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"Gitmo on the Hudson"

As FBI investigates mass arrests at the 2004 Republican Convention, here's the story of a protester who was detained.
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So what was it like to be one of the nearly 2,000 protesters, observers, journalists, or unlucky bystanders who were arrested by the NYPD during the 2004 Republican National Convention? How did it feel to be scooped up by one of those suddenly appearing orange plastic barricade nets before being carted off to the filthy detention-holding pens at Pier 57, also known as Gitmo on the Hudson? Again and again, the NYPD used those nets throughout the convention week, like fishermen hauling in a catch.

Belatedly, the FBI wants to know what happened in New York. It's investigating whether police violated the rights of protesters, according to a letter recent sent by the bureau to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Ninety percent of all convention-week arrest cases have resulted in acquittals or dismissal of charges. "In an effort to maintain tight control over protest activity, the NYPD too often lost sight of the distinction between lawful and unlawful conduct," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). "Despite dire predictions that the convention would be the target of violence or even terrorism, the demonstrations were peaceful."

Will other cities begin imitating New York City's zero-tolerance strategy? If they do, this bodes poorly for peaceful political demonstrations. As 5,000 Republican Party delegates trickled out of town, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters how proud he was of the NYPD's performance: "I think the police officers were just absolutely amazing."

For my new book, Patriots Act:Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out, I interviewed one of the protesters who had been arrested during Sunday's demonstration of 500,000 anti-Bush and anti-war protesters marching through Manhattan. His name is Max Mecklenburg, a University of Chicago sophomore who grew up on New York's Upper West Side. In high school, he organized youth protest rallies and was a veteran of Critical Mass bike rides, which promote alternative transportation.

In his own words, he relives that Sunday in Hell:

There was a call for a Bike Bloc ride to accompany Sunday's main protest against the Republican National Convention. But because of the police violence that had occurred on Friday during the Critical Mass ride, people were scared. I witnessed police hitting people with batons. Cops were knocking people off their bikes and taking them and putting them into paddy wagons. People got "doored," that is, hit by doors of police cars. The idea was to divide and conquer.

Only about 150 riders showed up that Sunday. We all agreed beforehand that we didn't want to get arrested; that we would prefer to ride around, support the demonstration. We were going to obey traffic laws and go by the book. Do it all legit.

About fifteen minutes into the ride, a bunch of meaty white guys on motorized Vespa scooters showed up. Some were dressed in blue jeans and Mets jackets and had short haircuts. They started buzzing through our group at full speed, knocking people over, deliberately running into riders and causing havoc. They didn't identify themselves as cops. There were also undercover cops on bicycles, and along with the cops on scooters, they formed a wall at one street which forced us to go onto a side street--which I guess was 36th. The moment the last person biked onto the side street, about a hundred riot cops converged from both sides of the street. Cop cars pulled in behind us, and then those guys got off their Vespas and started pulling people off their bikes, including me, and yelling, "Sit the fuck down!" "Shut the fuck up!"

I didn't say anything, although I tried to lock up my bicycle, which was apparently a big no-no. They wanted to confiscate it. I ride a Bianchi Pista. It's a track bike. It's a fixed gear, one speed. It's a steel frame. It weighs fifteen pounds, and it's really easy to maintain because there are very few parts and no wires. It retails for about $600 and is definitely the most valuable item I own.

They had us sit down on the ground behind these orange mesh nets. We sat there for about three or four hours, with plastic handcuffs on our wrists, our hands behind our backs. A big crowd had formed. People were yelling for legal aid. I was pretty furious. Then we got shoved onto a bus where we spent several hours. No bathroom, no food, no water, no air conditioning.

We were brought to this old bus depot on 13th Street, our infamous little Guantanamo on the Hudson, which the Republican National Convention had rented out for the NYPD to hold demonstrators during the convention. It was a gross place where they set up these pens. There was diesel fuel on the ground.

I was standing in line with my cuffs still on, when some guy was wasting his time arguing with a cop, saying, "This is illegal, what you are doing. This is 1984! This is sick!" And the cop says to him, "TheConstitution gets abused and defended every day. What are you complaining about?"

There are lawsuits going on about what happened. A lot of it apparently turned out to be illegal, but I think one of the crowd-control techniques that the NYPD learned is that the police can break the law as much as they want, and of course, there is no one to stop them at the time. And then what happens is a couple of months later, the courts say, "Oops, that was illegal," and the police say, "Oh, we're sorry. We won't do it again." And then, of course, it's all done again, and there are no sanctions.

We had our cuffs on for about seven or eight hours until we actually got into these pens. But I'm not sure about the time since they took away my watch. They like to keep you disoriented. It's the same reason that they moved us around. I would say that I was confined in about fifteen different places overthe next thirty hours. They do it to keep you from sleeping, they do it to keep you from social- izing with the people in your cell, and they do it to keep you feeling helpless.

