Blog of Rights

Shining a Spotlight on the NYPD’s Low-Profile War on Protest

By Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney , NYCLU & Katherine Bromberg, Occupy Wall Street Coordinator, NYCLU at 10:30am

When the Occupy Wall Street movement ignited last fall, there was no shortage of disturbing press reports about NYPD misconduct toward the demonstrators. We've all read stories about the NYPD’s abuses—the eviction of hundreds of protesters from Zuccotti Park, the mass arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge, the pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters. 

While OWS has faded somewhat from the media’s daily attention, the police misconduct continues with alarming frequency. Though it’s rarely reported, nearly every day NYPD officers harass and intimidate protesters. Their behavior seems designed to make exercising the right to protest in New York City as unpleasant and frightening as possible and is, moreover, a tremendous waste of scarce public resources.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and our team of dedicated volunteer legal observers have logged hundreds of hours on the streets monitoring the NYPD at protests large and small throughout the city.  Today, we launched Free Speech Threat Assessment: a webpage that documents the NYPD’s unrelenting, under-the-radar surveillance and harassment of protestors.

Wherever OWS protestors go, the NYPD follows in droves with officers training video cameras on the faces of peaceful protestors. NYPD officers often seem intent on being the only people who document their activity—officers prevent reporters from covering protests, block and seize cameras, and even arrest credentialed journalists.  We’ve seen dozens of officers in full riot gear trailing small groups of peaceful protestors.  The show of force is so overwhelming that officers often dwarf the number of protesters.

Many people remember the steel barricades that surrounded Zuccotti Park for months. (Those barricades were finally removed after the NYCLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, and National Lawyers Guild intervened).  But what many may not realize is that the NYPD continues to erect barricades in locations where they expect protesters will assemble or protest, snarling pedestrian traffic near protest sites and creating inhospitable cages for free speech and assembly.

We’ve also witnessed the NYPD arrest protestors for acts that are an everyday occurrence on any busy New York City block, and rarely result in arrests of the general public. We’ve seen officers arrest protesters for stepping momentarily into a street, “jaywalking,” and reading poetry too loudly (seriously).  Officers also arrest protestors for nothing at all, perfectly content to take protestors into custody and have the charges later dismissed—as they were against an NYCLU legal observer who was unlawfully arrested.

Even more common than arrests, however, are the ways in which NYPD officers simply harass protestors. The NYCLU has witnessed the NYPD surround protesters and force them to walk down blocks with no opportunity to exit and no explanation as to what is going on. Officers make protestors comply with an ever-changing list of ad hoc rules, such as ordering protestors to “stop signing” while taxi horns blare near Union Square midday, telling protestors sharing a dinner in a public park to stop “passing out food,” and telling protestors both "no signs on the ground" and "no banners in the air.”

The aggressive policing of OWS-related protest is not just a problem in New York City.  In fact, ACLU offices from Hawaii to Oakland to Denver have observed similar incidents, including the selective enforcement of minor offenses.  This week, those who care about free speech and the costs of the NYPD’s low-profile war against public protest are making sure this misconduct gets the attention and accountability it deserves.  Yesterday, a consortium of law schools released “Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street,” a comprehensive indictment of the NYPD’s policing of the OWS protests.  Among many important recommendations, the report calls for a revised NYPD policy that respects the First Amendment, and the speedy passage of the Inspector General bill currently pending at City Council—both measures which the NYCLU wholeheartedly endorses.

Today, the NYCLU announces the launch of the FSTA webpage, shining a constant light on the NYPD’s aggressive policing of protest.  The webpage launches with four FSTA reports covering our observations from March 17, 2012 to June 17, 2012.  Follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds to learn when we post a new report, so you can see what we are seeing on the streets and help us to continue to call for accountability and for respect of the right to protest in New York City.

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