Native New Yorkers Bristle at RNC Police Presence

A view from the streets of New York during the Republican National Convention

| September 2004

When Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao took the stage in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday during the Republican National Convention, she proclaimed, 'It's so great to be here in New York!' The crowd's golf-clap response was less than enthusiastic. Outside the garden, Chao's sentiment met a similarly unenthusiastic reception. 'Please book me now. Charge me with anything. Just get these handcuffs off me,' begged Steve Cohn, a New York native and Wall Street employee who was being arrested for disorderly conduct, though his demeanor seemed far from disorderly. 'I was just peacefully protesting on the corner,' he said as an arresting officer confiscated his glasses. 'These handcuffs are way too tight. I study jazz bass. I can't feel my fingers. I'm getting scared.'

As peaceful protesters watched one of their ranks get arrested on Tuesday in Union Square, they spontaneously burst into the chant, 'Show me what a police state looks like: This is what a police state looks like!' Though it seems like hyperbole when read in a newspaper, the cry echoed a sentiment felt by many New Yorkers throughout the RNC's stay -- New York was no longer their own. Watching arrests at the die-in on Wednesday, Scott Link, a New York resident and former Fulbright Scholar, was reminded of his travels as a student. 'There's more security here than in East Berlin in 1983. There, there was just one checkpoint coming into the city. Here, the rules change every five minutes.' His colleagues, apparently, felt the same way. 'Everyone's pissed off. Half my office is off. Everyone that's able to leave the city has left the city.'

Many NYPD officers would probably have preferred that option. As protesters milled about Union Square Wednesday night, a police officer chatted amiably with some of the more prominent organizers, even buying several anti-Bush stickers from a street vendor. As they dispersed the crowd surrounding the die-in earlier that evening, most officers were sternly cordial. 'Let's do this peacefully, let's work together,' said one officer as he slowly inched his bike towards the restless onlookers. 'Just doing my job, nothing personal.' Still, other protester-police interactions were not so polite. One New Yorker, a woman in her early 40s who was walking home when she paused briefly to look at an arrest, was harassed by an officer behind the barricade. 'We got these cuffs ready for you right here,' the officer shouted, prominently displaying the objects in question, 'You just come on over here and get in them.'

In addition to such street-level inconvenience, harassment, and arrest, many New Yorkers were also concerned about the financial ramifications of such a large police apparatus, which one resident described as 'Four to five times bigger than just after 9/11.' Pointing to a particularly large group of riot gear-clad cops and shouting over the incessant din of police helicopters, Link explained, 'The federal government is not going to cover this. Tax revenue is not going to cover this. This is going to come out of our pockets. It's even tax-free week for clothes!,' referring to the temporary citywide discount that uncannily coincided with the convention. It's not surprising, then, that many New Yorkers unequivocally swore off the whole scene. 'I'm not pro-Bush,' said Eric Parker, another resident, 'But these protests are stupid. It's a waste of time, just people jumping on the bandwagon. I can't even walk around anymore, there's all this crap going on.' Still, many New Yorkers put a more specific finger on the root of the troubles. As Cohn stood by the Garden, hands going numb as he waited to be jailed, he gestured towards his arresting officers. 'I don't blame anybody here. I blame Mayor Bloomberg. This is his fault.'

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