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NYPD Policies and 2003 Anti-war Protests

Testimony of Donna Lieberman to the New York City Council Committee on Government Operations

Good afternoon. I want to thank Councilmember Perkins for his leadership in defending fundamental rights in the context of the Feb 15 demonstrations; for joining with the NYCLU and other city council members in the call for these hearings and for scheduling this initial hearing so promptly.

On February 15th, in hundreds of cities around the world, millions of people took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations against the impending war with Iraq.

In only one city were they denied the right to march – New York. Photos and videos show demonstrators around the world marching peacefully and freely in well-identified contingents. But not in New York,

  • where we have a double standard for free speech — if the city likes the message you get a parade; but if it doesn’t, you don’t. If you’re the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Israeli day parade, or the Easter Parade, you can march. But if you are a protester, you can’t.
  • where those who are able to get to the rally are herded into holding pens like animals, unable to come and go, look for friends and colleagues, or form into contingents;
  • where tens of thousands of people are barred at every turn by police from getting to a demonstration to criticize government policy;
  • where police, confronted with crowds they failed to anticipate, compensate for their own errors in judgment by attacking peaceful demonstrators with horses and pepper spray instead of allowing the overflow to spill in to the street; and
  • where people are arrested for trying to get to a rally, and are held in freezing paddy wagons, chained together and denied food, water, bathrooms, and medical treatment for hours.
      There is something wrong with this picture — very wrong.

      In this country, when there is strong disagreement with the actions of the government – actions taken in the name of the people – the people protest. Today, our president and his advisors seem intent upon going to war. This has stirred strong feelings – feelings of patriotism as well as deep opposition. There is a long, proud American tradition of “talking with our feet.” A city that claims to be a cultural and intellectual capital of the world cannot be a place where protest marches are a thing of the past.

      But the City decided that we could not march and the Courts said that was okay. And both decisions have diminished the Constitution.

      In attempting to negotiate a march past the United Nations, the police department first stalled, promising an alternative route. We agreed, at the city’s request, not to file a lawsuit. The NYPD finally put an alternative route on the table, but then withdrew it. At that point, the demonstration date was nearing and we were compelled to go to court.

      In the process of the litigation we learned, through the sworn testimony of a police department official, that the police department has had a practice, perhaps a policy, of denying permits for political demonstrations involving more than one thousand people. We also learned that a new police department regulation bans all “new demonstrations” down Fifth Avenue. The large, raucous traditional parades, known for their rowdiness and occasional violence, will continue to be permitted. But the less well-connected proponents of peace or civil rights will have to take their speech elsewhere.

      Is this a matter of public safety, or the suppression of dissent? Concerns about unspecified acts of terrorism simply cannot justify a blanket prohibition on all political marches for the indefinite future.

      The permit process was deeply flawed and, we believe, unconstitutional.

      Nonetheless hundreds of thousands of people came to NY to demonstrate for peace – and to demonstrate that they may have taken away our right to march. But the voice of dissent has not – and will not – be silenced. But notwithstanding the huge numbers, let there be no mistake, the police conduct on February 15th constituted a serious violation of the fundamental constitutional right to dissent – diminished the numbers, undermined the strength of the message, and inflicted serious harm on lawful protesters. And when peaceful protestors are treated this way it inevitably has a chilling effect on future activity.

      During the demonstration we received numerous calls from legal observers and marshals and demonstrators outside the rally site about problems with the police. We had no idea of the breadth and gravity of the problem until after the rally had ended. The NYCLU sent out an email request for reports about problems people encountered in conjunction with the demonstration. Within a few days we received over 250 written complaints, and more arrive each day. The NYCLU is only in the very early stages of collecting and analyzing complaints from participants in the February 15th demonstration. We will produce a written report in the near future that fully describes and analyzes the events of that day, and also to make available to the public some of the video and photographic material we have received from participants and observers. Today, I will simply state for the record some of the clear issues that have emerged.

