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Protesters: GOP, police went too far in New York

Dallas Morning News | May 18, 2005

They were captured in nets, handcuffed and thrown into crowded jail cells.

For more than 1,800 protesters arrested at last year's Republican convention, free speech came at a price. Some are still fighting charges such as disorderly conduct and failure to disperse. Of those who have made their way through the judicial system, nine in 10 were not found guilty of anything.

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Demonstrators say that New York City was transformed into a police state for the benefit of President Bush. They point to the lack of convictions as evidence that Republicans were more concerned with squelching dissent at their carefully scripted convention than with keeping the streets safe.

But party officials have said that security was their focus. During the GOP's first convention since the Sept. 11 attacks, Republicans had to be on high alert for terrorist threats while controlling the 500,000 demonstrators who descended upon Manhattan.

"The Republican National Convention was a national security special event that required a certain level of security that was administered to by the United States Secret Service, New York law enforcement officials, among others," said Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

"These officials secured the perimeter and ensured that convention participants as well as

those that desired to exercise their First Amendment right could do so safely and responsibly."

Many activists said the party and the police went too far, and a class-action lawsuit alleging that arrests were used as crowd control is under way. Also, New York officials recently agreed to pay a modest settlement to some of the protesters.

The protesters describe being accused of blocking traffic while standing on streets that were barricaded off and of resisting arrest when videos show them following police instructions.

"They threw these guys into cuffs and threw them into trucks," said Christopher Williams, an attorney who represented a few of the protesters. "Because why? Because they disagree with certain policies?"

Gael Murphy of Washington, D.C., said the protesters simply wanted to be heard. The co-founder of CODEPINK, a women's peace and social justice movement, snagged a pass to the GOP convention. She donned a pink slip (suggesting that the president deserved one) and wrote "Fire Cheney and Halliburton" on her outfit.

She said she didn't yell or wave her arms but positioned herself where TV cameras in Madison Square Garden might catch a glimpse of her message. Instead, she said, she was wrestled to the ground and hauled off in handcuffs. "We weren't told what we were charged with," Murphy said. "We weren't read our rights. We weren't offered a phone call."

Once free, she realized that fighting a disorderly conduct charge in New York would not be convenient or cheap. Nearly five months and a couple train trips after her arrest, a judge dismissed the charges.

"Is it about security, or is it about keeping unwanted voices out of the room?" Murphy asked.

Protester Rachel Clarke-Alvarez, a teacher from Houston, said she was held in a standing-room-only lockup for two days. Meals were rotten apples and stale cheese sandwiches. Showers weren't an option. And there were chemicals on the floor.

"People woke up with rashes. We had to organize chants to scream our demands ... like, `We need the bathroom,'" said Clarke-Alvarez, whose case was settled with adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

Such stories have played out in New York courtrooms during recent months.

Of the 1,806 people arrested during the convention, 1,670 have resolved their cases, said Barbara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office. Most were accused of minor offenses, punishable by fines or short jail sentences.

About 10 percent were convicted or pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or violations. And 26 percent of the cases ended with acquittals or dismissals, she said.

But the bulk of the charges were dropped when both sides agreed to an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, allowing the defendants to have their cases sealed if they were not arrested during the following six months.

"This is consistent with what we see in protest cases," Thompson said of the small number of convictions.

But some activists argue that this is proof of "pre-emptive arrests" to clear the streets before the president arrived.

Bill Goodman, a New York lawyer who is spearheading a class-action lawsuit, said mass arrests were used to control crowds. His complaint also asserts that demonstrators were subjected to prolonged and unreasonable detention and inhumane conditions.

"The city of New York and the Police Department decided that they were going to basically suspend the Constitution for a couple days," Goodman said. "And if they were allowed to do it once, they could do it again."

The city has not admitted wrongdoing but has agreed to a $230,000 settlement in a separate contempt claim. More than 100 demonstrators who were kept locked up after a judge ordered their release will receive $150 each, and the rest of the money will pay their attorneys' fees and other legal costs.

Diaz credits law enforcement with helping ensure that the convention went off smoothly.

"The thousands of people that attended the Republican National Convention sincerely appreciate the excellent work of the law enforcement officers and security officials that made the historic event the most successful political convention in American history," he said.

Protesters have become a fixture at political conventions. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago remains the most notorious, as footage showed officers beating protesters with clubs in what was deemed a police riot. But demonstrations in recent years have been as carefully managed as the conventions, resulting in relatively few arrests.

That changed last year. In New York, the combination of heightened security and a bare-knuckled battle for the White House spurred more protests.

The demonstrators announced their presence in New York with a massive march on the eve of the GOP convention. The protests were largely peaceful, with a few isolated scuffles reported.

"We were not going to get involved with any actions that would require arrest," said Stephen Boudreaux, an activist from Clear Lake Shores, near Houston. "What they practiced was pre-emptive arrest. They compromised our constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly."

He made four trips from Texas to a New York courtroom before being found not guilty. Boudreaux said he fought the charges to exert his rights.

"They try to wear you down," he said. "Make the courts do their job. Every single time there's an arrest like this, it's imperative to take it to court."

Williams, the attorney who did pro bono work for protesters, said: "We're supposed to respect democracy. But they don't want to let people exercise these freedoms without paying a huge price."

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