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Citizen Video Undoes RNC Protest Prosecutions
Emily Gertz, 12 Apr 05

rnc_panopticon.jpgLast summer, New York City police arrested nearly two thousand people during the Republican National Convention. Day after day, the mayor and the chief of police got on the tv and radio news, condemning protestors for "rioting," "resisting arrest," and generally causing mayhem that dimmed the event's sheen before the nation. Meanwhile, arrestees began emerging from the the city's detention center at Pier 57, on the far west side of Manhattan, often denying that they'd done anything confrontational--some saying they were not protesting at all, and only guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, the participatory panopticon is rendering the events of those days more transparent. Thanks to citizen video efforts, often organized by free speech activists such as I Witness Video [PDF of an organizing flyer], visual records are proving that people were swept up without cause and didn't resist, that police officers have misrepresented the events at trial, and that prosecutors have selectively edited the video record to prove their cases. According to today's New York Times, of the 1,670 cases that have proceeded, 91 percent have ended with charges dropped or a verdict of not guilty:

A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive, lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the convention.

For [Dennis] Kyne [arrested while he walked down the steps of the New York Public Library] and 400 others arrested that week, video recordings provided evidence that they had not committed a crime or that the charges against them could not be proved, according to defense lawyers and prosecutors.

Among them was Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going to pick up sushi. Last week, he discovered that there were two versions of the same police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had been edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop's lawyer, prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician had cut the material by mistake.

Citizen-made video is undercutting police testimony about arrests. In Dennis Kyne's case, an officer testified in vivid detail that he kicked, squirmed and screamed, forcing four officers to restrain him. But the case was dropped when prosecutors were presented with a video by a documentary filmmaker showing Kyne descending the library steps on his own power, with the testifying officer nowhere in sight.

I suspect that I'm like a lot of New Yorkers, in simultenously respecting the hard work of our city's police and prosecutors, and feeling despair over the record of abuses, like the free-speech-squelching street sweeps during the RNC and worrisome outgrowths of those actions, like the ongoing harassment of the monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride. (And for some, these certainly pale in comparison to the mixed human rights record of the department.)

Technology's potential to enhance and protect our rights rises and falls on the intent of the person--or government department--using it. At this moment, in these cases, at least, the rights of individuals seem to be winning.

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As a citizen of New York, I share your conflicted feelings about the NYPD. I was involved in a couple of protests during the RNC, and narrowly missed getting swept up in an unprovoked mass arrest. One of my friends was apprehended and spent 24 hours locked in a dirty room with no access to outside assistance. She still faces trial.

I spoke with several police officers on the street during the days of the RNC. Without fail, they were pleasant, courteous, and evidently decent people. During one of our bicycle protest rides, a few on-duty cops even smiled at us and flashed the peace sign.

The blame in this case rests more with the Bloomberg administration, with the convention organizers and with the Republican party leadership. The decision to deploy cops by the thousands, armed with barricades, riot gear, and swarming helicopters -- before any alleged incidents ever occurred -- was a mistake and an affront to our rights as citizens.

Some cops messed up, but the large majority of them were only following orders, as they should, and meant no harm. It was our elected (and unelected) leaders who failed to uphold the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Posted by: Mike Treder on 12 Apr 05

Protests would have been a lot smaller if Bush was a decent president in the first place too... Responsability goes up the whole way :)

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 12 Apr 05

will there be any shakeout to this ... civil suits or anything? the danger would be that it becomes (pardon the pun) conventional behavior to do these sweeps.

Posted by: odograph on 12 Apr 05

Welcome to the 4th Reich.

Posted by: crusader bunnypants on 12 Apr 05

Remember to use the date/time stamp when recording events like this, to verify the continuity of the recordings. (If we're all going to become journalists, we have a duty to fact-check and verify.) Still, this is a wonderful example of citizen empowerment. I grew up knowing many police; quite a few were decent, but all too many were willing to lie to convict someone they "knew in their gut" was guilty, or for "someone" to be convicted to "satisfy the public's need for justice." It's tempting to let experiences like that breed contempt for the rule of law. It's more constructive to realize that each of us has to help maintain the rule of law - it can't be outsourced. Police need to know they're being watched - but there also have to be real consequences if they lie.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Apr 05

Not about the RNC protests, but still pretty amazing:

60 Cameras Against The War

Posted by: Paul on 12 Apr 05

Its not the rnc's fault police numbers were strictly in case something rather bad happened like a terrorist attack. If such an attack had happened and thousands died due to too few police what would you be saying now hmm?

Frankly I would never involve myself in any large protest movement unless I had a quick plan of exit in case hooligans started something wich tends to be what always happens. But then I dont like crowds.

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Apr 05

Preventing wrongful convictions is surely a good thing, and this is far from the first time that activist videographers have proved indispensable in that effort.

A few "buts" jump up, though.

1) -Only 91%?- A friend from the NorthLeft Coast who participated responds to the NYT piece:

Yeah, this is mostly old news for me because these dismissals have been discussed on the arrestees listserv--but good to see more of it out in the
public. What it doesn't say is that most of the "guilty" pleas were entered by people who couldn't afford to come back to NYC ten more times to fight
it and so just caved in to some really good offer. There have only been a couple of actual convictions and they've usually involved unbelievably bogus court proceedings before judges, not juries. To my knowledge, none of
them have been serious crimes--in fact, most are things that would've otherwise never gone to trial.

Anyway, my next court date for the first step in the civil counter-suit is sometime in June. I'm following through on it all the way.

