September 1, 2004
At Least 900 Arrested in City as Protesters Clash With Police
A series of demonstrations rippled across Manhattan last night when protesters tried to converge on the Republican National Convention, as a day of planned civil disobedience erupted into clashes with police officers and led to the arrest of more than 900 people.
The wave of confrontations - which included a brawl with the police at the New York Public Library, marauding crowds cursing at delegates in Midtown and the detention of hundreds of protesters near ground zero - created a day of disorder in a convention week already marked by sustained protests against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
Yesterday's incidents stood in contrast to the enormous, mostly orderly antiwar march that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Manhattan on Sunday. Many of those protesting yesterday had purposefully avoided seeking permits for their rallies but had publicized their plans well in advance, leading hordes of police officers in cars, bikes, scooters and vans to flood various parts of the city primed to pre-empt disorder before it could occur. The day's arrests brought the convention-related total to more than 1,460.
The protesters gathered at various locations, many with the goal of descending on the convention site at Madison Square Garden. But at the various staging areas - near ground zero, in Union Square, in Herald Square near Macy's, and outside the New York Public Library - the police began making arrests, sending the crowds into a frenzy. These confrontations followed several other events, some of which went off without incident, and the police said their aggressive actions prevented even more widespread disruptions.
"Today a number of anti-R.N.C. activities failed to materialize, including a takeover of the lobby of the Warwick Hotel, perhaps because of the police presence there," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters at an early evening news conference.
Protesters and civil liberties lawyers expressed concerns over what they said had been unfair and overzealous tactics in dealing with demonstrators who may not have had permits but were not violent.
"It's an example of the police suckering the protesters," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, referring to the arrest of some 200 protesters who said they thought they were abiding by an agreement they had negotiated with the police as they marched from ground zero on Fulton Street.
"It was a bait-and-switch tactic," she added, "where they approved a demonstration and the protesters kept up their end of the bargain. They undermined people's confidence in the police, and that's a serious problem as we go forward."
The day, loosely organized by an anarchist collective called the A31 Action Coalition, began slowly, with highly anticipated events proving less than fractious. Indeed, the cat-and-mouse between the protesters and the police started early.
Responding to word that anarchists planned to somehow disrupt the morning's trading, hundreds of police officers flooded the blocks surrounding the New York Stock Exchange before 8 a.m.
Roughly an hour later, dozens of officers responded to an obscure corner near the exchange at South William Street and Mill Lane, where protesters had stretched a ball of yarn across the street.
Within minutes, 14 young people sat handcuffed and seated with their backs to a wall near the short pedestrian mall, surrounded by three or four times as many police officers. Several balls of red and yellow yarn were strewn about the street, and a boom box sat nearby with a sign on a bedsheet reading "Celebrate the Power of Money." One of the protesters wore a pinstriped suit and a beret.
Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman, said of the protesters, "A lot of them are from out of town, and I think it was reflected in the choice of intersections."
But the protests gained intensity throughout the day, and by late afternoon, the tenor had clearly changed as the police appeared to adjust their tactics to deal with the spontaneous eruptions throughout the city and the crowds of demonstrators grew increasingly volatile as the arrests mounted.
Indeed, the turning point appeared to come as several hundred protesters with the War Resisters League tried to begin a march up Fulton Street that organizers had negotiated with police, although they did not have a permit.
Ed Hedemann, one of the organizers, said their understanding was that if they stayed on the sidewalk and did not block foot traffic or vehicles, they could proceed toward Madison Square Garden.
But within minutes, the protesters were confronted by a line of police officers who told demonstrators they were blocking the sidewalk and would be arrested, although they did not appear to be blocking pedestrian traffic at that point.
A commanding officer, telling the crowd of about 200 "you're all under arrest," ordered other officers to bring the "prison van" and the "orange netting" with which to enmesh the protesters.
"We don't know why we are being arrested, we were just crossing the street," said Lambert Rochfort, who was among the protesters. "We were told if we don't do anything illegal we would be allowed to march on the sidewalk and we did just that. Then they arrested us for no apparent reason."
Later in the afternoon, a clash erupted on the steps of the New York Public Library after two women tried to hang a protest banner over one of the lions atop the library steps. After the police pinned the women to the ground, a crowd of protesters struggled with police, answering requests to move with chants of "Oink, oink, oink."
People coming off the subways were thrown to the ground and the steps of the library were left littered with chairs and debris.
As protesters converged on Herald Square in the evening, the police tried to contain the increasingly raucous crowds. Hundreds of protesters seemed to get too close to the buses of delegates and the crowd became unruly as the police moved in metal barricades and used scooters to try to push the crowd back.
Those who would not move were arrested, and each time the police moved in to make an arrest, they were swarmed by protesters.
The demonstrators at Herald Square, frustrated by their lack of ability to move closer to Madison Square Garden, began breaking off in clusters of hundreds or so and storming the streets and avenues in Midtown, throwing cones and other objects at cars and windows as they ran.
As police drew close, they tried to scatter. Police tackled them in streets, corners and in front of stores. Innocent bystanders were also caught up in the maelstrom.
In one instance, about 200 people broke away from the larger group in a chase that went all the way from 33rd Street and Broadway to 27th Street and Park Avenue, before being tackled by police. At 27th Street and Madison Avenue, protesters set fire to a large pile of trash near the Carlton Hotel as delegates and other guests made their way to the convention.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Randal C. Archibold , Michael Wilson, Mary Spicuzza, William K. Rashbaum and Colin Moynihan.