even when it is competely unnecessary.

especially disheartening is the fact that there is another way to do it. many of the police in new york i spoke to were more than a little irritated that they were required to put in so many hours, with such a massive show of firepower, when there was little need for it. san francisco police, for whom demonstrations are a regular event, responded to an anti-war march of about 200,000 people in early 2003 with just a few hundred officers, none of whom was in riot gear and whose only apparent duty was to make sure nobody got run over at an intersection. from experience i can tell you that the same sort of demonstration in l.a. would have been met with phalanxes of cops, armed to the teeth in full darth vader regalia.

but will the cities and counties that have to pay for the excesses of their police force them to exercise more restraint? there's room for hope. in settling a claim by demonstrators who were shot, unprovoked, by oakland p.d. officers with wooden projectiles and other less-lethal weapons, the oakland city council adopted a comprehensive policy on crowd control and use of force that seeks to ensure demonstrators' safety and respect of their rights by police. so it can be done.

in the meantime, should you decide to express your outrage in the streets, be careful. and remember to duck.


(for more info on this topic, check out www.nlg.org, or read the assault on free speech, public assembly and dissent, by n.l.g. executive director heidi boghosian, available at www.northriverpress.com.)

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