Gotham Gazette

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Crackdown on Protests Could Spark More Scrutiny of Police

Photo by Gail Robinson
After the early morning eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park last Tuesday, a heavy show of force by the police kept Occupy Wall Street from re-entering the plaza.

For a sense of how much things have changed in New York in the last 75 years or so, one only has to go to Jewish Museum. On display there, through March 2012, is a special exhibition, The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951, featuring a group of photographers who eschewed the arty modernist trends of the time to go out in the streets to capture real people and urban realities. At the entrance, a documentary from the early 1930s shows 100,000 protestors gathered in Union Square demanding economic justice.

Such a gathering literally could not take place today, not just because the city seems to do everything in its power to constrict protest, but because what was once a sacrosanct public space -- Union Square -- has become a shopping mall with a farmer's market and a village of holiday shops choking its paths.

The contrast between the Union Square of the 1930s and that of today symbolizes how New York has gone from being a city protective and proud of its dissenters to a virtual police state where protestors are treated like criminals simply for expressing their First Amendment Rights. This goes beyond the abuse of the Occupy Wall Street participants, though when demonstrators are beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested for peaceful protest and journalists with valid press credentials are kept blocks away so as not to be able to witness your tax dollars in action, there ought to be cause for alarm.

But the use of everything from anti-terror police to pepper spraying to the literal trashing of books at the Occupy Wall Street encampment and at its demonstrations may mark a turning point in how the public view the police. Any change would be partly the work of a press corps whose own members were arrested and kept from covering the police actions at Zuccotti Park. Whether this shift will extend to New York's leading politicians, though, remains to be seen.

Dissenting in Bloomberg's New York

Mayor Michael Bloomberg continually repeats that he is protecting civil liberties. One New York Times reporter even called him the "freedom mayor." And for most of the last decade, politicians have competed to like Goneril and Regan in King Lear to see who could praise "New York's finest" and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly the most.

At the same time, Bloomberg, his police commissioner and the police themselves have regularly violated the rights of journalists and protestors. I will never forget participating in a totally peaceful and relatively small picketing by tenants, mostly older women, a few years ago near Bloomberg's townhouse at 17 E. 79th St., and watching the police videotape and photograph every participant as if we were criminals or terrorists when all we were doing was speaking out for stronger rent laws and less onerous increases from the Rent Guidelines Board. But that’s bomb-throwing Bolshevism in today’s New York City.

At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York demonstrators were arbitrarily rounded up and kept in custody in an unhealthful garage until the convention ended.

Bloomberg had written a personal check for $7 million to the Republicans for that convention and was not going to have it sullied by dissenters. His actions cost the city millions of dollars in settlements with illegally arrested and abused demonstrators, with some cases yet to be resolved.

Most New Yorkers have remained silent about overly aggressive and even illegal police tactics -- perhaps because they don't want to do anything that might contribute to a rise in crime. After all, the city has enjoyed a declining crime rate and has managed to avoid any successful terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

Tom Allon, a newspaper publisher now running for mayor, remembers being "mugged in 1972 in broad daylight at Broadway and 79th Street when I was 10 years old. I have three kids now, and I feel confident that they'll be safe when they’re out on the street. The city is a much different place, and Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly can take a lot of credit." Allon also credited Dinkins' Safe Streets, Safe City program, a tax surcharge won in Albany that allowed for the hiring of many more police officers and funded programs that hit at the roots of crime.

A Change in Attitudes

For years, few reporters, other than those at the Village Voice, took on the police department or Kelly. One who did -- veteran police reporter Len Levitt -- wrote earlier this month, "Other than Ray Kelly, what police commissioner on God's green earth could keep his job after the avalanche of police scandals in New York City?"

Levitt cited indictments of gun smuggling cops, the conviction of an office who planted drugs on suspects, the ticket-fixing scandal and more. "No mayor in recent history has abdicated his responsibilities in supervising the police department and his police commissioner as Bloomberg has," Levitt wrote.

