Hampered, trumped, infringed and violated. Even Roget doesn’t have enough words to describe the assault on First Amendment rights that I, along with thousands of others, suffered during the Republican National Convention in New York City in late August.
In this era when doomsday scenarios constantly emanate from the lips of the Bushies, when Jefferson, Washington and Adams have taken a back seat to fearing the Axis of Evil, we can ill-afford to forget for even a moment the vision of liberty and freedom of expression that our forefathers mapped out for us in the Constitution.
Yet, it seems the New York City Police Department and its henchmen in the justice system all came down with a collective case of Constitutional amnesia during the GOP convention. Even more appalling was the steady stream of outright lies and unmitigated praise for the law enforcement effort spewing from the bowels of Madison Square Garden throughout the convention housed inside.
In fact, the only thing dirtier than the Republican invective was the slick and grimy prison floor on which I was forced to sleep after being arrested near Ground Zero in New York City last Tuesday. And what happened to me could happen to anyone.
It started at 4 p.m., when Johns Hopkins sophomore Monica Wendel and I stopped by Ground Zero because we heard the War Resisters League was planning a huge but peaceful march to Madison Square Garden. We found a large crowd as expected along with dozens of police in riot gear.
The megaphone-wielding officer in charge told the crowd mixed with young and old that although they didn’t have a permit to march, they could do so as long as they obeyed traffic laws and walked two-by-two on the sidewalk, staying out of the streets.
So Monica and I decided to follow the march because it seemed like the most interesting and important event of the day. Besides, as long as we obeyed the police officers simple rules we’d be OK, right?
Wrong. It was an “amBush” in waiting. A classic sucker punch from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, looking to bolster his reputation among Bush ‘ Co.
The marchers marched half a block and as suddenly as a Democratic Senator Zell Miller blindside, the line stopped. We heard shouting behind us and suddenly hundreds of cops doing the Texas two-step surrounded us with wire netting. In what seemed like a minute or two, we were handcuffed and sitting on the curb, some 300 of us bent, as some would have you believe, on spoiling Bush’s re-coronation.
And then something happened that I’ll never forget.
After sitting on the curb for more than an hour watching police casually photograph and videotape the detainees, a cop pulled me aside. He asked me why I was there and how I got involved. Without listening to a word I said, he told me to stop wasting my time and the police’s time by protesting.
“You’re government doesn’t give a [expletive deleted] about you,” he told me, adding that if I wanted my voice heard, to go vote in November.
And I wondered to myself, is this what it has come down to in this post-9/11 world? Are constitutional rights to express oneself and assemble – rights for which thousands of Americans have died to preserve – less important than spoiling the pristine view of the Bush Administration and keeping New York’s mayor in good favor with the GOP?
That day, they were. And I spent my first 12 hours in police custody in Pier 57, or what it later became known as: “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”
Pier 57 is a warehouse along the Westside highway specifically reconstructed to hold prisoners during the convention. There, males and females were separated, our property confiscated and we were thrown 50 at a time into barbed wire cages that could barely hold 25.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told The New York Times that most of the detainees were held for 90 minutes, and that none were there longer than eight hours and all had immediate access to toilet facilities and drinking water. Does Roget have a list of words for liar?
I was in Guantanamo for 12 hours.
Because of the overcrowding, dozens of us had to sleep on the motor oil-drenched concrete floors. Some released protesters claimed that after their Pier 57 stopover, their clothes tested positive for asbestos, a claim that may bring a hefty class-action lawsuit against the city.
My appearance before a judge took all of 30 seconds and, as I found out later, one of the city judges demanded the immediate release of 500 prisoners due to the city’s intentional and unnecessary delay. The city was fined $1,000 for each prisoner that was incarcerated overtime. This judge based the decision on a 1991 law stating that the police must release anyone arrested in New York State who is not arraigned before a judge in less than 24 hours.
From my first moment in cuffs until my final jail cell closed behind me, 25 hours had elapsed.
This unequivocal and undeniable violation of civil and constitutional rights may actually inspire more protests than it deters, but either way, George Orwell’s grim prophesies grow truer. And although Big Brother is only watching me for the next six months (part of a deal most protesters struck with the judge to dismiss the current charges if we stay out of trouble for half a year), I am genuinely scared.
Scared that my government can conscientiously deny peaceful protesters the right to march. Scared that strong-arming cops under orders from Republican demagogues dictate policy more than the Constitution. Scared that the America I grew up in has become a memory and the reality I live in can never claim to be what it once was: A land that cherished freedom of expression, distinguished between peaceful protesters and malicious terrorists and, most of all, upheld the Constitution honorably and completely.
Please forgive us, forefathers.
Kyle Cheney, a sophomore in the College of Communication, is a city assignment editor for The Daily Free Press.