ate last week, the city agreed to settle contempt proceedings brought as a result of the lengthy detentions many arrested protesters were forced to endure during the Republican National Convention. The settlement covered 108 people, described in the stipulation of settlement as having been “held over 24 hours on the ground that they had been detained in excess of a reasonable time.”
Under the law, a person who is arrested must be arraigned before a judge within 24 hours. Many of those arrested last August were held more than twice that long, most in the potentially hazardous confines of Pier 57, a “temporary” holding facility created by the city to handle an anticipated large number of arrests. The settlement, which was negotiated over several weeks, was coincidentally announced the same week that charges were dropped against other protesters after new video and photo evidence surfaced, contradicting the charges against them.
Daniel Alterman, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, commented on the eight-page settlement shortly after it was announced. “The reason we were excited about the settlement today was not because it’s oogles of money, but it’s the first step in what we perceive to be a long process where we will have victories because of the illegal police conduct that caused many people’s rights to be trampled upon in the city of New York.”
In a statement issued by the city’s Law Department, Special Counsel Gail Donoghue said, “An agreement has been reached in which all parties have agreed to discontinue the contempt proceedings brought against city officials in connection with the detention of those arrested during the Republican National Convention. The city acted in complete good faith in its efforts to comply with the court’s order. The city did nothing wrong, and there is no finding or admission of wrongdoing by any city official in the settlement agreement.”
At issue is not just the circumstances of the arrests but their quality. Attorney Alterman said, “About 80 to 90 percent of everything has now been dropped. The overwhelming amount of cases have resulted in a disposition of cases favorable to the accused.”
Gideon Oliver, a National Lawyers Guild attorney, said, “It’s the first of many instances where we’re going to call the city to task for what happened during the R.N.C. in an affirmative way. There were good reasons to settle, due, in part, to the limited scope of the proceedings.”
The terms of the stipulation outline payments to each of the 108 plaintiffs, who will share $16,200, or $150 each. The remaining $215,000 will be awarded as legal fees to the various attorneys and legal groups who worked on the case. Though the numbers may seem skewed toward attorneys fees, the statute on which the settlement was based only provides for a maximum payment of $250 per person.
As for why only 108 participated in this phase of the ongoing legal actions, Alterman explained: “A lot of people didn’t want to be part of it because we were concerned at the time that they may be…foregoing certain rights if they participated. But that turns out that the agreement that we have negotiated with the city says that that can’t be used against them in a proceeding.” In other words, the plaintiffs are free to proceed with civil suits.
Many individual civil cases and a class-action suit are already underway. The class action, filed last fall, involves three claims: unlawful arrests, unreasonable delays and the violation of rights of protesters held in Pier 57.
On Aug. 31, the second day of the convention and a day of citywide protests designated “A31” by some groups who participated, police sweeps netted over 1,100 people, including innocent bystanders and journalists, in some of the largest one-day arrest totals in city history.
Megan Peterson, a Chelsea resident and a student at Parsons School of Design, recalled the days of confinement that followed her arrest with a group of protesters on bicycles. “I was just off Times Sq. riding my bike with the Bike Bloc on Aug. 31. It was very small, about 20 of us, and we were stopped and arrested and taken into custody near Times Sq.” She said the riders were not warned beforehand: “They surrounded us.” She was held in Pier 57 for 17 hours. “I didn’t have chemical burns or anything, but it was very dirty,” she said. “I didn’t sit on the floor at all. I wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody else.” The next day, she was transferred Downtown to Central Booking. “I was in custody a total of about 50 hours.” She was eventually released the evening of Sept. 2.
On Aug. 31, the War Resisters League had planned a silent funeral march from Ground Zero north to Union Sq. and on to Madison Sq. Garden, the convention site, where some planned a die-in. Police and organizers had worked out an agreement in advance, the key element providing for marchers to proceed two abreast. But in this heavily congested part of town the group started bunching up just one block later, as marchers reached their first red light at Fulton St. The orange netting came out and over 200 people, including some tourists and journalists, were handcuffed, loaded aboard buses and taken to Pier 57.
Diana Raimondi, a children’s librarian at a private school for 16 years, was arrested Downtown. “I was kept in custody for 51 1/2 hours. I was in custody for 27 hours before I was able to make a phone call,” she stated. Despite claims that the pier had been prepared for detainees, her experience was less salutary. “I spent about 20 hours at Pier 57. There was this black goo all over the floor and even just standing there it got all over you and got under my fingernails even without touching anything. And it was, clearly, a very unhealthy environment. Even the air itself, you could feel it when you were breathing, that it wasn’t a healthy place to be.”
After more than two days she was finally released. “Essentially, I was issued a ticket, something they could have handed me on the street [instead of] being detained for all this time.”
Protest leaders and their lawyers suspected that detainees were being held until the convention ended. On Thurs., Sept. 2, National Lawyers Guild lawyers and others
presented a writ for habeas corpus to Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo. The writ specified that detainees be brought before a judge in accordance with the law. Justice Cataldo set a 5 p.m. deadline for the processing or release of every arrestee. However, by evening, attorneys for the city acknowledged there were still several hundred in custody, and Justice Cataldo imposed a $1,000-per-day fine on the city for every arrestee still in custody after the deadline. He held hourly hearings on the progress of the processing until, after 11 p.m., only a handful remained.
Attorney Alterman recalled, “A judge had issued an order on Sept. 2 at 1 p.m. saying, “Release these people by 1:30, release these people by 3:30, release these people by 5:30,” and those were the people that had been in jail for between 30 and 60 hours.”
Attorney Norman Siegel, who also participated in the suit, said, “When a judge issues an order saying people should be released, they must be released, and if they are not, the city will be held accountable. We hope the city learns from this experience and that, when and if protesters are arrested in the future, they are released within 24 hours.”
Peterson believes the settlement makes a statement about justice. “I’m really happy that the city is acknowledging what happened,” she said. “People aren’t going to forget about this. I don’t want this to happen to other people.”
Added Raimondi: “I think the city has admitted that they did something wrong and I think it’s wonderful that they’re finally beginning to admit some wrongdoing in this event where people were rounded up, specifically for their political views.”
Alterman is looking ahead to pending cases and their effect on the city’s future conduct. “I think this is going to be an interesting few years,” he said, adding, “But it’s going to be a long struggle.”
— By Jefferson Siegel
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