Occupy Wall Street Mass Arrest Resembles Infamous, Costly Police Tactic, Critics Say
WASHINGTON -- Ben Becker, 27, sat in the back of a police-commandeered transit bus on Saturday night, his hands placed tightly behind his back in plastic cuffs. He'd been marching on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. And like hundreds of other activists railing against the inequities of the financial system, he had been swept up in a mass arrest by the New York Police Department.
Becker was one of the first placed in custody. His bus filled up fast. They waited, tied up for hours, and did not know their charges, Becker said. For many, this was new: the march, the chanting, the arrest.
"Some of the teenagers on the bus were extremely nervous," Becker said.
But this was a scenario Becker knew well. He was the named plaintiff in the Partnership for Civil Justice's 2001 federal class-action lawsuit against the District of Columbia, known as Becker v. D.C. That case stemmed from the D.C. police department's mass arrest of anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrators on April 15, 2000. Becker was one of nearly 700 people arrested during that march. He was 16 at the time.
On Tuesday, the Partnership for Civil Justice filed yet another class-action lawsuit -- this one again on behalf of Becker and others arrested on the bridge.
"I was telling the young people -- the teenagers -- the people who had been protesting for the first time, when we were sitting on the bus for hours, I was telling them the similarities to April 2000," said Becker, who is currently an adjunct professor at City College of New York and a graduate student studying history.
The mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge resemble a clear, premeditated police tactic that has come to be known as "trap and detain," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice. The tactic goes something like this, she said: the police permit and escort marchers to proceed with their activities before suddenly corralling them into a closed off area and arresting everyone in one sweep.
The police will use a side street, a park, or, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, a bridge -- usually an area where the people trapped cannot disperse, and where they end up having to beg the police to leave, Verheyden-Hilliard said. Journalists, tourists and legal observers are often caught up in these dragnets. A reason for the arrests is crafted after the fact, she said.
The NYPD says its officers warned the activists not to take the motorway. “There were claims police had not issued warnings,” Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the police, stated in an email to The New York Times. “In fact, warnings were issued and captured on video.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post.
Verheyden-Hilliard said the fact that the so-called warnings were videotaped shows premeditation. She added that the warnings were bad theater -- police were speaking inaudibly into a bullhorn; they were for show only, she said.
Police departments may have popularized the tactic of snuffing out and intimidating protests during the anti-globalization movement a decade ago that criticized corporate capitalism. But Verheyden-Hilliard said the method has gone international in the last couple of years.
"It's been used in London and in Toronto. They call it 'kettling' there in Toronto," she said. “It's a particular tactic, a refined police tactic -- you get boxed by police on all sides or, even easier, when there are buildings or a bridge and you block the front and the back."
The tactic has been deployed by police in Oakland and other cities as well, according to Verheyden-Hilliard. But it was D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department that made "trap and detain" infamous.
On April 15, 2000, according to court records, demonstrators had gathered in front of the Department of Justice on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and marched to a spot close to the International Monetary Fund on 19th Street NW. Police were very much a presence during the march. As the crowd headed toward Dupont Circle, where it was set to disperse, the activists were suddenly penned in on a side street by the police, according to Becker and court records.
The department at the time justified the arrests by arguing that the officers were trying to prevent chaos in the streets. "I apologize for nothing we did," the then-Police Chief Charles Ramsey said at the time. "They have the right to sue us just like they had the right to protest."
Along with the mass arrest, several plaintiffs in the Becker case alleged that they were beaten by D.C. cops. The court case produced a video that showed a police unit charging a group of demonstrators and beating them in the face with batons. The officers had obscured their badge numbers. Another plaintiff said he had been injured with pepper spray and alleged that the cop's attack had been unprovoked.
"There was a police line in riot gear," Becker remembered. "They refused to let us go. We turned around and the police line blocked. We were chanting for almost an hour, 'let us go!'"