This month, New York magazine took the grumbling mainstream with a story on Kelly titled, The Force Isn’t with Him.

On Nov. 16, gay activist Brendan Fay resigned from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advisory council to the police department and called on other members to do the same. "I no longer wish to associate myself with a police agency that evicts in the dark of night, attacks young men and women with pepper spray and batons, destroys personal property. This is not democracy. This is not community policing," Fay wrote in a letter to the group. "The actions of the NYPD under the leadership [of] commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg are clearly contrary to the commitments, expectations and principals of this advisory body."

It is hard to say how the Occupy Wall Street raid will change attitudes, mayoral politics and the future of policing in New York.

Kelly has enjoyed broad popularity and led an Oct. 19 Quinnipiac poll for mayor in 2013 as the choice of 25 percent of those surveyed. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was second with 17 percent.

Quinn has already declared that she wants to keep Kelly as commissioner. Allon, who is campaigning for mayor as a maverick, said in an interview before the raid that he would be proud to have Kelly or former Commissioner Bill Bratton in his administration. "By and large they have kept the peace," he said.

Allon said that the current stop-and-frisk practices of the police "needs to be looked at carefully." He also said, "I have a problem with too many petty arrests that lead to criminal convictions. I would be actively involved in setting parameters -- keeping major crime rates down and keeping the city safe while ensuring civil liberties are respected."

Politicians and the Police

The leading candidates for mayor in 2013 all criticized the police raid on Occupy Wall Street to varying degrees. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio came out the strongest, calling the raid "needlessly provocative and legally questionable." City Comptroller John Liu said, "There seems to be no compelling reason for this action at this time."

And they all, including Quinn, former comptroller -- and 2009 mayoral candidate -- William Thompson and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, expressed dismay about the treatment of journalists and reports of excessive force by police, particularly against Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who was arrested and held for 20 hours.

Neither Quinn, Liu, de Blasio, Stringer or Thompson responded to a Gotham Gazette e-mail asking if Kelly should stay as police commissioner, how they believe policing should be done differently in New York and how they have tried to make that happen. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz wrote in an e-mail, "I have complete faith in Commissioner Kelly."

Perhaps this is not surprising. "Politicians are afraid of the police," Ann Northrop, a veteran of ACT UP and my co-host on the Gay USA Gay USA cable news program, said. "They think they need the police to exercise military control to protect them from anarchy and that without the police, they are naked and vulnerable. But they also think the police have the power to overpower them, to take control of the state, like a military coup in a Third World country. So they continually support everything the police do, whether or not it's legal or smart."

Occupy Wall Street
Photo by Andy Humm
A protester displayed this banner n Zuccotti Park last month.

Some politicians have criticized the police, though somewhat cautiously.

At the Nov. 17 Occupy Wall Street mass rally in Foley Square, Councilmember Robert Jackson, said he was particularly dismayed by video on NY-1 of the Nov. 15 raid showing a sergeant assaulting a demonstrator. "He had no right to grab him and throw him to the ground. People have a right to demonstrate," Jackson said. He said he was not defending illegal activities by demonstrators who allegedly threw batteries and vinegar at some cops, but he added, "Police need to show restraint in dealing with people."

Planning for 2013

Now a grassroots group has emerged to make what they see as abusive and overly aggressive police tactics an issue in the 2013 city elections. Members of the Police Reform Organizing Project fanned out across the city on Nov. 19 and collected 1,000 signatures signatures on a petition calling for an end to "wasteful, ineffective, illegal, unjust, homophobic and racially biased NYPD policies and practices" They want an end to "abusive policing" and "quotas for arrests and summonses," an independent agency to monitor the police with the power to punish corruption, and the promotion of "measures that address economic and social inequities and strengthen communities while reducing crime."

