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Arrestees, Lawyers, Medics Condemn Conditions of RNC Protest Detention

by Benjamin Dangl

9/3/04

The NewStandard

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 alike.

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 problems.

"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 the mouth."

"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 it."

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."

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 fashion.

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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