NEW YORK - The Manhattan district attorney's decision to throw out cases against 227 individuals who were arrested during a nonviolent anti-war march last month says volumes about what he thought of those arrests: They were bunk.
The protesters had no permit for their march, which was to go from Fulton Street in lower Manhattan to Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was under way. But they made an agreement with the police that they could walk two abreast on the sidewalk, as long as they didn't obstruct traffic. Perhaps not all the marchers heard this announcement and, when some began crossing Fulton Street against the light and walking more than two abreast, the cops swooped down within two minutes and started arresting people.
Robert Curley, a 50-year-old lawyer and his 17-year-old son, Neal, who were visiting from Philadelphia, were among those collared. They had planned to peel off from the march and go to a play, and were standing on the sidewalk when the police arrested everyone on that side of the block. They were taken to a decrepit bus depot that was used as a detention center, fingerpinted and detained for 16 hours before being released.
The DA said it was hard to tell if the defendants had deliberately defied the police orders and, given the brief duration of the march, "no useful purpose would be served" by prosecuting them. Last week the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city and the police department over the Fulton Street arrests and more than 100 arrests made the same day at Union Square, where demonstrators staged a "street party" - with marching bands and costumed characters - to prove that the city's streets belonged to the public. As they moved north, police closed in on them with orange netting, trapping not only demonstrators but pedestrians and onlookers.
Hacer Dinler, a 28-year-old dance instructor who was walking to her dance studio on the Bowery, was handcuffed and detained on the sidewalk for two hours, where she collapsed under the stress, went into convulsions and had to be taken to a hospital.
All told, about 1,800 were arrested on the streets during the convention, handcuffed, fingerprinted, detained for as long as 48 hours, moved to a variety of holding places, deprived of food and water for long periods, only to be issued desk-appearance tickets, in most cases for disorderly conduct - which doesn't even rise to the level of a crime.
Whether this treatment was the result of poor planning or actual malice, treating protesters and innocent bystanders like this is a disgrace, and unnecessary to keep the peace. Fingerprinting people in disorderly conduct cases isn't even legal unless they lack credible identification or are the subjects of outstanding warrants. The police suspended the law in these arrests.
The ham-fisted treatment of demonstrators that we saw under the Rudolph Giuliani administration - which included penning them into tight spaces, severely restricting their coming and going, and searching their bags - have eased under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a federal judge ruled last year that these tactics are illegal. But, under the guise of staving off terrorists and anarchists, the treatment of protesters has gotten tougher since Sept. 11.
To its credit, New York did a far better job of accommodating protesters than Boston - where the fenced off, razor-wired pen they were consigned to discouraged protesters from even coming out - and several huge demonstrations went off without a hitch. But the treatment of the downtown protesters on Aug. 31 amounted to police overkill. The people weren't destroying property or getting up in police officers' faces, and 48 hours in detention is a stiff punishment for group-jaywalking.
New York has always tolerated a certain amount of acting up in the name of free expression, provided it doesn't hurt anyone. The district attorney's actions are a reminder that this is a tradition worth preserving.
© 2004 Newsday, Inc.