NEW YORK (Monday, August 30) -- Between 5,000 and 10,000 activists who gathered at the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) rally at the United Nations yesterday were allowed to march through mid-Manhattan despite the lack of a permit, thanks to last minute deals brokered between the campaign's organizers and the New York Police Department. But most had no idea what awaited them at the corner of 8th Avenue and 29th Street shortly before 8 p.m.[IMGCAP(2)]
Just two blocks away from Madison Square Garden where the 2004 Republican National Convention was entering its first evening, the police suddenly split the parade in two with barricades and batons. Eyewitness reports confirmed that an undercover police officer in a scooter rammed his way into the throngs of protestors, driving as fast as 20 miles an hour, as the police were splitting the crowd, before being knocked off and beaten by an angry demonstrator. The Associated Press identified the instigator as detective William Sample. The detective was later hospitalized with head injuries that were not life threatening.
'What kind of person would ram into dozens of people in a scooter with a line of police behind him?' asked protestor Gonzalo Hereda afterwards in disbelief.
Police reacted to the melee by angrily shoving their barricade gates into the crowds to push them down 29th Street and up 8th Avenue, away from the skirmish. Despite holding media credentials in full view, this journalist and others packed into the crowd like sardines were bludgeoned by the barricades and forced to retreat an entire city block by police who were engaged in a profanity-laced tirade.
'They kept coming at us with barricades, knocking people down, and hitting them. They never told us what they were doing,' said Michael Duke, a local writer. 'A lot of people found themselves jammed up against the barricades.'
A protestor named Keeley reported seeing a policeman with a moustache tackle a young woman who weighed no more than 100 pounds and pull her down by her backpack. Keeley said his wrist was hit repeatedly with a police baton.
'I've never seen such a large group of police in my life descend on one man,' said Claire McDonnell, referring to a man who tried to escape from the barricades, just as she had moments before.
'They were pushing us with billy clubs into barricades and knocking us over, yelling 'Get Out, Get Out!'' said Mariah Holding, who marched with a sign yesterday proclaiming, My Mom earns $5.15 an hour. My dad's job was outsourced. We have no health care. 'It was very scary, and I am so disappointed with my police department after things went so well on Sunday.'
Meanwhile, amidst the confusion, Mark, an organizer with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign yelled into his microphone asking people to disperse. He viewed the march as a success because 'we were able to march without a permit from the U.N. to 29th street.' Yet many, it seemed, had no idea that the march wouldn't be allowed to continue by Madison Square Garden.
'I asked a policeman why this was happening after two days of peaceful protests, and even though he agreed with me, he told me that our march was illegal,' said Megan Petersen.
Above all, confusion reigned. Stephen Foreback, a secret service agent, claimed witness reports indicated that the fight had started between an activist on the left and an activist on the right, and that the police simply came in to stop the confrontation. 'You couldn't find a more professional force than NYPD,' he said afterwards. 'They acted with restraint throughout these protests.'
Last night's events all but shattered a tense, but peaceful coexistence between protestors and the NYPD, built on the strength of a successful and civil march by Madison Square Garden on Sunday which was attended by half a million activists.
Once the police locked their barricades in place and a shaky calm was restored, a young woman named Leah Alonzo was arrested for chalking the words FREEDOM OF SPEECH on the corner where the fight unfolded. Further up 8th Street a group of demonstrators lay down on the pavement to spell out PEACE for the view of the helicopters hovering overhead.
Though Sunday's march was peaceful, the violence at the PPEHRC march was not unprecedented during the anti-RNC protests. Sunday evening a group of around 20 activists were walking around Times Square singing 'ain't no power like the power of the people' and other cheers. They were cornered while singing and three people, Greg Mac, Sarah Mosberg, and an unidentified person were tackled and arrested. They were accused of blocking traffic in a pedestrian walkway, though theatergoers regularly crowd these walkways. Police arrested dozens after protestors confronted Republican delegates outside Broadway theatres.
'Sunday was basically just peaceful and joyous and beautiful and I was so happy,' Claire McDonnell summed up the different mood on the street after yesterday's debacle. 'I just came back from Argentina where there are protests all the time. I was scared of the political spirit in America (before Sunday's peaceful demonstration). I saw all these people doing their own thing but marching together.'
Fast forward to yesterday evening.
'All of a sudden barricades came down in front us. People were separated from their friends, people were trapped, and I had no idea what to do. In 15 seconds everything went from being peaceful and joyous to terrifying. It was totally senseless how they barricaded off the last 200-500 people. If they'd waited literally three minutes, they could have put the whole barricade behind us.'
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