New York - police city

Some worry about the nation's movement toward a police state, while overlooking the police city we already have.

Emmaia Gelman, like many of us, has had first hand experience with New York City police assaults on dissent, but she's doing something about it.

Last week I went to jail. Just for a day - it was a little message from the New York Police Department: Dissenter, beware. I had been demonstrating at the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement (formerly known as the INS) alongside activists from immigrant and minority groups.

We were protesting the government's new special registration requirement for Muslim immigrants, a big-brother mechanism not seen since the government decided that Japanese-Americans were "dangerous persons" in 1942. Under this new policy, some registrants who've checked into the bureau have been unable to check out - they've been caught up in what is called "administrative detention," where they have no date for release or trial.

So last Monday, 42 of us sat down to block the doors through which so many have disappeared. Civil disobedience: a small, time-honored gesture of objection. We sat on the ground with arms linked. Police threw us onto our stomachs, planted boots in our backs and wrenched our limbs in directions they're not supposed to go. Our wrists were cinched with plastic cuffs until our arms were blue.

At the precinct we gave fingerprints and identification to our arresting officers, and were marched out singly for intelligence-gathering interviews. Cops had written up summonses for about a third of us when the process suddenly ground to a halt. No more tickets were issued, so we spent the next 31 hours in jail, waiting to be arraigned on minor charges, such as disorderly conduct, which rarely send people to prison even if convicted. Could that be legal?

No. Last year the city paid me and 13 other New Yorkers $469,000 in damages for a similar violation of our rights.

Yet the city seems to accept these and other court damages, for which over $5 million is budgeted this year alone, as just the cost of doing the business of a police city-state.
These are the practices of a police force actively chilling dissent, deliberately raising the cost of protest from hours to days.

Activists had hoped that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would not perpetuate the expensive failed policies of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, especially if the city faces such an enormous budget crunch. Giuliani's trademark dissent-squelching practices are under scrutiny in federal court - again. The NYPD is litigating another set of "punishment of dissent" lawsuits, this time facing off against me and nearly 400 other protesters illegally detained between 1999 and 2001. Once again we find ourselves in court to make the cops respect civil rights.

There's no sign that the NYPD plans to pull back from the national trend of assaults on dissent. Worse, it seems to be gambling that the current lawsuit will yield a new legal precedent allowing the NYPD simply to preempt the First Amendment. The city already faces a raft of new lawsuits arising from anti-war demonstrations and protests against the targeting of Muslims, Arabs and immigrants. The NYPD is already charged with false arrest of protesters and bystanders, excessive detention, violence against demonstrators and curtailing protest rights. The Bush administration isn't finished making war on selected enemies for political ends, or forking out billions in war contracts to its corporate friends. And the Republican Convention is just around the corner.

So there's a lot of dissent yet to be repressed. And the price of protest keeps rising. How long before we just can't afford to speak out?

If the city goes to trial and successfully spins protesters as a "threat to homeland security," it can get 400 litigants off its back and at the same time muzzle the right to speak out. Unchastened by the millions of dollars paid so far to protesters abused on Giuliani's watch (more than $1 million for the Matthew Shepard and Diallo protests alone), the Bloomberg administration seems willing to do the same. The city's lawsuit payout budget has been increasing annually. For 2003, they've budgeted $5.2 million. Of course, not all of it is for paying off protesters, but certainly a more constitutional policy regarding the right to free speech would save the city money. Then maybe it could be funding libraries and schools instead of jails.