Robert Gangi, who was executive director of the Correctional Association for almost 30 years where he was a leader in the fight for Rockefeller Drug Law reform, is the senior policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center and founder of the new project. He accuses the police department of engaging in "bullying."

"They do it because they can," he said. "There is not enough political pushback to make them pay a price for their harsh, aggressive tactics."

While Gangi said "Kelly should definitely go," he is focused on an entire police culture that, he said, has "refined and honed and applied the kind of tactics developed under Giuliani and Bratton."

Gangi acknowledges that the group’s task is "an enormous lift." Still, he is "determined," with groups like Make the Road and the New York Civil Liberties Union, to make police reform a factor in the 2013 elections. His non-partisan group will survey all candidates for city offices.

A Show of Force

One issue candidates might have to confront is how to hold police accountable for any misconduct. Whatever offenses the police may have been guilty of during Occupy Wall Street, few hold out much hope that they will be punished for it.

"There is a major problem with police accountability," Bill Dobbs, the civil libertarian who has helped with media at Occupy Wall Street, said before the Nov. 15 raid. "The major way things come out is through lawsuits, but the money [paid to plaintiffs] comes out of taxpayer funds, not the police budget and very rarely from police officers. It is extremely rare for an officer to be found guilty of police misconduct or excessive force."

One officer, Anthony Bologna, who misused pepper spray at an early Occupy Wall Street, was punished swiftly -- docked 10 vacation days --when caught dead to rights by cell phone cameras.

There have been numerous exposés on police misconduct in recent years from Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson's indictments of ticket-fixing cops to Graham Rayman's 2010 Village Voice series on how Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, who blew the whistle on the accuracy of police statistics, had his career destroyed. "They put the guy in a mental hospital," Dobbs said.

Dobbs said that there won’t be any serious reform around police misconduct until "there is a permanent special prosecutor devoted” to that one issue. But that would require a political change. “There is so much reflexive, knee-jerk support for police” that it is very hard to get justice in cases of police misconduct," he said.

The Crackdown on OWS

That the raid on Occupy Wall Street was in the dead of night and involved riot police, anti-terror cops, and throwing thousands of books into a garbage dumpster gave it more than a whiff of fascism, a word I am loathe to use but which fits in this case whether or not those books can be recovered at a Department of Sanitation depot later.

Ray Lewis, a retired police captain from Philadelphia who joined Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in uniform, said after the Nov. 15 raid, "You should, by law, only use force to protect someone's life or to protect them from being bodily injured. … And the number one thing that they always have in their favor that they seldom use is negotiation -- continue to talk, and talk and talk to people. You have nothing to lose by that."

Lewis dismissed the city's concern about unsanitary conditions in the park. "Here they are worrying about dirty parks when people are starving to death, where people are freezing, where people are sleeping in subways," he said, adding. "That's obnoxious, it's arrogant, it's ignorant, it's disgusting."

Lewis's sign read, "NYPD: Don't Be Wall St. Mercenaries." He himself was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street Action on Thursday but said that would not deter him. "They'll have to arrest me again," he said.

"We have to bring to light the fact that we are in a police state," said Jordan Amos, 25, of Philadelphia at Foley Square, holding a sign that read, "A Police State is a Terrorist State." He was at Zuccotti Park for the Nov.15 raid. "We did not try to harm them or disrespect them," he said. "Up until that point, we showed the police a lot of love and peace."

The city blacked out news coverage on the Nov. 15 wee hours raid -- keeping reporters blocks away "to protect members of the press" in the mayor’s words and arresting those who stayed and tried to do their jobs with valid police-issued credentials. PEN American Center and PEN International, the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization, condemned the city action.

"Whatever the arguments for clearing and cleaning the park, denying the rest of us the opportunity to witness the police action through the independent reporting of a free media simply reinforces the suspicion that the city government is seeking to hide from democratic scrutiny," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center. He added, "It is also wrong to deny media access because it runs entirely against the spirit of the First Amendment guarantees that are at the heart of PEN's mission.”

