About 400 members of the New York-based War Resisters League were milling around the Manhattan subway entrance at Ground Zero among the tourists and commuters on Aug. 31 -- the day chosen by activists for mass civil disobedience during the Republican National Convention. Members of this 80-year-old pacifist group -- founded by former World War I protestors -- were waiting to begin their four-mile march to Madison Square Garden when police started yelling for demonstrators to line up by twos along the street edge of the sidewalk.
Not having a permit, half the group complied. The other half crossed the street to get out of the way. As soon as they reached the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, a white-shirted police officer began screaming, "You're all under arrest!" They were quickly surrounded by orange plastic netting, a phalanx of men in blue and police vans.
"It was a trap! They had them surrounded in five seconds!" an onlooker shouted from the crowd of pedestrians, journalists and legal observers like me, clamoring for a view of those now being led away in handcuffs. About 200 were arrested in that incident, including the march's two organizers, several legal observers, a New York Times reporter and anyone else who happened to be inside the net.
The remaining War Resisters found their planned route also blocked by construction, so they zig-zagged north through Soho and Greenwich Village, occasionally afforded an eerie view of the rows of police vans waiting along their original route a block or two away. Their procession was headed by Resisters dressed in white, each carrying a sign bearing the name of an American or Iraqi killed in Iraq.
A police car caught up with the marchers and doggedly followed them against the flow of traffic up Broadway. The tension in the silent procession mounted as more and more officers showed up, but they still intended to get as close to the Garden as possible.
By 28th Street -- perhaps halfway to the destination -- the police presence finally overwhelmed the marchers. "You're going to have to start heading west," a white-shirted officer informed them. This, apparently, was the signal some marchers had been awaiting: About 55 demonstrators fell away from the line, walked into the street and lay down.
With marchers and onlookers both watching the die-in, few seemed to notice police barricading the entire block. Pedestrians asked angrily why they couldn't leave: "I don't know. I just do what I'm told," said one policeman. Eventually, his superior officer allowed those not "dead" in the street to leave.
The rationale behind the sweeping arrests -- the spectre of "anarchist violence" -- was as elusive as Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, said Bruce Bentley, coordinator of the New York National Lawyer's Guild Mass Defense Committee. The Committee trained 600 volunteers to spend the convention week gathering evidence for arrestees' defense: from names and physical descriptions of arrestees to instances of police abuses of power.
During the Aug. 28 training at New York University, we volunteers were instructed neither to interfere nor to take sides during demonstrations. On Aug. 29, when the march past Madison Square Garden organized by United for Peace and Justice drew several hundred thousand, we spent the day chasing from 14th street to Central Park to Times Square -- wherever police movement against protesters was reported. Demonstrators approached observers -- highly visible in our acid-green caps -- to report on concentrations of police along the march route and friends who were arrested.
In a warehouse at Pier 57, cages topped with barbed wire had been erected especially for the week's arrests.
Our team witnessed only one arrest on Aug. 29. But by the morning of Sept. 2, Bentley, of the Lawyer's Guild, was awaiting rulings on two writs of habeas corpus calling for the release of all arrested demonstrators -- 1,200 by now. That included those detained during the Aug. 31 arrest of War Resisters, who were still inside the Pier 57 fence.
"My personal opinion is that this is being done deliberately to squelch dissent," Bentley says. "[The police] don't want people protesting until Bush and his cabal have their staged party and leave the city."
By the afternoon of Sept. 2, a state Supreme Court justice was threatening to fine New York City for each arrested demonstrator not released from Pier 57.
Sara Ginsburg lives in Squirrel Hill