2) - this is hard - It takes work, lots of it, to vindicate our rights (see above), and the groups doing this work are, by and large, neither large nor well-funded, and need our support;

3) - so what? - A very minor black eye months later is a small price to pay for the overall success of the NYPD's pre-emptive mass arrest tactic. Free speech was arbitrarily suppressed, and perceptions of "dangerous" demonstrators reinforced, and only the countersuit (again, see above) will even begin to address those facts-on-the-ground.

It's really worth watching the videos oneself; NYPD are clearly just rounding up blockfulls of protestors and carting them off to detention. That's not my America.

Posted by: pi on 12 Apr 05

Every one of the police officers and prosecutors who have lied and tampered with the evidence should be fired immediately and prosecuted for a variey of public service related crimes, such as perjury, tampering with evidence, and misuse of authority. Let the criminal and civil suits begin!

Posted by: r.miller on 12 Apr 05

My sister was 'swept' up during the RNC for just walking down street. Heil BUSH!!!!

Posted by: Mike Vee on 12 Apr 05

I'm sorry did this take place in the US or China? I am just blown away by what I see happening in the US these days. I'm not sure how the Bush administration is getting away with it. Are there so many conservative crazy's out there that they are just doing what they want and no one is there to stop them? Or is it that the well informed are just too complacent to do anything about it? People's rights should never be trampled on like that. I'm glad someone is reporting on these stories!

Posted by: Jazwond on 13 Apr 05

Any Police Officer caught, by evidence, in filing a false report or giving false testimony, should be removed from the force, immediately, and brought to trial for violation of the defendant's rights. He should be blackballed from ever holding a position of civil authority as a sworn officer or security guard.

Posted by: Dennis Joyce on 13 Apr 05

>>>Its not the rnc's fault police numbers were strictly in case something rather bad happened like a terrorist attack. If such an attack had happened and thousands died due to too few police what would you be saying now hmm?<<<

Would you give up every right afforded to you as a citizen so some politician can promise to keep the big bad terrorists away? Don't you think that's a slap in the face to the founding fathers and everyone who fought for our freedom.. You'd rather turn around and give it all away for an empty promise? Many people fought and died for the constitution and bill of rights a couple hundred years ago. The bill of rights being a document that gauruntees certain rights which citizens of other countries at that time wouldn't have. So now you're going to say it's fine and peachy for police to arrest people for no reason at all, then lie about it in court because hey, THEY MIGHT BE TERRORISTS?!

Move to china or iran, you will like it better there.

Posted by: rndpacket on 14 Apr 05

I'd like to remind folks of our practice at Worldchanging:

"...while disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. In short, we'll kill troll posts."

Mike T., I've had the same experience as you have--talking with individual police officers during a march or other street protest, they invariably respond to politeness with politeness, and depending on what else is demanding their attention, can even be moved to tell you they're glad you're marching (because they agree w/the politics? b/c they're getting paid that awesome overtime? whatever!).

I think the challenge for "folks like us" is to treat the cops the way we want to be treated--as individuals, when and as much as possible. Which is why I don't wind up my post with some kind of blanket condemnation of the department. My scorn would be all well and good, until I needed to call the local precinct on the guy on the first floor of my building with the anger management problem

Pi, thanks for forwarding your friend's comments. (slapping forehead: Of COURSE there would be an arrestees listserv!)

I'm hoping that the Times and reporter Jim Dwyer will continue to put resources into keeping this story updated. I hope it will be a big issue in the upcoming mayoral election.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 14 Apr 05

It's unfair to lump the Critical Mass bike ride in this same RNC protest rant.

The Critical Mass ride, while purposeful, is the exact type of mob mentality that the RNC protests weren't.

I've been caught in the middle of those rides on too many occasions not to voice displeasure about people who do exactly what they call on others not to: reside in the realm of selfishness and non-aggression.

They block up the streets and cause gridlock for square blocks at a time. (god forbid a fire truck or ambulance needs to get through!) I've seen them gridlock from Avenue B to 1st Avenue from 2nd street to 10th street. With bicylists pounding on the hoods of innocent car drivers and cabbies who are just trying to live their lives, yet are made to sit for 20 minutes by a bicycle mob who threaten them, who physically park themselves in front of vehicles who have the right of way. Is this the protest as advocated by the RNC protestors? Active agression?

Mark my words, if the Police do not put a stop (or at least order) to this monthly mob rule of City streets, someone will get severly hurt.

I've seen it come close too many times already. Some bicylist will park themselves in front of the wrong car. The driver will get out beat/shoot/stab the cyclist --> then the mob will retaliate. You never know who your screwing with, and screwing with the NYC public is never healthy.


Posted by: Ethan on 15 Apr 05

Heh that reminds me of something that happend to me way back. Trueth is if not for the environmental movement I might be dead right now. A group of demonstrators stopped traffic near our colledge and just so happened to stop a suicidal man who just so happened to be in my class. He popped that day and several of the demonstrators went with him. I dont know for sure if he would have taken me out but im glad someone else went with him instead of me.

Be glad for the demonstrators being rude and antagonistic its fairly likely they will flush out the tortured souls. Someone has to after all.

Posted by: wintermane on 15 Apr 05

Every city's CM I've witnessed seems to live on this edge between affirmation and confrontation. Some people want better infrastructure for their bicycle commutes, and to make a point about how many bikes can easily fit on the streets compared to cars.

And some are definitely getting off on sticking it to The Man.

The ride really is huge now--I agree it would be smart organizing if the hive mind started to break it up into neighborhood and borough editions. A Brooklyn ride's been taking off recently.

That said, NYC's attempts to enjoin the ride via the courts are offensive to free speech and the right to assemble, as well as selective enforcement of laws and regs otherwise generally ignored. So far, the courts agree.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 16 Apr 05



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