Posted on Sun, Jun. 19, 2005
Tapes key in protesters' fight against tactics of N.Y. police
Video evidence helped clear 400 of the 1,806 arrests during last year's Republican convention.
By Miriam Hill
Inquirer Staff Writer
NEW YORK - Robert Curley brought his 17-year-old son here during the Republican National Convention last year to protest the war in Iraq. Their plan was to finish the day with dinner and a show.
Instead, police rounded up the Curleys in a net, arrested them, and took them to jail, where they spent 16 hours before they could return to their Chestnut Hill home.
Charges against Curley and his son, Neal, a senior at St. Joseph's Preparatory School, and all 225 other people arrested at the Aug. 31, 2004, protest near the World Trade Center, were dismissed. The Manhattan District Attorney's Office declined to press charges after watching a video showing protesters obeying police orders to cross Fulton Street and then being arrested en masse.
"It was entrapment," Robert Curley, a lawyer, said. "They just surrounded everybody. If I had laid down in the middle of the street, I'd expect to be arrested. I didn't expect to cross the street, walk 20 feet, and get arrested."
Video cameras, wielded mostly by volunteers, have become a surprising weapon in the protesters' fight against police tactics they say threaten the right to free speech. Video evidence led to dismissals or acquittals in 400 of the 1,806 arrests during last summer's convention. The recordings also have fueled lawsuits against the city that question police tactics during the convention, including mass roundups using netting and fingerprinting of protesters for minor violations of the law.
Protesters and civil-rights advocates say last summer's arrests are part of a pattern. They accuse police of preventive arrests to quash dissent and keep peace. Similar accusations arose from arrests during the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and during protests against the International Monetary Fund in Washington in 2002.
"The purpose of these arrests was not to bring them to trial," said Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. "The purpose was to freeze the situation and prevent unruly demonstrations. The purpose was to clear the streets, essentially."
He calls video "the best protector of civil liberties."
About 90 percent of the 1,725 New York arrests that have made their way through the courts have resulted in dismissals or acquittals. Despite the number of convictions and guilty pleas - 160 so far, the bulk of them for minor violations such as disorderly conduct - Mayor Michael Bloomberg and representatives of the New York Police Department have defended police methods. They say police allowed hundreds of thousands of people to protest peacefully while keeping the streets free of mayhem.
Paul Browne, spokesman for the New York Police Department, said that high percentages of dismissals are typical when thousands of people are arrested for minor crimes. The dismissals, he said, do not necessarily indicate innocence. He also said police had received threats that protesters planned to shut down Wall Street and otherwise disrupt the city and so took big precautions.
Philadelphia is facing some big crowds of its own this summer, including the one million expected to attend the July 2 Live 8 concert on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. City officials have not released specifics on how they will handle the crowds.
Mayor Street said last week that city officials are experienced in crowd control, pointing to the annual July Fourth concerts and other events.
"When President Clinton came here last year to campaign for Sen. [John] Kerry, we had hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "This is something that we know how to do."
In New York, Dennis Kyne could well have gone to jail had video taken by a documentary filmmaker not cast doubt on the testimony of a police officer. During Kyne's December trial, New York Police Officer Matthew Wohl testified that Kyne resisted arrest so strongly that four officers had to carry him from the steps of the New York Public Library during the convention.
"After he was put in handcuffs, he was going down to the ground by himself because he didn't want to walk to the car," Wohl testified. He said they picked him up and "carried him while he squirmed and screamed."
But video of the arrest showed Kyne walking, not being carried, down the steps. Wohl was nowhere to be seen. He also was not seen in video of four other arrests at the library for which he said he was the arresting officer.
"We weren't even there two minutes before they started arresting people and detaining them," Kyne said by phone from his home in San Jose, Calif. Kyne's lawyers have asked the Manhattan District Attorney's Office to investigate possible police misconduct in the case.
District Attorney spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said the office had agreed to investigate. Browne would not comment specifically on Wohl. He did say that mass arrests can confuse officers and that video does not always tell the whole story.
The prosecutor's version of a video of Alexander Dunlop's Aug. 27, 2004, arrest initially did not tell the whole story. He had gone out to get sushi and got swept up in a protest.
A volunteer for I-Witness Video, which reviewed hundreds of convention videotapes for use by defense lawyers, found a second video of the arrest that showed Dunlop acting peacefully and following police instructions. Those sections had been edited in the prosecutor's version, which showed him only after being arrested. The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has said the editing was a mistake and immediately dropped the charges.
Dunlop and his lawyer, Michael Conroy, are skeptical.
"I kept thinking they were going to realize their mistake and then... I find out they were deliberately editing the evidence. What is that?" Dunlop said.
Conroy said he had asked the District Attorney's Office three times before trial whether he had been given the full video and was assured that he did.
Eileen Clancy, a member of I-Witness Video who helped clear Dunlop, said she believes that many people in Dunlop's situation probably decided not to fight the charges, which could have required several court appearances.
"It's a powerful thing like that when they can grab people," she said. "And people were not able to get their message out, and I think there's something for society to think about."
The Curleys are pursuing a case through the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has asked the city to produce documents detailing its plans for arrests. It also wants the city to agree to not fingerprint protesters arrested for minor crimes, which it says is a violation of state law. The group also fears that fingerprints are a way to compile a database of political activists.
New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer Christopher Dunn said he thought the police did a good job of letting protesters get within sight of Madison Square Garden. Dunn also said police were mostly reasonable about letting people march even when there was no permit. His complaint is that despite these successes, the police still arrested some people unfairly.
At the War Resisters League march where the Curleys were arrested, protesters did not have a permit. Police agreed to let them march two abreast on the sidewalk. But when they violated that, police arrested them, Browne said.
"People just can't decide they're going to take over a sidewalk and march north on Broadway at any given time," he said.
Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 212-757-2295 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. Inquirer staff writer Marcia Gelbart contributed to this article.