Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004

Chelsea Piers security tight during R.N.C.— was it legal?

By Ronda Kaysen

Matthew Grace, a freelance journalist in search of a compelling Republican National Convention story, thought he had found the perfect shot: a flock of luxury cruise liners moored between Piers 61 and 62, surrounded by a small flotilla of Coast Guard skimmers mounted with machine gun artillery. He pulled out his camera and quickly fired off several rounds.

But Grace was not the only one keeping a watchful eye on the waterfront. As he walked away from the pier with his camera and New York Police Department press pass clearly displayed on a chain hanging from his neck, several Chelsea Piers security guards surrounded him. A security guard who identified himself as Vlad — he declined to give his last name, Grace said — requested Grace’s camera. When Grace refused to hand over his equipment, according to Grace, Vlad called the Secret Service for backup.

“They shouldn’t have stopped me, but they did and that shouldn’t have happened,” said Grace who has written for the New York Observer and the New York Press. “They have the right to call the police, they have the right to kick me out of there, but the issue of trying to look at my pictures, absolutely not.”

Although Grace was not told he was obligated to stay, it was clear to him that he was not free to go. “They didn’t really have the power to detain me, but by de facto they did. We both knew that if I resisted I could get in trouble with the real authority,” said Grace. “It was quite obvious that they would stop me if I tried to get away. The security guards were very large. It was an unspoken ‘You better not leave.’ ”

Grace may very well have been correct in his assumption. Vice President Dick Cheney was attending an event that evening at Chelsea Piers and the Secret Service and Chelsea Piers security was on high alert.

During the week of the R.N.C., New York City transformed itself into a fortress manned by Secret Service details, rooftop snipers and N.Y.P.D. officers armed with paddy wagons, plastic handcuffs and police netting. While protestors staged a week of sustained — and often heated — protests, an army of private and government law enforcement officials staged a full-scale operation of its own, one that has civil liberties groups calling foul.

In the midst of the frenetic week, with the vice president on its grounds, Chelsea Piers security followed the orders of the Secret Service, which chose to protect its prominent guest at all costs. According to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the cost was the First Amendment.

“Last I heard, taking pictures was not a crime,” said Lieberman. “The rules don’t change because the R.N.C. is in town.”

Chelsea Piers views the incident differently. “That week was a very different animal and Wednesday was a particularly different animal,” said Erica Schietinger, a spokesperson for Chelsea Piers. “If the Secret Service says, ‘This is our security procedure,’ then that is that.”

The procedure is unconstitutional, according to Lieberman. Neither the Secret Service nor a private security company can detain a person — for any length of time — without suspicion of criminal activity, although they can demand that the person leave the premises. “Chelsea Piers may have been able to evict somebody for taking pictures, but they couldn’t detain him,” said Lieberman. “This is yet another example of how individual rights have been stifled as a result of the convention and how it appears at the direction of federal law enforcement.”

The Secret Service did not return a call for comment.

Although Chelsea Piers is situated on public land — it leases the property from the Hudson River Park Trust, a state-city agency — it is recognized as private property, as far as security is concerned. “The Trust doesn’t know anything about [the incident],” said Chris Martin, a spokesperson for the Trust. “As a regular landlord, we have the regular duties of a landlord.”

After several minutes and no word from the Secret Service, Chelsea Piers security let Grace leave the property without confiscating his camera. According to Grace, Vlad, the security officer in charge, told him, “I don’t think you’re a terrorist, so even though I might get into trouble for doing this, I’m going to let you go.”

Chelsea Piers stepped up its security enforcement dramatically in the three weeks leading up to the convention. In addition to increased security awareness in the area, the piers instituted baggage checkpoints at all points of entry. “It was very quick, it didn’t really hold anyone up,” said Schietinger of Chelsea Piers. “It was not even as invasive as at the airport where they go through your makeup bag. It’s not like they strip-searched you and frisked you.”

Not all Chelsea Piers visitors took the experience so lightly. “It’s rude,” said a longtime Chelsea Piers Sports Center member who declined to give his name fearing repercussions from the Sports Center. “I can see searching people who are going into the gym, that’s one thing. But just for being allowed to walk on the walkway, it’s an encroachment on personal space and it’s frightening.”

According to Schietinger, Chelsea Piers received no complaints at all during the convention. “There were a number of [Chelsea Piers] members who thanked us and said we should do this all the time,” she said. Following the convention, Chelsea Piers removed the checkpoints and currently has no plans to reinstate the temporary policy.

The Sports Center member said a gym manager, Dan Ballenger, told him that anyone who did not submit to the searches would be arrested. “Clearly, the people at Chelsea Piers had been told that if [visitors did not submit] to being searched they would be arrested,” he said.

“That didn’t come from me,” said Ballenger, when called for comment.

The Sports Center member was himself never threatened with arrest, although when he refused to allow his bag to be checked at one of the many pier entrances, he was denied entry.

“If a private entity wants to make a bag search a condition of entry, they can do that,” said Lieberman of the N.Y.C.L.U. But, she argued, “If this is a government-ordered search, then the government has no right to engage in a generalized search of people without suspicion.”

According to Schietinger, Chelsea Piers was acting on its own volition when it chose to search its members. “If you look at any of the major office buildings in the city, you can’t get in without an appointment and a bag check,” she said.

In hindsight, Grace now knows how he would have dealt with the incident with Chelsea Piers security differently. “Looking back, I should have just slowly made my way to the exit, all the while saying to them calmly, “I am leaving the premises, you have no right to detain me,’” said Grace. His photographs of the party boat possibly enjoyed by Cheney at Chelsea Piers remain unpublished.

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