Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004

Villager photo by Bob Arihood

Caitlin Lemmo, who wrote her arrest number on her arm, and Melissa Loayza, both 18, were arrested on Aug. 31 at a protest march they joined at the last minute after shopping for CD’s and comics in Union Sq. They were held under arrest more than two days.

Tales from Guantanamo

By Lincoln Anderson

By Lincoln Anderson

While Mayor Bloomberg has been crowing about the Police Department’s successfully heading off major disruptions by protesters during the Republican National Convention, it’s becoming increasingly clear that keeping the peace for Bush came at a price.

The other side of the story is the growing number of people now coming forward telling of unjust arrests and illegally long incarcerations at the now-infamous Pier 57 — dubbed “Guantanamo on the Hudson” — and at Central Booking, otherwise known as The Tombs.

These are people who do not identify as anarchists and who were not necessarily planning on getting arrested in protest actions, but nevertheless got caught in the police dragnet and were made to pay for it.

In some cases, these individuals were held for as long as 50 hours, well beyond the legal limit. They tell of plastic Flexcuffs that cut their circulation, leaving their hands numb; insensitive if not outright cruel officers who refused to loosen the cuffs or provide prompt medical attention to those in need; filthy, oil-covered floors at Pier 57 on which they had to sleep; and stale and moldy food — “green bologna” sandwiches and moldy soy for vegetarians — they were served.

The Villager spoke to five people who were among the more than 1,800 arrested in connection with the convention. All five contend that at the time of their arrest they were doing nothing illegal and certainly nothing justifying being held so long. While their experiences and individual reactions may have differed somewhat, they all agree on one thing: It was hell.

Three 18-year-old friends from Queens, Melissa Loayza, Caitlin Lemmo and Danielle Walsh, ended up being detained about 50 hours, half of that time at Pier 57 and half at Central Booking. The three had come to Union Sq. on Friday afternoon to check out manga at Forbidden Planet and CD’s at the Virgin Records megastore. Later, while sitting on a bench in the park, they heard an upbeat protest march gathering nearby and went to take a look.

They had been planning to attend Thursday’s protest, sponsored by ANSWER, in the designated protest area on Eighth Ave. south of 30th St., but decided they would walk along with the protesters leaving from Union Sq. on Tuesday, who were heading for Madison Sq. Garden, the convention site. However, as opposed to the ANSWER rally, the city had not issued a permit for this march. Tuesday was the day the A 31 Action Coalition had called for direct action, or civil disobedience, protests in the streets.

“We just saw this street party and we decided to join in,” said Loayza, who was not exactly dressed in proper protest attire, wearing pumps with 2 1/2 –inch heels, a skirt and tank top. “We walked up to 16th St. and the police told us to turn around and walk the other way, and then we saw the street was blocked at the other end: They were trying to corral us.”

“All of a sudden you hear ‘Get on the sidewalk,’ and we were already on the sidewalk,” recalled Walsh. “Now we’re squished and the police are like, ‘You’re all under arrest.’ There were three rows of cops — and then we were netted with orange netting.”

The march was being led by a band, and Loayza said the police made a point of arresting people playing instruments. There was intense scuffling between police and some of the protesters.

“A girl gave a cop a look and he took her by the hair and threw her into the street,” Loayza said. “Later on, I saw and heard pepper spray. They either sprayed it at someone or just to scare people. Other people told me that they saw the can — it was pretty long.”

The protesters were Flexcuffed and an arresting officer was assigned for every five protesters. Their belongings were taken from them and put in plastic bags, after which the marchers were taken to Pier 57 on the Chelsea waterfront.

At the pier, they were put into large, makeshift pens topped by barbed wire. Each pen had portable toilets outside, and there were hourly bathroom breaks. There were a few benches in each cell, but not enough.

“That was horrible,” Loayza said. “You could see all the dirt [on the floor] and there were two Port-a-potties for 80 women. And our bodies got really dirty. I didn’t want to sleep on the floor because it was so dirty.”

Lemmo, a graduate of City-as-School on Clarkson St., luckily was wearing pants. She tried to sleep as much as possible, though she put a bandana by her face in case she rolled over onto the oily floor.

Walsh, who was wearing a skirt and is an admitted clean freak, didn’t sleep at all because she was too grossed out by the conditions.