Becker said he heard the same chants on the Brooklyn Bridge this past weekend. People were chanting their lungs out when the march started at 3 p.m. Saturday at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, he said. It soon passed City Hall. Only 15 minutes in, thousands of demonstrators had picked out a few favorites.
"Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!" they chanted.
"We are the 99 percent!"
And in honor of the recent execution of a Georgia inmate: "We are all Troy Davis!"
Throughout the march, the throngs stayed on sidewalks. If people spilled onto the streets, police were there within seconds to admonish them to get off the roadway, Becker said. Becker and Joshua Stephens, another demonstrator interviewed by HuffPost, said everyone complied without hassle. "It was a very closely-monitored and marshaled protest up to the Brooklyn Bridge," Becker recalled.
There had been a demonstration the previous day at One Police Plaza over a pepper-spray incident. A white-shirt cop had indiscriminately sprayed several women in the face; it had been caught on tape and gone viral. Becker said a thousand people showed up and said their piece without getting hassled by police.
The march became a bottleneck at the bridge, Becker said. The demonstrators first had to cross a street and then pass a narrow entranceway. Becker said he saw no cops as he passed on to the bridge.
When Marcel Cartier, 27, started marching on the bridge's motorway, he said the police only insisted on keeping one lane open for cars. "We began marching on the street with police right next to us not saying anything," he told HuffPost. "The most that was said -- 'Excuse me brother, could you move over?' They kept one lane open for cars. It was fine. It was perfectly okay for us to be on that street on the bridge."
After about 15 minutes on the bridge, the march came to a halt as the police formed a line and stopped the marchers, Becker said. Cartier and Becker both moved up to the front.
A police official took out a piece of paper and read from it into a bullhorn. "It was inaudible," Becker said. "I couldn't hear."
Cartier didn't get the message either. "I heard absolutely nothing," he said. "No announcement that they were going to arrest people." He didn't know he was in trouble until three others were hauled away. Then a cop pointed at him and a few officers pulled him out and cuffed him, he said. He was the fourth activist arrested that day.
Becker, before he was arrested, asked an officer: "Why are you doing this?" He pressed that the police were the ones blocking traffic. Another cop grabbed him and escorted him to the police bus, he said. It would be the second arrest in his life, the first being in April 2000.
"I certainly was not expecting or wanting to be having a repeat encounter," Becker said. "The arrests in 2000 were horrible for the people that went through them...There is still a lot of legal work to be done to correct that. This movement that's developing has to take this on as a major issue."
The April 2000 lawsuit resulted in record settlement with the District of Columbia in 2009 agreeing to pay $13.7 million to those arrested. The litigation also resulted in a ban on the "trap and detain" tactic. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman wrote that it reminded him of the old discredited police responses to anti-Vietnam War protesters -- "when thousands of demonstrators were arrested on a theory of 'group' probable cause on the steps of the Capitol, in West Potomac Park, and on the streets of the District of Columbia."
A subsequent case was brought against the Metropolitan Police Department over the arrest of 400 individuals in Pershing Park in September 2002 for, once again, demonstrations involving anti-globalization activists.
Like the other "trap and detain" cases, the police surrounded the downtown-D.C. park and hauled away everyone inside -- including tourists and nurses who weren’t necessarily involved but were merely taking a break from a nearby convention. That case, also filed by the Partnership for Civil Justice, was settled with the city in late 2009 for $8.25 million. A second lawsuit stemming from Pershing Park has yet to reach a settlement.
The NYPD, Verheyden-Hilliard said, should expect a similar fight. "I think people have to recognize the police are acting deliberately and intentionally," she said. "It's not that they're reacting to some protest or misconduct or that they're overreaching or maybe they had probable cause to arrest someone. They did not have probable cause to arrest anyone. They have been engaged in a pattern and practice to suppress dissent for years."
"They ordered the arrest buses from Rikers," she added. "When you are ordering arrest buses, you are intending to make mass arrests."