There was a lot of solidarity going on in the pens. I'd say twenty-four was the average age. Everyone was pretty pissed off. There had also been a queer kiss-in at Times Square, and every single one of those protesters had been arrested. The joke going on in the pens was that we were the "queers and the gears." We started a Simon-says competition with the next pen over that was filled with mostly lesbians. They'd start, "Simon says, 'Say women are superior.'" Then the Simon-says game turned into a dance off. That's how we managed to amuse ourselves. We sang a few rounds of the Clash's "I fought the law and the law won."

We later received the only food you will see in New York City jails. Little cartons of milk and bologna sandwiches. The bologna was absolutely sickening, so I made a Go game out of the bologna and bread. I scratched the board in the dirt. Go is a very simple game. A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. We were processed in the pens and then moved over to the Tombs, which is on Center Street. It's the Manhattan processing center. Depending on what you are arrested for and where in Manhattan, that is where you end up. The Tombs are multiple levels of cells. They would move us around periodically while doing all the fingerprinting and paperwork.

We were probably treated better than your average criminal in the Tombs, so there was really nothing to complain about. One guy kept demanding, "Why don't we get blankets? We want blankets." So I told him, "They're not gonna give you a blanket." Then he actually managed to get a guard to come over. He asked, "Why can't we get blankets?" The guard said, "This isn't the Plaza Hotel." A typical cop answer.

We then found out that we could make collect calls. We called WBAI radio and did a jail cell interview. For some reason, I was one of the last people processed, and by the end, I was one of four people in the cell. At the beginning, there were probably twenty or thirty others with me.

The police really do try their best to humiliate and degrade you. The whole system is created to give one the impression that you're totally powerless and to make you feel like you can't depend on anyone and you're not going to get any help; they want to keep you scared and submissive. Your average detainee has a lot more trouble than someone who is arrested at a demonstration because he usually doesn't havethe outside support network that we had.

We were then moved to another set of cells right next to the courtroom. There you actually mixed with the general population. It was always around twenty-five of us in the cell--about half Republican National Convention-related and the rest of the other prisoners were there on weapons charges and drug possession, the usual crap. These prisoners were alright, they really were. I met a very nice young murderer who had the same birthday as me. I didn't know he was a murderer until he got into the courtroom and they said that he had been found running from the scene of the crime with a knife that had the victim's guts on the blade. Hey, maybe he didn't do it.

We got lawyers to come in and talk to us and tell us about our rights. Again, the activists had a support network that the other prisoners didn't have. My lawyer was a guy named Bill Goodman from the National Lawyers Guild. He was great. I was fortunate because my mother was involved in all this activism back in the '60s and has all these friends. Once she heard I got arrested--when I was first getting cuffed, I yelled out to somebody, "Call my mother and tell her Max has been arrested!"--she made the trip downtown to the Tombs with my father. At some point, she must have run into Bill Goodman.

Bill had formerly been one of the heads of the National Lawyers Guild. He's part of a law firm that represented Fidel Castro and the Cuban government in America in the Elian Gonzales case. He is a very good lawyer, and it just so happens that he was one of these conscientious people who, upon hear- ing that all these people had gotten arrested, got off his butt and went downtown and offered his services. He laid out the possibilities for me. And the possibility that I chose, which I'm not particularly proud of, was that I should plead guilty.

Once I was in the courtroom before a female judge, it took twenty minutes. I was charged with five things: disorderly conduct, obstruction of pedestrian traffic, obstruction of governmental administration, parading without a permit, and reckless endangerment. They were going to let me plead to disorderly conduct, which was some sort of a misdemeanor; it was just a $95 fine. It meant that I didn't have to go to court, which was my main concern because I live in Chicago. So that's what I did, although if I had remained in New York, I would have sought to have all the charges dismissed, as many people later did.

After I got out of the Tombs, the first thing I did was get some Chinese food because it's right by Chinatown. I was absolutely filthy because I was covered in diesel fuel and I hadn't slept in thirty hours. I then went home and took a shower. The next day, I went to get my bicycle from a warehouse which was way out in Greenpoint, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. When I arrived there, they told me that I didn't have the necessary forms. So I went back to Manhattan, trying to get the forms together. The next day I got my bike back.

I did not participate in Tuesday's big day of direct action where over a thousand people were arrested. A lot of people got close to the convention. People were doing sit-ins and civil disobedience and variousother forms of direct action. The police deliberately slowed down the booking process in order to make sure that the last people were released from jail just as the convention ended. The whole thing was just preventative, to keep people off the streets and reduce the number of demonstrators.