Among people arrested on 16th St. with them were some who weren’t involved in the march at all, including a German tourist and a young woman who was going to the movies, Loayza said.

One of the worst experiences was being taken in a Corrections bus down to Central Booking, when officers put the Flexcuffs back on, this time painfully tight. Loayza said she was also put in a seat on the bus that was glassed in, causing her to faint from lack of air. Only when other arrestees on the bus yelled did officers respond and let her out.

Added Lemmo, “My cuffs were pretty tight after the arrest, but they got tighter at Corrections. My wrists were purple.”

“My fingertips turned blue. I told them it was cutting off my circulation and the officers just laughed,” said Walsh.

Villager photo by Bob Arihood

Arrests at Aug. 31 War Resisters League march on Fulton St.
Once at Central Booking, they had their mug shots taken and were electronically fingerprinted and moved from cell to cell, up to six or seven times. At this point, they were mixed in with the general prison population. Loayza said in her cell there was a woman arrested for fighting and another for petit larceny. She and her cellmates asked for blankets or something to sleep on, and got nothing, though she heard people in other cells were given thin floor mats.

Officers were slow to respond to any sort of medical condition, the women said.

“There was this girl who had one-day contacts on, but it was two days,” Loayza said. “Her eyes got swollen shut. We asked for help, and they said they’d call E.M.S. — but they never came.”

As at Pier 57, at one point in the cell with her was a woman mistakenly arrested with the protesters. She had been arrested with the War Resisters League, which had tried to lead an unpermitted march from the World Trade Center to the Garden on Tuesday where they planned to hold a die-in. The woman had just gotten off the subway and was visiting the World Trade Center.

“I think she was from Philadelphia,” Loayza said. “She was saying, ‘I’m going to sue them — my father is part of the Justice Department.’ ”

Lemmo tried to put on a brave face.

“Only one cell had cockroaches,” she said of her experience at The Tombs. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to get through this.’ ”

After a judge ruled that the city would be held in contempt for holding the protesters over 24 hours without arraigning them, and subject to a $1,000 fine for each protester held over the limit, the city finally released them on Thursday. The young women got out between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. It was late and they were tired and dirty, so rather than go to the protest march, they went home, took long showers and tried to recover from their ordeal. That was the mayor’s goal, they believe, keeping them under arrest long enough that they would not be able to join the protests.

Walsh is particularly bitter about her experience and is looking forward to possibly being a part of a class action lawsuit and possibly filing an individual lawsuit against the city.

“America, land of the free — this is not land of the free, because I can’t walk down the block,” she said. “This is worse than the death of my father. This is the most horrible experience I’ve had in my life.”

Concerns have also been raised about asbestos exposure on the pier.

“I can’t believe I had to send my clothes for asbestos decontamination,” said Walsh

Like the march on 16th St., the War Resisters League marchers were also swept up in an orange net in a mass arrest, in this case at Fulton St. near the W.T.C. However, as opposed to the march near Union Sq., which was largely made up of young people, the War Resisters League march included many middle-aged persons as well as senior citizens.

Simon Harak of W.R.L. said that they didn’t get a permit for the march because they didn’t feel one was needed.

“We felt that we had the right to free assembly and free speech, that it’s given to us in the Constitution,” he said. “Why should we have to apply for it?”

They had planned to march two by two, but the march got crowded at the front due to the presence of 40-50 members of the press as well as legal observers, he said.

“Then they blocked off the front and then a [police officer] in a white shirt comes in screaming ‘Seal off the block! Seal off the block!’ ”

Harak and others identified the chief as Monahan, saying he made the call to arrest everyone and net them.

“I never heard why I was under arrest,” Harak said. They then sat there two hours in Flexcuffs before police took them to Pier 57.

“One of the guys I was arrested with was 77 years old,” Harak noted.

Jim Flynn, a special education teacher at Humanities High School in Chelsea and a journalist who was photographing the event for a project on the R.N.C. and was arrested, said the W.R.L. crowd was a civil group.

“We had grandmothers there. We had kids. We had a priest,” he said.

The marchers had planned to block traffic by holding a die-in as close to the convention as possible, but assured it would be nonviolent. Harak said they were doing nothing illegal at the time to justify the arrests.

“They cannot arrest us on intent — that’s a police state,” Harak said. “We had announced [the die-in], but they didn’t know which one of us was going to violate the law.”

