LATE LAST WEEK, with the Republican National Convention over and the city still remarkably intact, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was grasping at straws. Apparently smarting from the anticlimax, or cranky from having to pretend to be a Republican all week, Bloomberg tried to argue that verbally harassing Republican delegates is — well, sure, why not? — terrorism. “It is true that a handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they don’t agree with their views,” he told The New York Times. “That’s exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9/11.”
If you think about it, yelling has always been close kin to just plain talking in New York, but Bloomberg had to find terrorism somewhere. The convention’s security and surveillance tab added up to about $60 million, but despite a solid week of protests involving as many as half a million people, not a single window was smashed, not a single Starbucks (of which there are no fewer than 102 within two miles of the protesters’ rallying point in Union Square) defaced with anarchist graffiti. After many months of media hysteria and police paranoia about “fringe elements” hell-bent on mayhem, everyone was . . . cool. In a world where 10 million marchers can be dismissed as a “focus group,” the question is whether New York’s half-million yelled loudly enough.
Despite the depths of rage most protesters harbor toward the Bush administration, no one was hurling Molotov cocktails, or anything else. The mood, for the most part, stayed festive. Black bandannas were largely abandoned for more colorful costumes, and, despite occasional police provocations, no one took the bait (with one exception early on: A plainclothes cop rammed through a crowd on a scooter, and got beat up for his trouble).
Even the NYPD was almost kind of cool, if you don’t count more than 1,800 largely unwarranted and pre-emptive arrests, and simply mean to imply that New York’s police did not bust skulls, pepper-spray and gas people, shoot them with rubber bullets, or shock them with Tasers, which have become favored methods of crowd control in Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles. New York’s cops were disciplined and all too effective, and have left me with what I hope will not be a lasting fear of the color orange. For all their pricey and high-tech weaponry, their most efficient toys were long rolls of orange netting, with which they, time and again, proved able to ensnare large numbers of activists (and occasional commuters), like so many struggling tuna, thus quietly containing protests without creating photogenic street-battles for CNN.
BUT THERE IS NO QUESTION that they detained many hundreds of people unjustly — and in several instances unscrupulously, by telling protesters they would be free to march and then penning them in and arresting them anyway. NYPD has also learned some unfortunate lessons from the Bush administration regarding detention protocol. They locked up hundreds without arraignment for more than the legal limit of 24 hours (some for nearly three days), holding protesters in crowded and bed-less chainlink cells in an oil-splattered former bus depot on a Hudson River pier. It took a court order for the police to agree to release hundreds of people last Thursday night, and still the city dragged its feet, holding many until after Bush’s speech had ended, earning itself a contempt citation from the state Supreme Court and possible fines of several hundred thousand dollars.
Also worrisome were the extraordinary levels of surveillance accompanying even the most sedate protest actions. The NYPD corralled the Fuji Film blimp into their service for the duration of the RNC. The thing hovered spooky and silent over the protests all week long, watching, filming, blimping menacingly about. Cops with video cameras in blue shirts marked TARU (not a Pokémon monster, but the NYPD’s Technical Assistance Research Unit) were omnipresent, and occasionally seemed to outnumber riot police. For a while at one small protest outside the Copacabana — where Governor Pataki was feting Latino Republican “Amigos de America” — there was one TARU officer for every six activists. The chill such surveillance throws over First and Fourth Amendment rights is obvious enough, but in New York, police are actually prohibited by a 1985 consent decree from filming public protests unless a crime is occurring. Police commissioner Ray Kelly, who sought to have the decree gutted in 2002, chose to interpret it rather broadly.
Police at times took the surveillance to another level entirely. Sean Flagherty, one of the founders of the RNC Not Welcome collective, alleged that he and other organizers had been followed and harassed by police all week. When I saw him in Union Square on Thursday, Flagherty was visibly shaken. He and five other activists had just been tailed across town by two plainclothes cops, he told me. (Plainclothes officers were everywhere last week, and painfully easy to spot.) “They called us by name,” Flagherty said, and knew which of his companions had been arrested and which had not. “They asked us how we liked jail, said we were going to go there again.”
As Flagherty told me this story, two men with buzzcuts in loose-fitting shirts loitered conspicuously a few feet away. A little farther away, a man in a black polo pointed a camera at us, snapped a few photos and walked off.
Such harassment is hardly surprising, but in the context of the Patriot Act America endorsed by both presidential candidates, it does not bode well. And speaking of the presidential race, the name of John Kerry appeared on mighty few of the breasts and backs of the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets last week. On Thursday, the day Bush spoke, it sometimes seemed that everyone in Manhattan was wearing little orange stickers bearing the bold word “NO!” The Democrats apparently haven’t given them much to say “yes” to.