After the Critical Mass ride, I suspected
it. The following day, I thought
it might just be a bike thing. But events today have made it clear: everything
we thought we knew about the NYPD’s ability to manage protest is wrong. Today,
550 arrests, bringing the total well over the 1,000 level. Here’s the New
York Times, which has not been noticeably protestor-friendly:
The turning point appeared to come as several hundred protesters with the
War Resisters League tried to begin a march up Fulton Street that organizers
had negotiated with police, although they did not have a permit. Ed Hedemann,
one of the organizers, said their understanding was that if they stayed on
the sidewalk and did not block foot traffic or vehicles, they could proceed
toward Madison Square Garden. But within minutes, the protesters were confronted
by a line of police officers who told demonstrators they were blocking the
sidewalk and would be arrested, although they did not appear to be blocking
pedestrian traffic at that point. A commanding officer, telling the crowd
of about 200 "you’re all under arrest," ordered other officers to
bring the "prison van" and the "orange netting" with which
to enmesh the protesters.
"We don’t know why we are being arrested, we were just crossing the street,"
said Lambert Rochfort, who was among the protesters. "We were told if
we don’t do anything illegal we would be allowed to march on the sidewalk
and we did just that. Then they arrested us for no apparent reason."
These are tactics we’re beginning to get used to. The orange netting –
that came out first on Friday; the police would use it to stretch across two
ends of a block, and arrest everybody in the middle. The mass arrests; the needless
antagonism; the way in which the NYPD seems determined to make sure every protestor
in the city considers them the enemy. It’s all utterly stupid, and I can’t for
the life of me work out why they’re behaving this way.
Ironically enough, the "New York City Welcomes Peaceful Political Activists"
is still up, although its rhetoric is increasingly hollow. "New York City
– a melting pot, home of the Statue of Liberty and first capital of this
nation that was founded on the basis of freedom of expression – welcomes
all peaceful visitors," it says. "There is no better place than New
York to speak one’s mind and have one’s message heard."
There’s been precious little regard for freedom of expression this week: I
think the arrest
of Josh Kinberg is probably the clearest single indication of that. At this
point, you don’t even need to be marking the sidewalks with chalk or riding
bikes more than two abreast to get arrested; merely marching on a route which
has been negotiated with the police is enough, if you don’t happen to have a
permit. And the stories
from the diesel-sludge-filled holding cell show that the NYPD is intent on making
life as miserable as possible for those they hold.
One commenter on this blog said
that after similar arrests at a Critical Mass event in Los Angeles in 2000,
eventually the LAPD had to pay out a lot of money in class action claims. They
NYPD, with its indiscriminate behaviour, has to be risking a rash of similar
lawsuits, and I can’t see what the upside is.
The downside isn’t purely financial, either: it seems pretty clear that the
one standout incident
of real violence was prompted by police aggression. Of course, anybody who beats
a police officer unconcious deserves to go to jail for an extremely long time:
there’s absolutely no excuse for such behaviour. On the other hand, any police
force in the world should be able to tell you that if you get aggressive with
a penned-in and angry crowd, violence is likely to result. In this
case, the police officer who was hurt was one of a phalanx of plain-clothes
police who rode their scooters straight into the crowd. I saw the same thing
happen on Friday: it’s scary, I can tell you.
Walking down the street today, alone, nowhere near any demonstrations, I passed
a police van. The occupants were just sitting around: one was eating a banana.
But I got some nasty-looking stares, all the same, and felt a hell of a lot
more threatened than protected by their presence. And I was looking perfectly
presentable, without a single item of protest-style clothing on.
Over the past few days, the NYPD has created a climate of fear and resentment
in New York. Of the thousand people arrested, I’d wager that fewer than 10 were
being at all violent, and that most are the kind of New Yorkers who have been
slowly coming to trust and respect their police since the low point of the Amadou
Diallo shooting. Now,
all those people, and their friends, will be mistrustful and fearful of the
police all over again. And no longer will I be able to look smugly at Seattle
or Genoa and say that New
York’s police are much better than that, a cut above, well trained and highly
The weird thing is that New York really has been very good at dealing with
protests in the past. The anti-war marches last year, the demonstrations at
the World Economic Forum in 2002 and the UN Millennium Assembly in 2000 –
all went off very smoothly. Someone high up in the NYPD – I have no idea
who, and I certainly have no idea why – has clearly made a decision that
there will be lots of arrests at the RNC this year. There will surely be debates
about whether the arrests will make the Republicans look better on national
TV; all I know for sure is that they will severely damage New Yorkers’ faith
in their own police force.