'Largest in US History': NYC to Pay $18 Million for Mass Arrests at RNC

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Common Dreams

'Largest in US History': NYC to Pay $18 Million for Mass Arrests at RNC

Deal brings 'positive closure but not justice,' says one plaintiff arrested during 2004 National Republican Convention

by
Sarah Lazare, staff writer

It is reportedly the largest civil rights settlement for mass arrests in U.S. history.

Yet, some say the city of New York's agreement to pay $18 million to settle civil rights litigation from hundreds of protesters, journalists, and bystanders at the 2004 Republican National Convention is bittersweet.

"This settlement is not justice, but it is positive closure," Zachary Miller, who attended the RNC protests as a journalist with the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Independent Media Center and was held for 23 hours after being swept up in a mass arrest, told Common Dreams.

"Settlements are symbolic and will never curb repression," said Barucha Peller, who was also arrested at the protests.

The city's settlement for the mass arrest and detention of protesters, journalists, and bystanders was announced Wednesday and comes after years of litigation in which the city spent $16 million dollars of taxpayer money defending itself, according to a joint statement by the plaintiffs' lawyers.

While the settlement does not assign wrongdoing to the NYPD, it grants the payment of $10.4 million to individual plaintiffs and 1,200 members of a class action and $7.6 million to attorneys.

Yet, according to a joint statement by the plaintiffs' attorneys, "some of the most egregious cases" that involved "lasting injury" are not yet resolved.

Hundreds of those arrested were held in a former bus depot on a Hudson River pier, where they faced dirty cells and poor air quality, with many held far longer than the city's legally-mandated limit of 24 hours between arrest and arraignment. Some immediately went to the hospital upon release, due to asthma and rashes caused by poor conditions.

The bulk of the 1,800 people detained were held on charges of disorderly conduct or parading without a permit, and most soon had their charges dropped.

The police crackdown was coordinated on the city, state, and national levels and aided by federal assistance and participation from the FBI, ICE, Secret Service, the military, and undercover police.

Zoe Ginsburg, who was arrested at the protest but settled separately, told Common Dreams, "At first I heard it was the biggest settlement in protest history, which I was stoked about. But when you look at how much compensation New York City got from the federal government for its policing tactics, you realize the city didn't lose money — it made money. I am glad for my friends that it is done and they can move on, but I don't think it's justice."

The RNC protest came the year following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an era of mass protest and escalating law enforcement repression coordinated nationally, including spying, infiltration, and violent crackdown on demonstrations.

"After the RNC and the extreme police violence at the FTAA protests in Miami in 2003, big protests went down a lot," said Ginsburg. "It was a way to burn people out on that kind of activism."

"I've spent the last decade afraid to speak out with large groups," said Miller.

"The summary judgement declaring that group probable cause does not exist and the real financial consequences for our treatment by the NYPD have finally begun to restore my belief that protesters have civil rights," he added, referring to details of the ruling.

“While no amount of money can undo the damage inflicted by the NYPD’s actions during the Convention, we hope and expect that this enormous settlement will help assure that what happened in 2004 will not happen again," said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel in the NYCLU cases.

In a city infamous for its heavy-handed policing tactics, including so called stop-and-frisk policies with proven racial bias, many say that the problems with the NYPD extend far beyond the actions the city settled over.

"What we experienced for two days is nothing compared to what poor people experience every day at the hands of the New York Police Department," Peller told Common Dreams.

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