Arrestees, Lawyers, Medics Condemn
Conditions of RNC Protest Detention
by Benjamin Dangl
Over the past week, police have arrested around 1,900
people in events related to demonstrations and direct actions against the
Republican National Convention. The vast majority of those arrests were made
during indiscriminate sweeps that literally netted protesters and bystanders
Authorities have reportedly held the majority of the
arrestees at Pier 57, an unsanitary, chemical-ridden automobile garage facility
reorganized for use as a temporary detention center during the Convention.
Despite official police department claims that no one
is being held at the facility for more than eight hours, many of the arrestees
have been incarcerated there for over 40 hours, up to 24 hours of that at
Pier 57, in conditions lawyers and medics have described as "unhealthy"
and "inhumane." In other cases, detainees have "disappeared"
into the system altogether, their families and lawyers finding no trace of
them for two days or more.
According to Bob Perry, the Legislative Director of
the New York Civil Liberties Union: "Pier 57 is a warehouse building
used to store industrial vehicles. Oil grease, transmission fluid and other
toxic agents are all over the floors. People have had to sleep on the floors."
Attorney Katya Kamisaruk has visited people held in
the makeshift detention center, which she described in detail: "Pier
57 has a concrete floor with a layer of sediment that is an inch thick of
compacted chemicals... We won't know what [the substance] is until it is too
late, or what the long term [health] effects are."
First aid providers and arrestees report that exposure
to substances in the facility has resulted in severe rashes and respiratory
"A high number of people have respiratory disturbances,
are congested, have had trouble breathing, sore throats, wheezing, and asthmatics
that have been in respiratory distress," said Sami Alloy, 22, a volunteer
medic and certified wilderness first responder from Portland, Oregon, who
has been providing arrestees with medical help as they are released. "They
are coming out with chemical burns, rashes, covered in this stuff that is
hard to remove."
In a statement issued to the press, Police Commissioner
Raymond W. Kelly referred to claims of unsafe and unsanitary conditions at
the Pier 57 facility as "exaggerated," calling them "outright
falsehoods." He also said, "The longest anyone has been detained
waiting further processing is 8 hours." The statement pointed out that
air quality had been tested during the week, but made no mention of the condition
of the facility's floors.
According to Alloy, some people in the detention center
requiring medical attention have not been receiving it. "People have
had a lot of head injuries from the police bashing their faces into the concrete,
a lot of wrist injuries, and in one case broken bones. These are people that
aren't getting treatment [inside the holding facility]."
Alloy continued: "There are also people who are
getting denied their medication... schizophrenics, people that have mental
illnesses that have been going into disturbed states of psychosis because
they haven't been able to get access to their medication. We have also been
seeing a high number of handcuff injuries -- with nerve pain in their wrists,
hands and fingers, people that have lost sensation in their fingers -- being
too tight and a lot of bruising and swelling of the wrists."
The handcuffs most commonly in use by the police department
this week are known as "flex cuffs." They are made of heavy plastic
and cinch down on the detainee's wrists.
Ace Allen is a medic from Oneonta, NY who treated RNC
arrestees as they were released and has researched aftercare procedures for
handcuff injury patients. "These flex cuffs were really damaging people's
hands," Allen said. "I'd love to see them outlawed. They cut off
circulation. They dig into your hands, and [they] only lock one-way. They
don't become looser. They are used as a torture device."
According to Kamisaruk, the arrestees have been penned
in chain-link fences crested with razor wire. Various caged areas that are
roughly ten by fifteen feet hold up to 40 people each. She and others are
calling the arrangement "Guantanamo on the Hudson," drawing a comparison
between the conditions at Pier 57 and the infamous US detention center in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where hundreds of foreign prisoners have been held for
over two years in restrictive lock-down, without access to lawyers.
Kamisaruk works with the National Lawyers Guild, a consortium
of legal activists who take on social movements-related cases, and is a member
of the Just Cause Law Collective in California, which specializes in cases
of police misconduct.
Outside Central Booking, where most detainees were transferred
for post-Pier 57 processing, several people who had been recently released
spoke to The NewStandard about conditions inside the facility.
Sebastian Licht said he was out celebrating his 22nd
birthday, not protesting, when police arrested him. While at Pier 57, his
skin reacted heavily to the chemicals on the floor.
"I had welts all over me. My legs were swelling
up and I had blisters on my feet and hands." Licht said he had to plead
to the police for hours before receiving any medical attention.
Andrew Gunn, 24, a radio engineer from New York, who
has been involved in activism since 1999, said: "The ground had oil on
it, my hands were filthy. There were not enough benches for everyone to sit.