      In reviewing the complaints we have received, we have identified 4 types of problems which severely undermined New Yorkers’ freedom of speech, association, and assembly:

      • First, the inability of protesters to reach the rally on First Avenue and 51st Street because of police actions.
      • Second, the numerous documented instances of abusive conduct by the police.
      • And third, the conditions at the rally itself.
      • Finally, the harsh treatment of those arrested for minor offenses and violation of their fundamental rights.

      Based on the complaints we have thus far received and on our own observations, I think it is fair to say that tens of thousands of protesters were prevented by the police from ever reaching the rally. Instead, tens of thousands of protesters were confined either to Third Avenue or Second Avenue where they were forced to walk to higher and higher streets seeking an open cross street. It appears that as early as 11 a.m., one hour before the rally was to begin, cross streets between 33rd and 63rd were closed by well-guarded police barricades. One protestor wrote:

        "I was a demonstrator trying to reach the rally site from 11am. As I walked up 2nd Avenue from 33rd Street expecting to be able to approach the rally site somewhere along my route by turning east on a cross street, I was directed by the police blocking every cross street to proceed to X street where a crossing would be allowed. "Each time I reached that cross street it had been sealed off and we were directed to the next until the stream of protesters grew to a size that could no longer be kept along the sidewalk. We filled in the avenue and eventually reach 63rd Street where we were told we would be able to cross over to First. Ave. Again we met a road block of at least 12 to 16 police.”

      This complaint was repeated over and over again:

      we along with hundreds of thousands of others, were herded and broken up, never able to reach the demonstration site.”

      From the information we have, at the time the police were physically preventing protesters from walking to First Avenue, there was still ample space at the rally site for many more people. As one participant wrote:

      When we got to First Avenue, we were horrified by what we saw. There were hardly any protesters around. We looked down towards the … stage, only to see about a tenth of the numbers we had just left. There was enough room on First Avenue to drive a double-wide, except that the police barricades, which this time were running across the avenue at every street, would have to be moved.”

      Another wrote:

      Despite rumors that it was overcrowded, First Avenue was hardly full at all.”

      The police department’s extraordinary restrictions on protesters’ movements set the stage for the second problem – excessive, and sometimes abusive, police force. As tens of thousands of protesters were forced onto Third and Second Avenues, the sidewalks became full to overflowing and people were forced into the streets. There was also extreme congestion at the intersections, where protesters congregated in an effort to move east towards First Avenue. At various times, mounted police rode into the throngs of protesters and, apparently without provocation, began to charge into the crowds. We have received numerous complaints about the actions of the mounted police. For example:

      We were in the middle of the street when five mounted police officers began yelling to move onto the sidewalks, which was clearly impossible. We could not get on the sidewalks because there was not enough room. The police officers continued to push the horses through the crowd, inciting fear and confusion.”

      A 79 year-old attorney who is a “wounded and decorated combat infantryman” and was at the demonstration with his wife and twin 5 year-old sons describes the following:

      At the southeast corner of 52d St. and 3rd Avenue, the group we were herded with came to a halt at about 1PM. I stood ON THE CURB with one of my sons in front of me and my wife and my other son next to me. 52d St. was blocked off. ….

      [A}ll of a sudden a troop of mounted police officers moved into the crowd, the horses high-stepping and moving their flanks to the side, and went through the peaceful and standing crowd, who were not blocking anything. The result was that people were pushed out of the way and falling bodies came towards me. My son and I were knocked over, I onto my back and he, fortunately, on top of me, but a woman in front of him was about to fall on him and crush him when I used my arms to deflect her to the side so that she did not injure him…I did sustain substantial injury to my arm and shoulder…but I am not writing to make a claim against the City other than to ask that the idiot who had charge of ordering those beasts into the herd of humanity which had been placed there by police officers to be identified and appropriately punished for…reckless disregard of the safety of Citizens exercising their Constitutional rights.”

      We have also received reports that police sprayed peaceful protesters with mace or pepper spray. A 65-year-old woman wrote:

      I was maced in the left eye and face by a police officer at 53rd Street and Third Avenue. We were forced by the police to march into a cul-de-sac, and the weight of the people behind us pressed the crowd against the pen, whereupon a police officer sprayed me and several other people. Another police officer refused to allow me out of the pen to get medical assistance.”

