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Live from NYC: Hundreds of thousands of protesters, 20,000 cops, and one coronation

Nor was it clear where this secure area began and ended. For example, Union Square, which is a good distance from Madison Square Garden, usually seemed far overstaffed with police. The NYPD has over 30,000 officers, and it often seemed that most of them were in Midtown Manhattan. Pennsylvania Station, 4 which adjoins Madison Square Garden, was teeming with police, National Guard personnel, and Secret Service agents in dark suits with radio earpieces. On some street corners in Midtown, one saw 10 to 20 cops. Helicopters flew overhead during protests. Police regularly recorded the faces of protesters with digital cameras.

In the days leading up to the RNC and during its four-day stand, over 1,800 people were arrested. Most of the arrests occurred on Tuesday, or "A31," a day of civil disobedience loosely planned in advance by anarchist groups and other proponents of direct action. On Tuesday afternoon, I visited St. Mark's Church in the East Village, which functioned as a hub for anarchists and other activists over the week. Police stood outside St. Mark's as attorney Katya Komisaruk of the Just Cause Law Collective led a workshop on civil disobedience in the church's courtyard, coaching a mostly young and punk crowd on their legal rights. The strategy was for those arrested to employ non-cooperation techniques: Refuse to give your name, demand a lawyer, demand the same charge and sentence for all those arrested, negotiate a universal plea bargain. And fast in solidarity if your demands aren't met. Such noncooperation will present the authorities with a "looming disaster" and force capitulation, the spiel goes.

Later that afternoon, Union Square became the scene of a tense and fairly pointless battle for control of a fenced walkway through the park. The cops moved in with riot helmets and shields to clear protesters from the walkway, a show of force that more or less blocked the path by itself. "Get out of the way!" a cop commanded me as I tried to get off the path. Protesters on both sides of the walkway traded chants ("We are peaceful people practicing nonviolence," the popular "Give the Cops a Raise," a reference to the underpaid NYPD's current struggle to get a bigger pay increase from the city). Others called the cops "fucking thugs." Finally the cops relented, freeing the Union Square walkway for light foot traffic. Not In Our Name's David Durant, who had led many of the chants and who would be arrested later in the day, claimed a victory, though it wasn't clear what had been won.

Terry Gydesen

Around the same time, a march organized by the War Resisters' League was supposed to be making its way from Ground Zero to Union Square and then up toward the Garden. The group didn't have a permit but had negotiated an agreement with the police to walk on the sidewalk, two by two. Within minutes, though, police claimed the marchers were congesting the area. Without giving them time to thin out the march or disperse, the cops on hand corralled over 200 marchers into orange netting and placed them under arrest. Meanwhile, those marchers who weren't snared in the net simply proceeded on. Arrests often had this kind of random quality. Sometimes protesters would be given clear direction and dispersal warnings. At other times they were arrested before they could do anything, which led to the arrest of some reporters and legal observers whose credentials were clearly visible. One unsanctioned march would be allowed to proceed on the sidewalk, another on the street, and another would be shut down--such as when about 20 young GLBT activists from Queer Fist were arrested during a sidewalk march and "kiss-in" on Monday night. Other arrests were just bizarre, including that of a protester who was booked for marching without a permit in front of the offices of the company that manufactures Hummers (official SUV of the Republican convention?). She was alone.

Tuesday night, a group of mostly college-aged protesters sat on the edge of Sixth Avenue, penned in with barricades and awaiting arrest. They were still waiting over an hour later as the police went about using their metal barricades and polite but authoritative commands to disperse the area. "You're not seeing the intimidation techniques as much," said Ben Hale, a young philosophy professor at SUNY/Stony Brook. "They're not wearing the full riot gear, not using tear gas. Everything's much calmer than in the past."

Mandeep Gill, a 36-year-old from San Francisco who's getting his doctorate in physics at Stanford, was one of the 1,200 or so people arrested on Tuesday, reportedly the largest-ever number of arrests in a single day in any of New York's five boroughs. Gill was among those doing in-your-face street theater for the delegates, but he and some friends also had a friendly political discussion over lunch with a delegate and his wife. He was arrested, he says, as he walked away from a protest with a group of friends. Their crime apparently involved carrying signs and looking like folks intending to protest further. This kind of preemptive-strike arrest seemed to be common during the RNC.

Those who got arrested were either transported in paddy wagons or on city buses marked, "Not in Service." The transport sometimes took several hours. Before they made it to the Criminal Courts Building, defendants were stored in the warehouse Pier 57, downtown near City Hall. I spoke to close to a dozen people who had been arrested over the week. The Pier had been divided into several cages made of chain-link fencing, including one very large cage topped with razor wire. The floor was covered with oil, antifreeze, and other muck that drips from buses, yet there were no mats to lie down on. Several detainees reported chemical burns from trying to sleep on the floor. Most reported that while water was readily available, the food was limited to stale bread or baloney-and-cheese sandwiches. Several people said that some detainees were denied access to prescription medicines. Kate Gandall, a Tribeca cabinet-maker active in antiwar causes since the Vietnam era, was arrested at a "die-in" on Tuesday. "Eighty percent of the police were fantastic," Gandall told me, "but there were all these gratuitous, punitive procedures--for example, countless searches, allegedly for our safety. We had to be searched every time we went to the bathroom, even though we had already been searched once or twice before, which created 90-minute lines for the port-a-potties." Defendants often spent 20 to 40 hours in the system--even up to 67 hours in one case--just to get processed for appearance at a later court date. By New York law, defendants are supposed to be released if they don't see a lawyer or judge within 24 hours of their arrest.

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