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Learning from Miami: NYC Activists Beware!

If last month’s protest in Miami against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting is any indication, the strategy developing among law enforcement agencies regarding how to handle large protests is similar to a Powell Doctrine for domestic dissent: overwhelming force, preemptive arrests, and intense multi-agency reconnaissance. A model of appeasement, where government agencies work with protest groups to allow ample space for permitted protest with open access points and ample warning time before using force, does not seem to be high on the agenda.

Part of a large motorcade at NYC's February 15, 2003 anti-war rally. Photo by Peter Krebs.
Part of a large motorcade at NYC's February 15, 2003 anti-war rally. Photo by Peter Krebs.

The G.O.P. convention late next summer is already the focal point for a multi-theme protest that will attract tens, if not hundreds of thousands, to the heart of New York City. It is therefore crucial to examine whether a doctrine of overwhelming force is the right route to take in the Big Apple. Platitudes abound from authorities about the right to protest. Even George W. Bush, when in London, said he was happy to be in a country where people voice their dissent. But as protestors and law enforcement prepare for next summer’s big event, it is important to find a balance between security and the right to visible, free, and unencumbered assembly here in the United States.

A War Mentality

Protests that get out of hand present a problem for many people. City politicians don’t want to look inept, business-owners worry about looting, and the police usually have their order maintenance credibility at stake. By and large the vast majority of protestors don’t like to be labeled as “violent radicals” who throw bottles of urine at the police and start fires, a characterization often plied by the mainstream media. Yet, how far will law enforcement agencies go to make sure that a fraction of protestors don’t start trouble? A philosophy of overwhelming force, intimidation, and severe inconvenience obviously would prevent thousands of individuals, most of whom are likely politically moderate, from exercising their constitutional rights.

Much of the reaction has to do with the reigning philosophy of law enforcement and how they view their public relations image. A quick look at John Timoney (the go-to guy for how to deal with “radical” protestors) sheds some light on how police are looking at protest these days. Timoney was second in command in the N.Y.P.D. under Giuliani before moving on to reform the Philadelphia police department, and he carries the kind of brashness that grunts respect in their leaders. Unfortunately, by most accounts, Timoney has a war-like philosophy that is all about combating those protestors whom he calls “punks” and “knuckleheads.” As if fashioning himself as Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now, Timoney seems to relish leading his officers into the fray, even daring protestors to turn to violence. He was quoted in a Miami Herald article as saying, before any arrests had been made, that “if they don’t do anything by tomorrow night, pardon the expression, but they look like pussies.”

Miami Heat

After the dust settled in Miami, local leaders said the authorities had set a standard on how to deal with protests. Timoney said, “the officers showed remarkable restraint. These are outsiders coming in to terrorize and vandalize our city.” But according to published and eyewitness accounts, the high-tech paramilitary police presence in Miami was not only larger than at other protests in the last few years but also more aggressive.

More than 40 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, led by the Miami police laden with weapons and riot gear, drilled officers in crowd control tactics, and monitored protestor Internet traffic. The police had visited Washington, D.C. and Cancun to observe how protests were handled and the operation came with price tag estimated at $16.5 million, excluding the costs to defend local governments against civil rights lawsuits, which are now sure to come. More than 2,500 riot-clad officers were deployed downtown at the beginning of the summit, replete with armored vehicles and constant helicopter patrols overhead.

The one major incident between police and protestors occurred on the fourth day of the meetings when a group of protestors allegedly threw objects at police, set fires, and engaged in general rabble-rousing. Riot police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, concussion grenades and stun guns, using force to tackle, subdue, and hit protestors even as the crowd dispersed. Some said that they did not hear the order to disperse and that the use of louder megaphones may have lessened the likelihood of the melee.

