NEW YORK -- His hair so long a police officer called him "Jesus," Sebastian Licht said he set out Tuesday to celebrate his 22nd birthday, only to be swept up in one of the largest mass arrests in the nation's history.
He emerged two days later from court _ smelly, bleeding and determined to become the activist he says police feared he was.
One of more than 1,700 people arrested this week at demonstrations aimed at the Republican National Convention, Licht gained his freedom on Thursday morning. A judge, frustrated at the city's pace in moving protesters through the criminal justice system, ordered the immediate release of nearly 500 of them.
Matt Hoegemann, from Stamford , Conn., show grime and dirt on his clothes as he stands in front of central booking after his release in New York, Thursday Sept. 2, 2004. Hoegemann say he was arrested last Tuesday during an anti-President Bush protest. A Manhattan judge on Thursday ordered the immediate release of nearly 500 anti-GOP protesters, including some who had spent almost three days in jail after their arrests at demonstrations against President Bush. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Most of those arrested were anti-GOP protesters, but some insist they got snared in the chaos. Licht puts himself in the latter category.
Wearing a Polo Sport Ralph Lauren shirt and khaki shorts, Licht described his 6 p.m. arrest Tuesday in Herald Square, where he said he approached a subway station that he learned was closed only to be caught in a police sweep of the area.
"Because I have long hair and a beard, they took me," he said.
He recalled spotting another young man at the same time step outside his apartment building and get arrested even as he tried to explain that he too was not part of any rally.
Blood seeped from a small cut on his wrist, where he said his handcuffs were tightened after a police officer saw him laughing. "What's so funny, Jesus?" he recalled the officer asking.
He said that after tightening the cuffs, the officer added, "It's not so funny now, is it, Jesus?"
Now free, he said he planned to look for a protest rally, inspired by his experience and the many political discussions he heard while waiting with protesters to appear in court and be released. He called it the "birth of my activism."
Among more seasoned activists emerging from court was Mikel Stone, 29, of Denver, who described his time at Pier 57 as a nightmare, part of the same two-day odyssey experienced by Licht. "My throat still hurts and my joints are achy," he said.
He blamed a thick black oily residue on the floor of Pier 57 for his stained pants.
"I feel I've definitely done the time," he said of the two days he was locked up after he was caught in a police net arrest at Herald Square on Tuesday.
A political science student and anti-war activist, Stone said he believed harsh detention conditions were part of an effort by the city to be "cruel and demoralizing."
Still, he said he planned to protest Thursday night.
Tim Kulik, 22, a photography student at the Rochester Institute of Technology who was transporting film for photographers at The Associated Press when he was arrested late Tuesday on his bicycle, was freed Thursday after 35 hours.
He said he was scraped on his face and bruised on his leg and neck when a police officer tackled him before other officers completed the arrest. The officer who tackled him later made his handcuffs tighter when he asked that they be loosened, he said.
"As far as police, they're good, pretty objective and professional, but then I encountered plenty of disrespectful police who abuse their positions," he said.
Even though they were detained, some protesters were "very celebratory," Kulik said. "So many of those people live by protesting. That's their excitement in life. They knew numbers were huge and it was record breaking."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said police officers acted with restraint. In a statement Thursday, he said there had been "exaggerated claims and outright falsehoods" about the conditions at the post-arrest screening site at Pier 57 at West 15th Street.
He said most of the detainees are held there for 90 minutes, none was there longer than eight hours and all had immediate access to toilet facilities and drinking water.
Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who led Thursday's court fight to get the detainees freed, said the long detentions were illegal, especially since the time in overcrowded, dirty conditions was disproportionate to the alleged misdemeanor crimes, such as disorderly conduct.
"People engaged in real crimes are getting out quicker than the protesters," he said. "It's an Alice in Wonderland approach."
Outside court, dozens of freed protesters gathered across the street, waiting for their friends and chanting, "Let them go!"
© 2004 Copyright Associated Press