Arrest-happy cops on the prowl

Karen Agugliaro and her two friends, Cynthia and Cliff, were standing on the curb on Manhattan’s West 34th Street, near Broadway, on a balmy Tuesday evening, the second day of the Republican National Convention, when a spontaneous protest erupted on the sidewalk beside them.

A group of about 30 people converged on the corner singing “these streets are our streets.”

The three passers-by, who had no intention of getting themselves arrested, dutifully obeyed the cops when police officers ordered the crowd to stand by the wall on the side of the sidewalk if they didn’t want to get arrested.”

“We said OK,” Agugliaro recalled; the three friends heeded the cops’ warning, moving aside. To her surprise, when she looked back at her two companions a moment later, they were both being arrested.”There were my two friends, who were co-operative and polite, caught up in handcuffs.”

The police placed metal fences around everybody on the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and West 34th, informing them they were being arrested for “disturbing the peace”. I saw a cop running after two passer-bys who tried to escape; one man in an orange Buddhist robe managed to flee, though not before the cop gave him a shove, and I watched another man narrowly dodge out of reach of another police officer’s grasp and sprint away to the freedom of Fifth Avenue, with a petrified expression on his face.

Agugliaro was enraged, and baffled. The reason for arresting the people chanting on the street may have been obscure, but the way her friends were being carted off in a paddy wagon was plain nonsensical.

Similar situations seemed to be popping up every way I turned in Manhattan that day.

That afternoon, I had witnessed police conduct mass arrests at a peaceful march commemorating the casualties of war and terror. The procession, organized by the War Resisters League and School of the Americas Watch, had not even advanced a block from its departing point at ground zero when the police rounded up and arrested 80 people.

The arrestees had been walking in rows of two on the sidewalk, like a procession of remarkably obedient school-children on a class trip to a museum–exactly as they had been instructed to do by the cops. The first people to begin marching, they had not even walked a block when they were fenced in and surrounded by over a hundred police officers, cruisers, vans and buses on the corner of Church and Fulton Streets.

Eric DeCompte, the Outreach Co-ordinator of School of the Americas Watch, stood with the remaining demonstrators on the other side of Church St., hands on his toddler’s stroller, and calmly led a chorus singing for peace, as the orderly lines of marchers were informed that they were being arrested for “obstructing governmental administrations.”

I heard the guy standing beside me, a kid in his early 20s named Alex, wonder aloud: “the cops just seem confused.”

He was not referring only to the scene unfolding in front of us at the ground zero site; he was making a general observation on the cops’ manner of handling the anti-convention demos over the past days. Despite the abundant police and intelligence forces present in the city, the authorities’ seemed to lack a basic capacity to draw simple cognitive distinctions–for instance, between protestor and unaffiliated pedestrian, between a veritable threat to the peace and a procession marching so obediently in double file that it attracted jeers from the young anarchist punks it passed.

This week, in an article praising the “police restraint” at the August 29 march organized by United for Peace and Justice, The New York Times reported an incident in which two deli customers making their way home with take-out food were handcuffed by police. The cops were conducting a round-up of protestors on bicycles in the vicinity of the Sunday march, and the two take-out customers, who unluckily happened to have arrived at the deli on bicycles, were caught up in a wave of arrests. One of those arrestees, Alexander Pincus, stated to the Times, “We were like, ‘Look at the food. It’s still warm. They wouldn’t listen to anything we said.” However, beneath the apparent confusion, it’s clear that there is a kind of logic in the police tactics for dealing with the demonstrators: arrest as many as possible, and stop protests before they even begin.

This strategy was apparent last Friday, when cops began doing mass arrests at the Critical Mass bike ride through Manhattan. The ride is a monthly event, in which the New York Police Department has historically played a supportive role by helping to block traffic to clear the road for the cyclists. On the eve of the Republicans’ arrival in NYC, the ride garnered unprecedented numbers; organizers estimate that 5000 cyclists participated, and the cops responded by arresting 264 people.

One cyclist from Rochester recalled the way the event turned from a peaceful ride to a tense scene of mass arrests: “They had undercover cops on scooters driving through bikers; they put up netting on one street, basically caging us in like animals.”

He noted police intimidation tactics began before the ride; “The cops had been sending out these very intimidating letters to bicycle groups warning them not to go on the ride.” At the time of writing, on September 1, Democracy Now is reporting an estimated 1500 arrests since the beginning of the weekend. Those arrested are now being held at the processing centre at Pier 57. According to recent reports posted on Indymedia, there are between 1000-2000 people inside, and multiple reports of oil and chemical residue on the floor. Also, one caller reported dehydration, verbal abuse from guards, and complained of having no room to sit down. People are being held without charges and without having been read their rights.

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