During this incident and a few others, more than 220 protestors were arrested. The Miami-Dade County public defender said that it seemed the “pattern has been to maintain order, make arrests, and then to dismiss the charges later.” But many claim that there was a pattern of police stopping protestors, searching them, and confiscating or destroying legal property without even arresting them, a tactic that, besides arrests, can certainly dissuade many from protesting in the future. The police also cordoned off many streets, blocked access—including 25 busloads of senior citizens—to an AFL-CIO rally that organizers claimed was not full, and closed off a dozen portable bathrooms rented for the occasion. Accusations of excessive force, brutality, indiscriminate searches, and general inaccessibility were myriad, while the police and local leaders praised the fact that the situation didn’t turn into a Seattle-style escalation.

“If we didn’t act when we did,” John Timoney said, “it would have been worse.” A police spokesperson said that officers were trained to use force only “to affect an arrest.” The police also presented items they claimed were confiscated from protesters, including metal pipes and rocks. But this overweening militarization, in both philosophy and action, not only inconvenienced most that came to the protest but created an environment fraught with tension and an overwhelming sense of criminalization.

Coming to a City Near You

New York City at the end of next August may experience some of the biggest protests to occur in the United States since the Vietnam War. It was recently revealed that the FBI conducts regular surveillance on civic groups it believes might commit acts of violence or “terrorism” in the hopes of furthering political goals. The New York Times described the revelation as “the first corroboration of a coordinated, nationwide effort to collect intelligence regarding demonstrations.” The overarching question then becomes whether the tactics seen in Miami and elsewhere will control next year’s event. Massive protests in the middle of Manhattan do pose logistical issues given that movement, traffic, and small streets are already a problem without tens of thousands gathered there at the same time.

Yet the choice of the G.O.P. to hold the convention in New York can also be seen as a provocation that provides a perfect venue for the focus of the vast array of Americans who disagree with Bush administration policies. New York has a strong liberal history even if Republicans want to make it a symbol of their urban agenda. Moving the date close to the 3rd anniversary of 9/11 has also ignited legitimate accusations of opportunism. Therefore, protest organizers and protestors will not take kindly to an attempt to move the visible presence of dissent far from the convention site. London mayor Ken Livingstone dismissed the idea of closing off large swaths of London from protestors so President Bush would not have to acknowledge them, but Mayor Bloomberg is clearly no fan of public protest.

According to Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice, the group that organized the February 15th, 2003 anti-war rally in NYC, the N.Y.P.D. have not yet responded to the applications for a march of 250,000 people on August 29th and a smaller protest on September 2nd. They filed the applications last June after the experience of being denied permits to march by the U.N. last February because the N.Y.P.D. said they had filed it too late.

In addition, there is already worry that the N.Y.P.D. is targeting certain groups for intimidation. A fundraiser for Anarchist People of Color sponsored by the grassroots group Critical Resistance was raided in the early hours of November 16th by dozens of officers who used batons and mace, causing injury to several people. One reason given was that someone outside was drinking alcohol from an open container. It’s unclear whether the group was targeted specifically because they are planning to be part of protests during the convention, but police activity directed towards specific political groups should be monitored closely.

A Philosophy of Exacerbation?

It remains to be seen, as permit negotiations and the like continue, whether the huge security operation run by federal, state, and local agencies will take a constructive route as they plan how to handle the demonstrations around the G.O.P. convention. Using overwhelming force to intimidate, making access to protest sites difficult, cutting up and cordoning groups for no good reason—these are not new tactics. But they are strategies that do not hold well with the vast array of citizenry who come out to exercise their constitutional rights. And they can also intimidate those who want to protest but not feel criminalized for doing so.

The voices of the people need to be seen and heard, that’s why they go to protest. Restricting that outlet is tantamount to suppression of the First Amendment. But making protest more difficult doesn’t mean that protest goes away. It actually might only get more determined. But, then again, perhaps the G.O.P., lacking the “victim” status that it wallowed in for much of the 1990s, wants protestors to misbehave and clash with the police. In this scenario, the N.Y.P.D., invoking the legacy of Giuliani, would crush dissent via paramilitary force. This would enable the Republicans not to be just “victims” of extremist elements, but, in popular perception, to renew their reputation as the party that brought law and order to Gotham.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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