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Unrest stirs over convention arrests

One late August evening Alexander Pincus pedaled his bicycle to the Second Avenue Deli to buy matzoh-ball soup, a pastrami-on-rye and potato latkes for his sweetheart, who was sick with a cold.

He wouldn't return for 28 hours. As they left the deli, Pincus and a friend inadvertently walked into a police blockade and sweep of bicycle-riding protesters two days before the Republican National Convention.

"I asked an officer how I could get home," Pincus recalled. "He said "follow me' and we went a few feet and cops grabbed us. They handcuffed us and made us kneel for an hour."

Police carted Pincus to a holding cell topped with razor wire and held him for 25 hours without access to a lawyer. The floor was a soup of oil and soot, he said, and the cell had so few portable potties that some people relieved themselves in the corner. Pincus said he dislocated his shoulder as police pulled back his arms to handcuff him.

"Cops kept saying to us "this is what you get for protesting,' " said Pincus, whose account of his arrest is supported by deli workers and a time-stamped food receipt.

Pincus was one of 1,821 people arrested in massive police sweeps before and during the Republican convention, the largest number of arrests associated with a major party convention in American history. At the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which unlike New York's was marked by widespread police brutality, police made less than 700 arrests.

In the days after the convention, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, stated that "every NYPD officer did a great job." But interviews with state court officials, city council representatives, prosecutors, protesters and civil libertarians _ and a review of videos of demonstrations _ point to many problems with the police performance. Officers often sealed off streets with orange netting and used motor scooters and horses to sweep up hundreds of protesters, including many who appear to have broken no laws. In two cases, police commanders appeared to allow marches to proceed, only to order many arrests minutes later.

A majority of those arrested were held for more than two days without being arraigned, which a state supreme court judge ruled was a violation of legal guidelines. Defense attorneys predict a flood of civil lawsuits once protesters have settled misdemeanor charges lodged against them.

Police officials declined to talk about these problems, citing a pending court case. But the city's criminal justice coordinator, John Feinblatt, said in an interview that city lawyers tried to weed out the unjustly arrested and that the volume of arrests _ more than 1,100 on one day _ overwhelmed the police department. More broadly, Bloomberg and Kelly defended the vast majority of the arrests as justified and described holding cells as clean and humane.

Bloomberg in interviews on convention week said protesters expected prisons to look like "Club Med." Kelly said police encountered other delays as they tried to find separate cells for a large number of female detainees.

The first mass arrests came three days before the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 convention, when police swooped down on Critical Mass, a loose-knit collective of bicyclists who periodically flood city streets and slow traffic. Police usually tolerate the disruption. But that night officers arrested more than 200. Kelly later told New York Magazine that he wanted to send the protesters a message.

The next few days were quiet, and a massive quarter-million strong march went forward Sunday, Aug. 29 without incident.

But the mood changed Tuesday, Aug. 31, when police made 1,128 arrests. Anarchists had pledged a day of resistance, blocking traffic. Police arrested hundreds and civil liberties lawyers on the scene described most arrests as lawful.

Farther downtown that day, the War Resisters League, a decades-old pacifist group, was readying a peaceful march from Ground Zero to Madison Square Garden, where they intended to conduct a civil disobedience "die in." A video provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows police commanders laying out ground rules: As long as protesters didn't block traffic, they wouldn't get arrested during their walk north. (No permit is required for a march on a sidewalk as long as protesters leave space for other pedestrians to pass). Within a block or two, however, the video shows marchers lined up on the sidewalk, far from an intersection, as a police officer announces on the bullhorn: "You're under arrest."

"They came with batons, bicycles, they came with netting," said G. Simon Harak, a Jesuit priest. The kind of forces you expect to be turned on terrorists were unleashed on us."

Police arrested 200 people, saying they had blocked the sidewalk.