Cindy Fiore came to New York on Aug. 31 to see her daughter, go shopping and protest the president during the Republican convention. She got home to Connecticut 36 hours later, dirty, hungry, sore, fingerprinted and, she says, angry "on every level."
Fiore, 46, was one of 1,806 people arrested here during the four-day gathering last summer. Police used orange netting, plastic handcuffs and city buses to handle the crowd. When Fiore was arrested, she was part of a group chanting slogans against President Bush on the sidewalk across from Macy's. According to police, she resisted arrest, obstructed governmental administration and committed disorderly conduct.
But Fiore says she did nothing other than exercise her right to free speech and has challenged the city to prove otherwise in court. So have nearly 200 other protesters whose cases are making their way through the courts five months later.
Despite the sweeping arrests, more than three-quarters of the people arrested during the convention had their cases dismissed outright or dropped in exchange for a promise to behave for six months. Fewer than 10% have pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor or violation. And out of 28 trials, 10 protesters have been convicted.
The handful of convictions and large number of dismissals are seen by protesters and their advocates as evidence that police wanted to take demonstrators off the streets and intimidate potential participants into staying home.
"The police overarrested," says Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. The arrests "were the product of bad policing that was prompted at least in part by the post-9/11 national security rationale. Some of that is legitimate. ... But when law enforcement conflates lawful protest with a national security threat, we as a democracy are in deep trouble."
Similar scenes - a heavy police presence meeting vigorous protests followed by arrests - occurred at other high-security events, such as an anti-war march at the United Nations in 2003, the Group of Eight economic summit meeting in coastal Georgia in June and the presidential inauguration in Washington last month.
Bill Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, which organized the largest protest during the Republican convention, says the possibility of arrest discourages people from attending protests. The group is planning a nuclear disarmament demonstration in New York on May 1.
Mass arrests "do discourage people, they scare the dickens out of people," Dobbs says. "You can spend days, weeks, months dealing with court cases. And I'm sure there are people who are too scared to get near a protest because of it."
Before the convention, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said he expected 1,000 arrests. More than 10,000 police officers were on the streets surrounding Madison Square Garden, the convention site. Security cost about $50 million.
Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York Police Department, says the large number of cases dismissed is due to the inability to prosecute successfully, not the legitimacy of the arrests. "There's a difference," he says. "We did make quality arrests, and we were very careful about it." The Manhattan district attorney's office declined to comment.
Joseph Alcoff, 23, a student at DePaul University in Chicago who was arrested during the convention, called the mass arrests "a concerted effort by the city to make it very difficult along the way, to scare people." Last month, Alcoff walked out of a Manhattan courtroom with a pledge to behave and a day of community service to perform.
Most protest cases ended with an "adjournment in contemplation of dismissal," which means charges are dropped after six months of good behavior. Cullen Nawalkowsky, 28, was offered that and said no. "I wanted to see it through and have (prosecutors) admit, in one way or another, that they could not prove I was guilty."
They couldn't: Last month, at his fourth court appearance, his case was dismissed by the judge because Nawalkowsky had not received a trial within the required 90 days for a misdemeanor.
That, Nawalkowsky says, was "a clearer sign than them saying, 'You be good, and we'll let you go this time.' "
On the same morning, Fiore took another day off work for her fifth court appearance. An assistant Manhattan district attorney offered to let her off with time already served in the city lockup, almost 24 hours. She said no. "I don't want those charges on my record," Fiore says. "I would be guilty, and I would have those charges on my record forever."
But the trial could not proceed. The police officer who had arrested Fiore had the day off and wasn't there to testify. The judge told Fiore to come back this week.
In October, the Manhattan district attorney dismissed the cases of 227 people also arrested Aug. 31 in an anti-war protest near the site of the World Trade Center.
"That's an indication of how bad the arrests really were and how indefensible they were," says Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It's great that the cases were dismissed, but people still spent 24, 48 and even more hours in jail for protesting lawfully."
Suits could cost the city
The convention-related arrests have resulted in lawsuits that could cost the city money and change how police handle future cases:
- The New York Civil Liberties Union filed two wrongful-arrest lawsuits in federal court on behalf of protesters. The group is also challenging why the police fingerprinted nearly 1,500 protesters. Fingerprints are not supposed to be taken for misdemeanors. As a result, the city destroyed 1,481 sets of fingerprints taken during the convention.
- The Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based legal advocacy group, is seeking class-action status on behalf of all those arrested. The lawsuit charges police with illegal arrests and holding demonstrators in unsafe conditions. The city used a former bus garage on a riverfront pier to hold those arrested.
The city may be held in contempt of court for holding protesters more than 24 hours, and as long as 66 hours, despite a judge's order to release them. As many as 560 protesters remained in jail after the judge's order. The city could be fined more than $500,000.
On Jan. 25 in Washington, a judge ordered the police chief to apologize to seven plaintiffs for wrongful arrests during a mass protest in 2002 against the World Bank. The court ruled that police are required to clearly order a crowd to disperse before making arrests and provide phones for calls.
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