When Police Bring "the War" Home: Shattering the First Amendment in New York City

Alex S. Vitale


PREFATORY NOTE: After my prefatory note, there follows a letter from an expert in police sociology about the police treatment of the great antiwar demonstration in New York City on February 15. Please distribute this to others in the Jewish contingent.

When the leaders of republics decide to turn their republic into empires, it is classic that they bring the imperial mode home as well. The built-in reason is that usually sizeable parts of the Republic's citizens object to the redirection of money to foreign adventures instead of meeting public needs, and object to the upward shift of power to the imperial rulers, and away from the citizenry.

In Torah, for example, not only is the Israelite king forbidden to amass cavalry (the tanks & jet bombers of that day; weapons of aggressive war, suitable to empiures like Egypt) but the kings are forbideden to "send the people into Mitzrayyim [Egypt, the Tight & Narrow Place, the house of slavery] in order to amass cavalry." (Deut 17: 14-20)

The following letter explains in detail what happened in New York City when the police were ordered to treat as a potentially hostile foreign country an enormous crowd of peaceful protesters exercising their former rights in the American Republic.

Not only literally but figuratively, the police amassed cavalry at home in order to help the king amass jet bombers overseas. They forced the public into "Tight and narrow" spaces.

L' Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org

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Th expert letter follows:

By Alex S. Vitale Ph.D.

Department of Sociology

Brooklyn College

February 20, 2003

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

I am writing to express my deep concerns about the recent conduct of the NYPD at the February 15th rally against war in Iraq. I have been studying a variety of police practices for the past 12 years and teach criminology and sociology of law at Brooklyn College. I was present at the rally and have spoken to many of my students, colleagues, and friends who were there about their personal experiences. I also had conversations with several legal observers and with one of the staff organizers for United For Peace and Justice, who was involved in negotiations with the police prior to the event. I also reviewed press accounts of the demonstration in the mainstream media and on Indymedia.org.


The decision not to grant a march permit seems difficult to defend on the grounds of deployment of police resources and concerns about public safety.

Major cities all over the world were able to accommodate large marches without any major incidents. Media reports of between 500,000 and 1.2 million in Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona show that cities that have their own serious security concerns were able to handle these events with much smaller police forces than our own. London was on a high state of alert and Spanish cities have been recent targets of bombings from Basque separatist groups. Yet in none of these cities was lack of police resources or security concerns raised as grounds for prohibiting marches or rallies.

The NYPD is the largest, and according to your own statements, one of the best trained departments in the world in the area of anti-terrorism, and yet they claimed they could not adequately handle the security needs of the march and the rest of the city. If this is so, there needs to be a major overhauling of the way that they conceptualize security for large events.

One of the implications of the denial of the permit is that only marches that are large enough to potentially effect national policy can't be adequately policed. This flies in the face of the core principles of the First Amendment. The whole purpose of protecting the right of assembly is to insure that the public has an opportunity to express its opinions on matters of grave public concern. If ten thousand, one hundred thousand, or one million people feel so motivated it is the job of the city government and its police department to facilitate it not fight against it. This was exactly the attitude taken by police in London and the rest of Europe.

The decision to deny a march permit ended up costing the city just as much or more on overtime and other expenses as a unified march would have.

Commissioner Kelly reported that 5 million dollars was spent on Saturday to pay for the deployment of thousands of officers. This is in sharp contrast to a report in the New York Times that expenses for policing the 1996 Yankees celebration parade of over 1 million people cost only $250,000. Much of department's expenses on the 15th came from chasing down feeder marches and break-away marches, including a major deployment near Times Square. The policing of a unified march and rally might have involved a major inconvenience to drivers, but it represents much less of a safety and security concern than having lots of angry young people marching in small groups all over Midtown in response to the denial of a march permit.

It is also indefensible that the police did not allow for the placing of portable toilets near the rally. How are the security concerns here any different that allowing cars to park on the street without inspection? This is a completely unreasonable overraction.


One of the ways to dramatically reduce the cost and logistical complexity of large rallies and marches is to eliminate the widespread use of demonstration pens. These pens have to be staffed by large numbers of officers and are frequent flash points for confrontations between the police and demonstrators. No other major city last weekend used a similar crowd control strategy and yet they were able to deal with crowds significantly larger then New York's without incident.

According to retired Assistant Chief Hoehl the origin of the use of these pens was a New York Yankees victory rally at City Hall in which a large crowd surged towards the stage, creating fears of people being crushed. In fact, no one was injured in that or similar events. In fact the police have not provided any evidence of people being injured as a result of the movements of large crowds at a demonstration. It is my opinion that these pens serve primarily to isolate and inconvenience participants and serve very little safety function. People should be able to move about the rally, come and go freely, and assemble ahead of time with their friends and co-workers. Each of these was not allowed by police on the 15th.


