For anyone who fears the Bush administration is leading this country on a course toward fascism, the pre-emptive suppression of political dissent last week during the Republican convention in New York City confirmed all suspicions.Following last Sunday's historic peaceful march across Manhattan, the police took the kid gloves off on Monday, Aug. 30. Over 5,000 peaceful marchers organized by the Poor People's Economic Human Rights campaign led an unpermitted march from the United Nations Building across Manhattan toward Madison Square Garden. The NYPD escorted the calm and festive march the majority of the way, but as the march swung north on Eighth Avenue toward the Garden, police changed tactics.
Allowing half the march to cross over 29th Street, police suddenly charged into the crowd carrying six-foot-long metal barricades, splitting the march in two. Police then rammed the barricades into protesters, injuring several, and as the march bottlenecked at the intersection, plainclothes officers aggressively drove motorcycles into the crowd in an attempt to draw a line in the group. A skirmish broke out after people were knocked down and billyclubs began flying. Newspaper headlines the next day attributed the violence to the protesters and played up one particular injury: a police officer's.
Eyewitness Christine Durry, a member of feminist activist group CodePink, interpreted the incident: "Someone made the executive decision not to let this march get too close to all the national media surrounding Madison Square Garden. Thousands of people in the street saying 'Hell No' doesn't jibe well with the message the Republicans are trying to send out to America."
But Monday was only a warm-up. At around 8 p.m. Tuesday, I walked out of a pizza shop on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 35th Street to observe a small protest taking place across from Herald Square, where MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews was broadcasting live from an outdoor studio. The crowd was feverishly chanting "No More Bush, No More Bush" in an attempt to drown out the talking heads on TV. Passing Republican delegates hid their faces and hurried out of the way. Suddenly about a dozen people moved out into the intersection, sat down and locked arms in order to block traffic.
Members of the press, including myself, moved closer to take pictures and interview them. Immediately police surrounded us and told all who did not want to be arrested to return to the sidewalk. The press complied, and the protesters were quickly arrested and dragged away. Moments later, another chanting group marching west on 35th Street approached the intersection. Police drew their clubs and chased them back down the street, Keystone Kop fashion. The press folks, still on the sidewalk, followed at a safe distance.
A commanding officer turned toward us and shouted orders through a bullhorn: "Stay on the sidewalk, stay on the sidewalk!" We all did. Then we were surrounded, squeezed together, pulled out one by one, slammed against the wall (except for those with official NYPD-issued press credentials) and arrested. "Hey, we were just doing what you told us," we reminded them. "Everyone here is going to jail" was the response.
With hands cuffed tightly behind our backs, we were led to a waiting city bus and taken to Pier 57 on the Hudson River. I had heard rumors about the detainment area that the city had set up for protesters, but nothing really prepared me for the scene inside.
Hundreds and hundreds of prisoners were hustled into a large cage surrounded by 12-foot-high chain link topped with razorwire. Police had cast a wide net and rounded up over 1,400 people for a variety of offenses: standing on the sidewalk, moving off the sidewalk because of a police order, wearing black on a subway train, holding a sign, and walking. Several dozen people were arrested who had nothing to do with the protests at all. "I just walked off the subway and the police pushed me down," an exchange student from France told me. "I had just bought a pair of jeans at Macy's, walked out the door, and they arrested me," a young Puerto Rican said. No one I spoke with inside the detention facility had been told what they were being charged with.
By 3 a.m., it became apparent that we were not going to be released any time soon. There were no phone calls, no lawyers, no beds or blankets, no food and hour-long waits for the portable toilets. As exhaustion set in, people began to lie on the floor to try and get some sleep — despite signs on the walls reading, "Dangerous Chemicals Wear mask at all times." Anyone who did lie down wound up covered in black muck, an accumulation of motor oil, antifreeze, diesel fuel, and whatever other chemicals were being stored in the pier before the city converted it into "Guantanamo 57." I was among the lucky ones who found a ripped piece of newspaper to lay my head upon.
Around 5 a.m. an officer bellowed into a megaphone, "Single-file line!" It was time for breakfast: A slice of American cheese between two stale pieces of white bread. My fellow inmates and I began confronting our guards. "What are we being held for? This is an unlawful arrest! This is an illegal detainment!"
"Shoulda thoughta that before you went and protested," shot back a clever flatfoot.
Wednesday morning we were shackled together five at a time and taken to central booking for what was to be a 30-hour wait to be processed and arraigned in the infamous "Tombs." Cops packed 70 of us into a 400-square-foot holding cell with one exposed toilet and a dingy sink. Guards peeked in and heckled us. "You need a raise, copper," we heckled back.
Sometime that afternoon, my holding cell won a small victory. A humane sergeant by the name of Czark finally agreed to point a large box fan in our direction to help alleviate the stifling heat (and stench). The 70 of us took turns catching the slight flow of air.
At 7 p.m. we still hadn't been booked. The word off the grapevine was that authorities were trying to keep us all off the street until after Bush's prime-time acceptance speech the following evening. Talk of a hunger strike began circulating in the cell but was quickly squashed when the first decent food in nearly 24 hours arrived: A box of peaches.
As the hours dragged by, many of us became delirious. I broke down in a bout of hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the situation. A crusty Lower East Side punk banged his shoes on the metal benches as he screamed at the guards. "This is state-sanctioned kidnapping! Why don't you want the world to see us?"
"Well, for one thing, yer ugly," quipped the wiseass cop.
By 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the judge had finally ordered the city to release all of us. Someone said we were all getting $1,000 apiece for the hassle; in fact, the city had been fined $1,000 for every person detained 24 hours without being arraigned, but none of that cash was destined for protesters' pockets. All I wanted was a Pepsi, as we were shuffled out to the courtroom and written desk tickets for "disorderly conduct."
Outside the jail, a crowd had gathered to cheer our release. The press got interviews and ACLU representatives gave out cards. And Bush was giving his speech.
I'm not sure what the rest of America heard coming out of the president's mouth last Thursday night, but I know what I heard. I heard that if you don't agree with us, we're going to look at you as enemy combatants, security threats and would-be terrorists. We're going to throw you in a cage and treat you like the diseased cattle you are. This is the state of American Dissent in 2004. Expect lawsuits.
Kelly Benjamin is a Tampa-based freelance writer. Respond to Kelly's column at [email protected].