Gabe Pressman, dean of New York TV reporters and president of NY Press Club Foundation and Glenn Schuck, the president of the Club itself, also condemned the treatment of press at the Occupy eviction. In a letter to Bloomberg, they wrote, "The actions of some police officers were not consistent with the long-established relationship between the NYPD and the press. The brash manner in which officers ordered reporters off the streets and then made them back off until the actions of the police were almost invisible is outrageous. We want the department to investigate the incidents involved in this crackdown on Zuccotti Park and we want assurances it won't happen again."

Occupy Wall Street
Photo by Andy Humm
Frances Mercanti-Anthony worked i the People's Library in Zuccotti Park that was dismantled surig the police rad last week.

Then there is the trashing of books. Frances Mercanti-Anthony helps run the People's Library that had amassed thousands of books in Zuccotti Park. She said that after the city threw them all into a dumpster during the raid on Nov. 15, "only 10 percent were recovered. Laptops were smashed." She said 100 more books were confiscated from the library in Zuccotti Park on Nov. 16 after Occupy was let back in. "It's an attempt to erect a police state that to exist has to exert power over everyone," Mercanti-Anthony said.

She had several dozen books laid out on a bench in Foley Square at the massive action on Nov.17 that anyone could borrow or take, "It's OK for the police to take them, but only if they're going to read them," Mercanti-Anthony said said. She held up a copy of the Constitution that she hopes Bloomberg will read.

The Legal Issues

Responding to criticism, the administration has claimed repeatedly that the courts are on its side. Even if that is the case, according to Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, that does not mean the city has to evict the protesters. Writing in the wake of a judge's ruling that upheld the city's refusal to allow protestors back in Zuccotti Park with their gear, she said, "Today's court ruling upholding the eviction was disappointing, but it is important to remember that the First Amendment sets a floor -- not a ceiling -- for determining whether government should accommodate free expression. There is no reason why the Bloomberg administration cannot embrace a more expansive understanding of free speech and allow the protesters and their tents back into Zuccotti Park in a way consistent with public safety and health. It should do so immediately.”

If the Nov. 15 ruling is appealed, Judge Kimba Wood's 2000 decision on sleeping on the sidewalks is likely to come into play. In that case, the Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of tenant activists (I was not among them this time) seeking to sleep in Carl Schurz next to Gracie Mansion before the Rent Guidelines Board meeting on rent increases. They hoped to dramatize how excessive rent hikes lead to homelessness.

In ruling for the protestors, Wood wrote, "The city contends that if it cannot stop sleeping at this vigil, then it cannot under any circumstances, regulate the use of city sidewalks in a manner it deems necessary and appropriate to promote the free flow of pedestrian traffic. ... The city has offered no evidence that those who sleep on the sidewalks while intoxicated and/or homeless (the instances cited by the city) will implicate the First Amendment at all."

In an article on the decision, Judge Emily Jane Goodman wrote, "Given the right case, sleep can be considered speech and is thus protected by the First Amendment."

She continued, "The court agreed that this was no mere nighttime nap, but was political expression."

It remains to be seen if Occupy Wall Street can prevail on the same claims, but whatever the courts rule, the police actions against the protests have raised the discussion on police tactics and misconduct to a whole new level. On Nov. 20, State Sen. Eric Adams and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel called for City Council hearings into the eviction raid and “said city officials violated a court order by cleaning out Zuccotti Park and should be penalized,” according to NY1.

City Councilmember Rosie Mendez has sponsored a First Amendment Assembly Act that she concedes has been going nowhere since we wrote about it in 2008, but she hopes current events will bring attention to this bill that would compel the police to be more accommodating of protests.

Reacting to the raid at Zuccotti Park, Dobbs said, "Bloomberg and the NYPD were itching to do this like authoritarians everywhere – squash a protest desperately hoping that the issues would be stopped. But Occupy's issues are going around the world."

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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