Flynn said that before they were arrested, the marchers had chanted “Let us disperse! Let us disperse!” At the pier, he said, there was another chant, this time a version of the Queen refrain: “We will, we will — sue you!”

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said the arrests of the marches represent a disturbing, new trend, likening it to the movie “Minority Report.” In the movie, psychics foresee crimes before they are committed and police then make preemptive arrests of the suspects.

“In ‘Minority Report’ the government has the capacity to arrest you for thinking of breaking the law,” Siegel said. “Up to this point in America you get arrested for the conduct, not the thinking or the advocacy of the act.”

Siegel said city lawyers in defending the arrests will likely argue either one of two things: that the protesters were marching without a permit or, more likely, that they were blocking pedestrian traffic.

However, he said, “It basically is a preemptive arrest.” In addition, he said, “The problem with the net is it sweeps in innocent bystanders.”

Siegel added that if preemptive arrests were used in the past, other famed American acts of civil disobedience would never have occurred: the Boston Tea Party would have been arrested before they ever dumped the tea in Boston Harbor and the civil rights activists who sat down at a whites-only counter in Greensboro in the 1960s would have been arrested before they got through the door.

In New York State, one must be arraigned on charges within 24 hours. However, the city has said the protesters were held so long because the system was overwhelmed by the number of arrests. According to Siegel, being given a desk appearance ticket, which is what 81 percent of the 1,821 arrests likely received — since 81 percent were for disorderly conduct — usually takes from two to six hours.

“[The city] was telling everyone they were prepared for 1,000 [arrests] a day,” Siegel said. “But even on days when there were very little arrests, they still held them a long time. The bike people on Friday night, on Ninth St. at Second Ave., some of them were in there for 24 hours — and there were only 200 arrests that night. It leads to the strong possibility that this was by design, that they did it on purpose to hold them until Bush left, or so they were too tired to go protest.”

Siegel noted there was only one day when the city reached the 1,000 arrest mark in connection with the protests: Aug. 31, when 1,200 people were arrested in four hours.

Siegel said potential lawsuits filed over the arrests will likely charge false arrest and violation of civil rights.

Asked for the reason for the arrests in connection with these two marches on Aug. 31 — the War Resisters League march and the march that was departing from 16th St. — a police spokesperson, Officer Christopher Filipazzo issued the following statement: “The public was informed well before the R.N.C. started that anyone breaking the law would be arrested. Protesters were informed before each demo that anyone who broke the law would be arrested. 24.20, Disorderly Conduct, Subs. 5 and 6: A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he disturbs vehicular or pedestrian traffic or he congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order by police to disperse.”

Siegel said that the judge on the contempt case, on which Siegel has been one of the lead attorneys representing the detained protesters, should hold a hearing in the next two weeks, at which time it will be determined how many protesters were held past the 5 p.m. deadline the judge set for Thursday. Siegel figures up to 500 protesters were held past the deadline and that it will be a six-figure fine.

“I had asked the judge to fine the city $1,000 per minute, but he declined,” Siegel noted. Siegel also hopes that the judge will authorize a hearing so that the arrests and detention process can be reconstructed.

Zack Winestine, a Greenwich Village community activist, had the good fortune of being on many of the marches and protest actions that resulted in arrest, yet somehow evaded the nets. As well as the United for Peace and Justice march, he participated in the Critical Mass bike ride on Friday night, the W.R.L. march and the Poor People’s March from the United Nations to the Garden.

Winestine said he thought police handled the massive U.F.P.J. march quite well, but was troubled by the nettings of the unpermitted marches.

“I think the police are trying to send a message — ‘We control the streets,’ ” he said of the preemptive tactics.

Winestine was among the group of about 5,000 at the final protest march of the convention on Thursday night as Bush was giving his speech. The march — which had the exhilarating feeling of a triumph — did not have a permit, but police nonetheless let it proceed from Union Sq., where there had been a candlelight vigil, up the street on Eighth Ave. to the protest area. On the way through Chelsea, residents hung out of windows and cheered. Police had made an agreement with the protesters, but not everyone was convinced it would hold.

“I was a little nervous crossing 15th St., because I thought that’s where the cops were going to shut it down,” said Winestine. “But it was a nice finale. Good spirit, good energy.” It was a joy to march freely, he said.

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