      Third, the conditions at the rally itself were unnecessarily restrictive. One protester wrote:

      Severe restrictions were made even on First Avenue. Each block was surrounded by guardrails, with the exits and entrances guarded by officers. Protesters were not allowed to move from one block to the next, and were even held at the block above the one containing the rally stage, despite plenty of room. Exits were made easy, while entrances were nearly impossible.”

      Another rally participant wrote:

      The street I settled into was jammed with people, we were stuck in pens, segregating us from the sidewalks…We waited there, some singing hymns, then suddenly, over an announcement loudspeaker, we began to hear speeches. Then suddenly, interference. We were again alone with each other, in the pens, and static coming out of the loudspeaker. Then I looked up in the sky and say not one, not two, but three helicopters hovering over us.”

      And another reported that even on First Avenue, police used snarling dogs to intimidate protesters who tried to leave an overcrowded pen. An elderly woman in a wheelchair reported:

      We were herded into pens, like cattle. The police were a nightmare. Somehow, I got to 58th and first. . . . After about 4 hours, I started to feel sick, and I had to pee as only an old diabetic woman who has had too much surgery can have to pee. I started to go home, and a nasty policewoman named Lawrence said I couldn’t go downtown. I couldn’t believe my ears. I’;ve been demonstrating since I was a young woman in 1958, but I’ve never seen anything more vulgar than what started to happen. I was sick, so I quietly started to wheel downtown, and Lawrence grabbed my wheelchair, swung me around, and broke my chair. The metal was bent, I couldn’t reach the controls, and I couldn’t move from the spot. I started to panic. Eventually, after a couple of hours, someone got an ambulance, and one of the people who came bent the broken metal part for me enough so that I could reach it. I started to leave . . . Although a few cops made me change my route, no one hurt me again. . . . One stupid cop, his face red with rage was trying to make me get on the sidewalk where there was no wheelchair ramp. He demanded me to tell him who had brought me. I told him that I had come by myself. He started to yell at me, "What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you foresee problems?" I said, "No, I thought this was America."

      Finally, others will speak in greater detail about those who were arrested, but I will make just a few observations from the numerous reports we have reviewed thus far. A number of people complained that they were arbitrarily plucked from the crowd because they had no place to go, had talked backed to the police or questioned their actions. One group was arrested and beaten with billy clubs after being sent down a block by one group of police officers only to be greeted by officers at the other end who beat them and arrested them. A young woman with a cast on her arm and leg was grabbed by the arm by a police officer. She pointed out her injuries to the arresting officer, who nonetheless, sadistically “tightly applied this handcuffs and pushed me forward as he pulled back both arms and I continued to scream.”

      Hundreds of people charged with petty offenses were held for hours into the wee hours of the following morning, some into the next evening on charges for which they could have, and should been given a summons. They were told that the fingerprint machines at 1 Police Plaza were broken, but you don’t need to print someone on a petty offense.

      I personally spoke with 2 people as they were being held in the cold police vans for 6, 8, 10 hours without food, water, toilet facilities, or medical attention. Two people reported to me personally, and others by email that they were ordered out of their van at one point around 9.15pm brought outside held together chain-gang style in 10 degree weather and kept there for an hour and a half.

      A number of arrestees also reported that they were denied access to lawyer, never read their rights and were interrogated by police without counsel.

      New York City is at a cross roads. Will we sign onto the other war – the war on civil liberties? Will we passively accept the policies of the Bush Administration that invoke the politics of fear to stifle dissent? Or will we fight the war for democracy at home?

      Thank you Councilman Bill Perkins for your strong leadership in bringing this matter to the Council’s attention. We fervently hope that the New York City Council will take the lead in scrutinizing the policies that stopped the people’s march on February 15th and in returning New York City to its proper place as a protector and center of democratic ideals. A place where people can – and do – talk with their feet.

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