NEW YORK CITY police did not distinguish between political messages and menacing behavior by protesters at this week's Republican National Convention. It was not the finest hour for the 36,000-member department, whose motto -- "Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" -- has been upheld inconsistently.
Police officials showed flexibility when dealing with protesters Saturday and Sunday. But as the convention wore on, police tactics degenerated. Demonstrators who thought they had worked out an acceptable route for a Poor People's March on Monday suddenly found themselves penned in by police. Tuesday was especially chaotic, with nearly 1,000 arrests of protesters, mostly for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, according to legal observers.
Too few demonstrators showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Boston to test how police might balance their responsibilities to protect public safety and preserve civil liberties in a period of heightened concerns about terrorism. The so-called free speech zone erected near North Station, which resembled a detention pit, was an embarrassment to the city. But protesters were free to ignore it, and they did. Many demonstrators in New York had no such option when police descended on them with orange mesh netting, ensnaring the peaceful majority along with the occasional troublemaker. The result was what Lawrence Hildes of the National Lawyers Guild calls "a ridiculous number of arrests" -- nearly 2,000 as of yesterday.
It is not just the arrests, however, that are troubling. Some police officers appeared to allow the content of protesters' speech to determine their reaction. Vegetarian activists marching along 34th Street were greeted with smiles by police. One officer cheerfully exchanged his American flag pin for a demonstrator's button. But a lone peaceful demonstrator holding a placard reading "Bush: Worst President Ever" was prevented from speaking with Republican delegates as they departed Madison Square Garden Wednesday night. The police videotaping of lawful protests, common across the city, also troubles the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has placed 150 observers along the protest routes.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, spent many hours negotiating with police officials over how they would handle protesters. She is pleased that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators had an opportunity to voice their dissent but troubled that some officers employed preemptive tactics that choke off protest.
New York police were alert for nearly every possibility this week. But they may have missed the fact that the speech of protesters on the city's streets is as worthy of protection as the political speech taking place inside Madison Square Garden.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.