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Published: Monday, 4/18/2005

A crisis in patriotic right to dissent

COLUMBUS - Last Sept. 6, I offered my impressions of what democracy looked like outside the Republican National Convention in New York City.

"For those of us with the 'limited access' credentials that couldn't get us on the convention floor, the streets were an option," I wrote. "And the guerrilla reporters found by far the most important and interesting story. In the age of international terrorism, the patriotic right of dissent is in crisis."

Taking its cue from police agencies following the 1999 protests in Seattle that shut down the World Trade Organization talks, the New York City Police Department used the practice of "pre-emptive arrests."

I first witnessed this near Times Square. As police ordered protesters to disperse, some heard it and did. Some heard it and didn't, saying they were on the sidewalk. Some couldn't hear amidst the din, and others were reporters and photographers trying to document the scene.

No matter. Officers used large orange nets to trap all of them on one corner of the intersection and take them into custody. They then sifted through their catch.

The elderly woman with the shopping bag was released.

The young guy with dreads didn't fare quite so well.

A teenage girl from Indiana cried as she was led handcuffed into a police wagon, as legal aid volunteers shouted "What's your name?"

"It's one thing to participate in civil disobedience; we have an entire civil rights movement based on that,'' Nancy Lessin, a Massachusetts resident whose stepson served in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, told me. "It's another thing when you have these sweep operations. There's a lot of talk about dealing with democracy elsewhere. There needs to be some attention to what democracy means here in the United States."

Her words came to mind as the New York Times reported last week that videotape of the protests "has shifted the debate over what precisely happened on the streets during the week of the convention."

More people were arrested at last year's GOP convention - 1,806 compared to 650 during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police clashed with anti-Vietnam War protesters - than any other political party convention in United States history.

But of the 1,670 cases that have moved through the criminal justice system in New York City, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or a trial that ended with a not guilty verdict, the Times reported.

Testifying last December, police officer Matthew Wohl said four officers had to pull Dennis Kyne off the steps of the New York Public Library and across Fifth Avenue, the Times reported.

But prosecutors dropped the resisting arrest charge against Mr. Kyne after footage from a documentary filmmaker showed Mr. Kyne "agitated, but plainly walking under his power down the library steps," the newspaper reported.

There was no sign of Officer Wohl in the footage.

The Times also reported that there were two versions of a police videotape showing the arrest of Alexander Dunlop, who had said he was arrested while going out to get sushi.

One showed Mr. Dunlop acting peacefully. The second one, which didn't include those scenes, was the one that prosecutors planned to use as evidence. When Mr. Dunlop received a longer version of the tape from a volunteer film archivist, prosecutors dropped the charges and said a "technician had cut the material by mistake," the Times reported.

All of this is disconcerting, of course, but should not come as a big surprise.

The Los Angeles Police Department engaged in similar tactics at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

The national press, for the most part, takes a pass on political dissent unless blood is spilled.

Except for the story in the Times April 12, there hasn't been much coverage of what happened to those arrested in the week-long protests during the GOP convention.

As Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink, a women's anti-war group, told me last September: "While I think this convention has been very successful for us as protesters, I'm afraid for the nation. I see this terrible divide among the people."



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