NEW YORK — One late August evening Alexander Pincus pedaled his bicycle to the Second Avenue Deli to buy matzo-ball soup, a pastrami on rye and potato latkes for his sweetheart, who was sick with a cold.
He wouldn’t return for 28 hours. As Pincus and a friend left the deli, they encountered a police blockade and bicycle-riding protesters two days before the Republican National Convention. “I asked an officer how I could get home,” Pincus recalled. “He said, ‘Follow me,’ and we went a few feet and cops grabbed us. They handcuffed us and made us kneel for an hour.”
Police carted Pincus to a holding cell topped with razor wire and held him for 25 hours without access to a lawyer. The floor was a soup of oil and soot, he said, and the cell had so few portable toilets that some people relieved themselves in the corner. Pincus said his shoulder was dislocated as police handcuffed him.
“Cops kept saying to us, ‘This is what you get for protesting,'” said Pincus, whose account of his arrest is supported by deli workers and a time-stamped food receipt.
Pincus was one of 1,821 people arrested in massive police sweeps before and during the Republican convention, the largest number of arrests associated with a major party convention in U.S. history. At the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which unlike New York’s was marked by widespread police brutality, fewer than 700 arrests were made.
In the days after the convention, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly stated that “every NYPD officer did a great job.”
But interviews with state court officials, City Council representatives, prosecutors, protesters and civil libertarians — and a review of videos of demonstrations — point to problems with the police performance.
Hundreds swept up
Officers often sealed off streets with netting and used motor-scooters and horses to sweep up hundreds of protesters, including many who appear to have broken no laws. In two cases, police commanders appeared to allow marches to proceed, only to order arrests minutes later.
A majority of those arrested were held for more than two days without being arraigned, which a state Supreme Court judge ruled was a violation of legal guidelines. Defense attorneys predict a flood of civil lawsuits once protesters have settled misdemeanor charges lodged against them.
Police officials declined to talk about these problems, citing a pending court case.
But the city’s criminal-justice coordinator, John Feinblatt, said that city lawyers tried to weed out the unjustly arrested and that the volume of arrests — more than 1,100 on one day — overwhelmed the Police Department.
Bloomberg and Kelly defended the majority of the arrests as justified and described holding cells as clean and humane.
The first mass arrests came three days before the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 convention, when police swooped down on Critical Mass, a loose-knit collective of bicyclists who periodically flood city streets and slow traffic.
Police usually tolerate the disruption. But that night, officers arrested more than 200. Kelly later told New York Magazine that he wanted to send the protesters a message.
The next few days were quiet, and a massive quarter-million-strong march went forward on Sunday, Aug. 29, without incident.
But the mood changed Tuesday, Aug. 31, when police made 1,128 arrests. Anarchists had pledged a day of resistance, blocking traffic. Police arrested hundreds, and civil-liberties lawyers on the scene described most arrests as lawful.
Farther downtown that day, the War Resisters League, a decades-old pacifist group, was readying a peaceful march from Ground Zero to Madison Square Garden, where it intended to conduct a civil disobedience “die in.”
A video provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows police commanders laying out ground rules: As long as protesters didn’t block traffic, they wouldn’t get arrested during their walk north. (No permit is required for a march on a sidewalk as long as protesters leave space for other pedestrians to pass).
Within a block or two, however, the video shows marchers lined up on the sidewalk, far from an intersection, as a police officer announces on the bullhorn: “You’re under arrest.”
“They came with batons, bicycles, they came with netting,” said the Rev. G. Simon Harak, a Jesuit priest. “The kind of forces you expect to be turned on terrorists was unleashed on us.”
Police arrested 200 people, saying they had blocked the sidewalk.
At about the same time Tuesday, several other groups of protesters started walking two-abreast from Union Square to Madison Square Garden. However, several demonstrators say, and photographs show, police soon stopped them, asked them to raise their hands and arrested them.
Dozens weren’t protesters
Throughout the week, police picked up dozens who appeared to have nothing to do with the demonstrations, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Among those swept up by police were several newspaper reporters, two women shopping at the Gap, a businessman out for dinner with a friend, and Wendy Stefanelli, a costume designer with the TV show “Sex and the City.”
She saw an officer pushing a protester against a wall and asked him to stop. Police flooded the street and she was arrested. “I don’t know how this could happen,” Stefanelli, 35, told the City Council last week. “I was coming from work.”
Bloomberg has acknowledged police may have arrested some innocent bystanders. But he suggested it was partly their fault. “If you go to where people are protesting and don’t want to be part of the protest, you’re always going to run the risk that maybe you’ll get tied up with it,” he said on a weekly radio show on WABC.
Police hauled those arrested to newly built holding cells in a former bus depot. Interviews with two dozen protesters from six states described floors covered in oil, and police officers who denied them access to family and lawyers.
During this time, Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne twice stated to The Washington Post that most protesters had been released after six or seven hours. Only last Thursday did he acknowledge longer delays. On Friday Feinblatt, the city’s criminal-justice coordinator, attributed the problems to a glut of arrests.
But senior police officials had predicted 1,000 arrests per day during the convention. State court officials, prosecutors and Legal Aid lawyers doubled staffing during convention week — only to wait.
“What happened for several days is that we had resources available and we simply were not getting the bodies produced, the defendants in the courtroom,” said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the state office of court administration. Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia, The Washington Post