People had to sit down if they wanted to rest." Gunn said some of his
friends acquired rashes and welts from the chemicals on the floor.
Other arrestees spoke of the police moving them regularly
to prevent anyone from being able to sleep. Others described being fed only
two apples and one sandwich over a period of 24 hours. In order to procure
sufficient water from police, some reported having to yell and shake the cages
in which they were penned.
For others, the suffering began even before they arrived
at Pier 57. Aden Cheney-Lynch, 22, is a student who has been involved in activism
for two years and is a member of the peace activist organization in New Hampshire
called the World Fellowship Organization. Like many others, he was held for
over 40 hours.
When Lynch was arrested, he said, police forced him
to the ground. While laying on his chest, waiting to be arrested, Lynch said
he informed officers of a medical condition only to be struck by one in response.
"I made it clear to the policeman that I was epileptic," he said,
"and that I was very sensitive, and he interrupted me by kicking me in
"And then there were metal batons being smacked
on the ground next to my ear," Lynch added.
"From there we stayed three hours in a bus while
people next to me -- I mean I felt lucky, because I still had my teeth,"
Lynch continued. "There was a guy who was part of the press, just taking
pictures -- he got his face smacked to the ground, his camera broken. They
broke his two front teeth. Another man was in there -- his eyes were just
covered with blood. His head had been smacked into the ground, and there was
no medical attention being given whatsoever, even though we were asking for
Lynch continued to describe cases he directly witnessed
en route to and inside the detention center. "There was also a man throwing
up in the back of the bus because he [had previously] had his large intestine
removed and he was being dehydrated," he said. "They gave him small
bits of water. When he asked for medical attention, they didn't give it to
him, and he kept puking."
Asked about the chemicals on the ground at Pier 57,
Lynch said: "I needed sleep, we all needed sleep, but especially me because
I could have a seizure. But I did everything I could to avoid putting my face
and body on this floor. The smell was making my eyes burn, my skin was burning.
I developed severe pounding headaches. It was in the air, it was all around
us. It was horrible."
Another National Lawyer's Guild attorney, Simone Levine,
said she had received reports from detainees who suffered from pre-existing
conditions -- including heart ailments and, in one case, a man whose intestine
had been removed -- as well as people with injuries ranging from knocked-out
teeth to brain hemorrhages. "They were calling in complaining that they
weren't getting medical attention."
Yetta Kurland, another attorney with the National Lawyers
Guild, said the Legal Aid had brought a motion before State Supreme Court
Judge, demanding the release of detainees held by police for over 24 hours.
"The judge signed it immediately," Kurland said, "but then
the city appealed and we spent a good part of today fighting that in court."
In the end, the city was ordered to release around 500
detainees by Thursday morning, or be fined $1000 per day, per detainee for
contempt, based on a legal guideline that says anyone detained for a minor
violation must be released or arraigned within 24 hours.
"When the city defied that initial order, the judge
fined the city $1000 for each person that was not released by 5 p.m. on Thursday,"
Levine said. "There were roughly 300 people that the city was charged
For its part, the police department says the sheer volumes
of arrests it made, including 1,100 on Tuesday alone, have congested the processing
system. Critics point out that, in the weeks leading up to the Convention,
the city and police department had repeatedly told the media they were "fully
prepared" to accommodate and respond to demonstrations in an orderly
According to Kamisaruk, a group of at least 20 people
engaged in a fast to protest the conditions of their detention and demanding
to speak with a prosecutor. "They got what they wanted, everything came
together at once; the [court order], the publicity... it was all very sudden.
They started to be released [Thursday] afternoon. It worked out well."
Most of the arrestees have been charged with crimes
such as blocking traffic, disorderly conduct, marching without a permit and
obstructing government administration. Kamisaruk said she expects most arrestees
to see their cases adjourned.
Attorneys are quick to point out that, under other circumstances,
it would be unlikely that detainees caught in this week's sweeps would have
served as much time in jail after conviction on such charges as they have
already spent in pretrial detention.
Lawyers involved in defending protesters and bystanders
caught in this week's pre-emptive sweeps have vowed to pursue lawsuits and
other legal action in the coming weeks and months.
However, legal initiatives taken in response to remarkably
similar acts of preemptive repression over the past five years, in cities
such as Washington, Philadelphia, Seattle and New York itself have been slow-moving,
and after the past week's events, protesters cannot help but question whether
previous legal efforts caused law enforcement officials to so much as hesitate
this time around.
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