Wednesday, April 25, 2007

JIM DWYER: At the Protest, a Civics Lesson Gets a Twist


By the time Bob Curley got to a telephone, he and his son Neal had been in police detention for a full night. They had been arrested while shuffling down a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan with 225 others, protesting the Iraq war without written permission, a fact, and in disorderly fashion, an accusation.

Bleary, Mr. Curley called his wife from a cell that had been specially set up to segregate political protesters from ordinary decent criminals.

The number he tried — the Curley home — was registered on a police log, which court records show was created for calls made by protesters.

The Curleys had come to the city from their home in Philadelphia the day before, Aug. 31, 2004, an annual pilgrimage made by father and son for dinner and a play in Manhattan. Neal, then 17, was about to start his senior year in high school. Because their visit coincided with the Republican National Convention, they decided that before dinner, they’d join a protest march by the War Resisters League from the World Trade Center site.

They didn’t get to dinner, the play or back home that night. A few yards down Fulton Street, they were penned in and arrested. The march and arrests can be seen on a short video.

What cannot be seen is that the people arrested that day — hundreds at a time, about 1,100 across the city — had landed in the jaws of a new and largely invisible intelligence bureaucracy, that the mayor and police commissioner said they had set up to protect the city from the murderous strikes of terrorists. For 18 months, preparations for the convention included police surveillance of political groups across the country, most of whom had no plans to break the law.

The intelligence operation was conducted legally, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said, and helped make the convention “a huge success” by protecting the rights of protesters and Republican delegates. How much did it cost to send detectives and support teams around the country, with big overtime and travel bills? Mayor Bloomberg’s press office won’t say. The Police Department says there was no budget. The city’s chief lawyer, Michael A. Cardozo, says there was no surveillance program.

Somehow, with no money and no surveillance, police bosses have testified in civil depositions they received intelligence that certain protests would be dangerous.

For example, a deputy inspector said he believed the War Resisters would be joined by another group that “was very prone to disruption and violence.”

Was this true? Some of the War Resisters openly discussed staging a “die-in” at Madison Square Garden, if they were able to get anywhere near it — but many, like the Curleys with theater tickets in their pockets, had no such plans.

As for the notion that violence was in the works, Ed Hedemann, one of the organizers, scoffed. “Government gets information wrong,” he said. “Either they got this information wrong, like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or they’re lying.”

THE city was given $93 million in federal funds for security around the time of the convention. “Every agency is trying to figure out their angle,” Mr. Curley said. “It’s the only way you get grant money.”

For their arrests, the Curleys were grouped with “a political science professor, a father from Madison, Wis., who just dropped his daughter off at Pratt Institute, and a toll collector from the Port Authority,” Mr. Curley said. “Women in their 60s and 70s. Gray-haired protesters.”

The police assigned special codes to their arrests to identify them as protesters. They were kept in prolonged custody and fingerprinted, instead of the normal practice of being issued a summons for minor offenses — a policy specifically enacted as a result of the intelligence operation, according to city lawyers.

Two months after the convention, charges were dropped against all 227 people arrested on Fulton Street. Of the 1,806 people arrested that week, 90 percent of the cases were dismissed or dropped after six months. Like hundreds of others, the Curleys are suing, perturbed about the collection of personal information. In response to the suit, the city sought every account of the march that Neal Curley had given — including his college admissions file.

In September 2005, Neal Curley began studies at the University of Chicago. Soon afterward, the City of New York served a subpoena on the school demanding “a complete copy of the application and all related materials, including essays and short answers submitted by Neal Curley.”

A memorable start to college. “And it’s a good way to intimidate middle-class folks from protesting,” Mr. Curley said.

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