The free flow of traffic seemed to be the number one motivation for Saturday's numerous acts of police abuse of force. The efforts to keep 2nd and 3rd Avenues open despite a massive influx of peaceful protestors led to a series of confrontations that were much more dangerous than diverting traffic onto alternate routes. If the department had made a decision early on to close down 2nd Ave. most if not all of the confrontations could have been avoided. Most of the police attacks against demonstrators occurred after a bottleneck developed on Second Ave as cross streets to 1st Ave filled and people were being forced onto the sidewalks despite their huge numbers. This caused the police to use excessive force to try and push people onto the sidewalk; the ensuing standoff spilled over onto 3rd Ave. because people there couldn't get onto 2nd Ave. These groups then quite reasonably started moving north on 3rd as instructed. Their numbers, however, were far too great to fit on the sidewalk because of the loss of access to 2nd Ave.


I believe it is unconscionable for the police to beat, pepper-spray and trample people with horses simply to keep a street open to traffic. Police use of force is supposed to be moderated in relation to the threat to the safety of officers or the public. In this case there was no threat to anyone's personal safety or property. It was the actions of the police that created numerous injuries to both police and demonstrators, and the potential for an outbreak of widespread violence and property destruction.

A frequent justification by the police for this policy is that they need to keep roads open for emergency vehicles. This is at best inaccurate and at worst disingenuous. The police should be well aware that on Saturday, as in past large protests, demonstrators happily yielded to emergency vehicles. I personally witnessed the free flow of ambulances up and down 2nd Ave. while thousands of people were marching on that street. Further, the concern of a spillover effect of stopped up traffic could have been avoided if the department had simply diverted traffic and informed drivers the day before to avoid the area. The department resisted both of these simple preventative measures until after the demonstrations were already underway, leaving many motorists trapped in large crowds.


The department said repeatedly that they were prepared to handle a demonstration of 100,000 people. If that is so then why was their such chaos on 2nd and 3rd Avenues? Police officials have responded that they were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. This means that they either were not capable of handling a crowd of 100,000 despite several weeks of advanced notice and planning, or that the crowd was considerably larger. It appears that the police only counted the people in the pens along 1st Ave. This is usually done using a formula of 5,000 stationary people per avenue width block. This would in fact add up to slightly over 100,000. However, this fails to take into account the huge crowds that the police turned away.


The MTA and police badly mishandled the movement of people to and from the demonstration causing major disruptions for both demonstrators and the general public. In London and many other cities extra public transit was arranged to facilitate demonstrators. Amtrak and Metro North both put on extra trains for the 15th. The MTA, however, made no adjustments in their schedule and in fact undertook major construction diversions, which caused significant delays in getting to the demonstration area. The police department's decision to close individual subway stations also caused major inconveniences and contributed to the concentration of demonstrators on 2nd and 3rd Ave., since they could not get to the demonstration without having to walk dozens of blocks. It is sometimes necessary to close stations if patrons cannot exit the station before the next train arrives or if platforms become dangerously full while awaiting trains. However, I have seen no evidence that either of these conditions existed. Further, police could have controlled access to the stations to prevent overcrowding without closing them completely. It appears instead that stations were closed to prevent more demonstrators from gathering in a particular area, because of the failures of the overall planning and the unwillingness to open up streets to facilitate movement to the rally. The closure of the Times Square station later in the day is additional evidence that limiting access and not public safety was the primary motivation for station closings.


Policing experts Jerome Skolnick (NYU Law School) and James Fyfe (former NYPD detective) wrote that one of the greatest threats to police-community relations occurs when police departments take on a "war" footing. The "war of drugs" and the "war on crime" cause the police to view the citizenry as a hostile "enemy" rather than citizens, whom they are employed to protect and serve. The addition of a municipal "war on terrorism" is serving to further militarize the relationship between the police and the public. What we saw on Saturday was primarily the result of this growing tendency to treat the public as the enemy. This is a dangerous and disturbing development and could have long lasting negative consequences for police-community relations into the future.


Based on these assessments I would like to make the following recommendations:

1) All march permits should be granted--given reasonable time place and manner concerns-regardless of the size of the crowd. Blanket security-based denials are an affront to our most basic notions of freedom and democracy.

2) The use of police demonstration pens should be eliminated. Demonstrators should be able to move about freely within a demonstration and be able to come and go as they please. Barricades should be used to protect demonstrators from traffic and to prevent access to sensitive areas. While some use of emergency corridors may be reasonable, the breaking up of demonstrations just to keep cross street traffic moving is not.

3) The police should not use pepper spray, batons, and horses for the sole purpose of moving large crowds out of the streets. These levels of force should only be utilized when there is a clear and present threat to the material and personal safety of New Yorkers. No such threat was present on the 15th.

4) The NYPD and MTA should make plans to augment public transportation in the event of large demonstrations rather than impede it.

5) The NYPD needs to rethink its "war" footing. While the threat of terrorism is real, so is the threat to our way of life from excessive security. Concerns about security should not be used to prevent peaceable assemblies. Every other major city in a democratic country seems to be able to balance these needs; so should New York City.

6) Disciplinary action should be taken against command level officers who authorized the use of horses, pepper spray, and baton charges against demonstrators marching to the protest. Disciplinary action should also be taken against individual officers who used unnecessary force in the control of crowds and the arrest of demonstrators.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these important matters,

Alex S. Vitale Ph.D.

Department of Sociology

Brooklyn College

L' Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org

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