New York - Tourists, old ladies and gentlemen, a building superintendent who was taking out the garbage, teenagers going to a play on their first date, ministers, students, bicycle messengers and a good number of bruised and dirty yet singing and chanting protestors.
It's the kind of diversity that New York City is famous for, and during this past week, the best place to find it was in the makeshift jail at Pier 57. The biggest under-reported story of the Republican National Convention was not conservative women making fools of themselves for California's manly governor. It was this: why were 1,800 people arrested when they had done nothing wrong except crowd the sidewalks or block traffic?
The term "pre-emptive arrest" is misleading because it implies that a crime is about to be committed. It implies that Barbara Gates, 78, who planned to walk at a slow pace to somewhere near the Convention and lie down, is a threat to society. It implies that Julia Gross, arrested while walking away from a "kiss-in," is a potential terrorist.
Some are calling the pier where the arrestees were held "Guantánamo on the Hudson" - obviously a gross and privileged exaggeration. (Arrestees were held for days, not years, and none were interrogated or tortured.) Still, police officers and the major newspapers were generally full of praise for the unconstitutional tactic. "It's been a good day," said Police Detective Kevin Czartoryski on Tuesday, a day when over 800 people were arrested. "Things have pretty much happened as planned."
At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, 420 people were arrested, but it wasn't until April 2004, almost four years later, that the final arrestees stood trial and were acquitted on all charges. The arrests and subsequent treatment of protestors in jail brought heavy criticism from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International and other civil rights organizations, but so far there's been neither acknowledgement nor compensation for those who experienced the excessive arrests.
No pictures from New York showed protestors being violently beaten by police. There were too many cameras around for police to try that. Instead, protestors were just peacefully and unconstitutionally arrested. Similarly, no pictures showed protestors being violent, not because they didn't get the chance, but because - as protest organizers made clear - it was never in their plans.
The protests and arrests in New York raise two related questions. First, how do we hold police and other agencies accountable in blatant examples of "pre-emptive arrests?" And the question asked less often, what constitutes a strategically effective protest?
The first is easier to answer. Christopher Dunn, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has said that "the common denominator" in alleged civil rights violations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami protests was the presence of the Secret Service. In a pending lawsuit, the ACLU accuses the agency of discriminating against President Bush's critics, confining them to protest areas where the president and media will not see them.
Gross and others arrested say they are also considering civil suits against the New York police department for unlawful arrest and chemical burns they got while staying in the toxic and uncleaned pier.
Answering the second question is more difficult. Does it make sense to focus on large peaceful marches that get positive media attention but don't show the range, intensity or directness of the marches and protests that occurred the rest of the week?
Part of the strength of the left/liberal/progressive movement is its diversity and breadth of tactics. The question for activists is not just what you're for or against, but who you're speaking to and who's really listening? Delegates and bystanders appeared genuinely unsure of what the protests were specifically opposing and what they were offering as an alternative. Watch Amandla! or any video of the South African people's struggle against apartheid for a look at a mass protest with a unified message.
As it was, on the final day of the convention, with over 1,000 protestors still sitting in detention, the New York Times was quick to award "victory" to the forces of suppression and order: "It appears that the New York police department may have successfully redefined the post-Seattle era by showing that protest tactics designed to create chaos and attract the world's attention can be effectively countered with... a well-disciplined use of force."
Protestors, faced with the effective shutdown of much of their plans, are left with the need to rethink the idea of simple disruption as a protest strategy in what promises to be a long battle.