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Free Speech in New York City? Fuhgeddaboutit! | The Nation

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The Notion

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Free Speech in New York City? Fuhgeddaboutit!

In summer 2004, citizens who peacefully protested during the Republican National Convention in New York City were subject to mass arrest, lengthy detention under horrible conditions and a wide range of other civil liberties violations. Civil liberties exist, much of the time, to protect minority rights, and that's important. But most of these protesters, in opposing the war and other Bush policies, were expressing the views of New York City's majority. If such mainstream dissent is punished severely, many wondered, what lies in store for those expressing unpopular opinions?

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) brought a number of lawsuits challenging the city's conduct during the 2004 convention. One of the best things about lawsuits -- from a public interest viewpoint -- is the fascinating documents obtained during discovery (the period before the trial in which the parties can compel each other to give up relevant information). In this case, the NYCLU had sworn testimony from high-level New York Police Department (NYPD) officials, thousands of pages of city memos, minutes and other documents, and many hours of videotape. When the City tried to prevent the NYCLU from making this information public, the organization yet again took the City to Court. A couple weeks ago, a judge ruled in the NYCLU's favor. The city is still trying to stop the civil liberties group from releasing the documents, but it's lost the legal battle. Beginning around noon next Wednesday, the documents will be open to the public, at www.nyclu.org. The videos will be available soon as well.

I'll be writing about these documents in more detail soon in the magazine (and next week, please check them out for yourselves). But briefly, here are some details that stand out:

NYPD officers had to seek medical attention after exposure to asbestos, carbon monoxide, and other toxic substances (including, ominously, an unknown "black liquid") at Pier 57, which was used as a mass arrest holding facility during the convention. Many demonstrators detained at Pier 57 have made similar complaints; it's significant that the police and the demonstrators experienced similar problems with this toxic facility.

A "no summons" memo shows that the long detentions of protesters during the RNC was a deliberate, premeditated policy decision, not inefficiency on the part of the NYPD. The police could have simply issued a summons to each protester, but instead, they (illegally) decided in advance to fingerprint everyone who was arrested.

Police department data shows that the RNC protesters were arraigned slowly, compared to people arrested for other offenses during that week. It's pretty appalling that people arrested for serious crimes received better treatment that those who were simply exercising their right to express dissent.

Finally, the documents present a big fat pile of evidence that the police department was preparing for mass arrests. With zero evidence that the protests were going to be violent, the NYPD was planning, not simply to keep order, but to incarcerate thousands of demonstrators. Obviously, it's annoying when protesters over-dramatize their victimization by police, deliberately provoke cops, or claim that we live in a "police state." (We don't.) But the city handled this situation disgracefully, and should be held accountable.

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