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Perils of Protest

by Manu Raju

Standing on a Lower Manhattan sidewalk during the peak of morning rush hour, Valarie Kaur was ready to watch a New Yorker’s regular Tuesday turn into bedlam.

The 23-year-old Indian woman had her video camera rolling on a group of protesters dressed in business suits seeking to halt traffic and voice their concerns over the effects of capitalism. Instantly, a team of New York City police officers stormed to break up the protest, tackling and bloodying some demonstrators, and preparing them for imminent detention in city jail.

The situation worked for Kaur who, after all, had arrived in New York just days before to document cases of alleged police abuse as tens of thousands of protesters sought to roil Republicans and grab national attention during the party’s national convention.

Photo by Jeremy Bigwood

But never did Kaur think that in a New York minute she would become the main subject of her own project. The California native says she was rounded up with the protesters and arrested without warning for “disorderly conduct,” held in custody for 16 hours, and suffered nerve damage to her right wrist from overly tight handcuffs and what she says was deliberate harm by a police officer.

Photo by Jeremy Bigwood

Kaur’s situation is not unusual, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a civil liberties group that is tracking complaints of bystanders who were arrested during the Republican National Convention at the end of August. The group says at least 200 of the 1,827 people arrested were not participating in protests and were thrown into New York prisons, some held without access to telephone, placed in shoddy detention centers, and abused by city police. The city arrested people going about their daily routines, as well as working press, nurses, photographers, lawyers, and legal observers, like Kaur.

Now, the NYCLU is considering filing a class action lawsuit against the city to seek damages on behalf of the people it says should not have been arrested during convention protests, says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the group. “We’re looking to get rid of policies that interfere with the First Amendment,” says Lieberman, who adds that after reviewing people’s complaints, it appears the police were targeting those who had video cameras and were “filming their conduct.”

The New York City Council opened an inquiry Sept. 15 into police actions during the convention. “The city’s legal position on preserving First Amendment rights is opening us to civil liability,” says Bill Perkins, deputy majority leader on the city council. “And people’s constitutional rights have been violated. This is unacceptable.”

The state Supreme Court has already fined the city $560,000 for holding people in jail for over 24 hours without an arraignment or a charge.

Critics say New York’s actions were part of a GOP strategy to keep the appearance that dissent was low as Republicans were lauding President Bush’s record and trying to reach out to swing voters, a critique that has been disputed by city and Bush-Cheney campaign officials.

The New York Police Department has praised its officers’ efforts to subdue protesters during the convention. “Expectations were met and exceeded by the extraordinarily high performance of our members of the department,” NYPD Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a Sept. 3 press conference. “We also said that we expected our police officers to perform with restraint and professionalism…That’s easy to say, but sometimes harder to achieve in the face of provocation and long hours of duty.”

Kaur, a third-generation Sikh American, rejects the claim that she provoked city police into arresting and harming her. She says she was wearing a bright green badge that said she was a “legal observer” for the National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based association that aims to safeguard civil liberty protections of minorities and other groups.

According to Kaur, the Aug. 31 protest in New York’s Financial District turned into chaos, and she had film of demonstrators “clobbered” to the ground with blood on their faces. All of a sudden, a plain-clothed police officer told her she was under arrest and pinned her against the wall. The police ignored Kaur’s claims that she was merely observing the protest. Her video camera, which she says proves she was not involved with the protest, was confiscated and labeled as “arrest evidence” with the rest of her possessions until her Sept. 22 arraignment date.

The police stuffed Kaur and others into a hot, crowded van and transported them into a detention center on the Hudson River, which some likened to Guantanamo Bay for its porous conditions, greasy floors, and cruel police officers. The NYPD rejects those charges.

Locked in a cage with barbed wire fences, Kaur says it felt like she was detained for days. Police officers repeatedly scolded her, refused to allow her to call a lawyer before signing a medical form, removed her shirt in front of others to confiscate a pouch she was wearing across her chest, all while dealing with the smell of the toilet that was sitting in the corner of the cell.

On top of that, Kaur suffered “the most physical pain I have ever experienced” because handcuffs were put on so tight that she lost feeling in part of her right hand. At one point, she plead for her handcuffs to be loosened, and a lieutenant yelled at her, grabbed her right hand and twisted it, prompting “sharp shooting pain” and her hand to swell and go numb, she says.

She suffered abrasions of the wrists and an impingement of the radial nerve, a doctor told her after she was released at 12:45 AM on the morning of Sept. 1.

Kevin Czartoryski, a spokesperson for the police department, says any allegations of police abuse could be taken up with the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. He says he was unaware of Kaur’s story.

During an arraignment in New York on September 22, Kaur pleaded not guilty to the charges after she rejected a judge's offer for an "ACD" to end the case. An ACD would allow the charges to be dropped by the city if she does not get arrested again in the next six months, but it would prevent her from joining a class action lawsuit for malicious prosecution, she says.

The NYPD still has her possessions, including her video camera, which she says has footage of police brutality during the protest she was observing. The NYPD will hold the possessions until the case is closed. Her next court appearance is Nov. 10 and it may go to trial if a judge does not dismiss the case. Kaur, who is being represented by the National Lawyers Guild, says she will join the NYCLU class action suit if the group decides to move forward with it. The group still is gathering information about various arrests before deciding to move forward with a suit.

Kaur attends Harvard graduate school and studies violence and its relationship with religion. She says the actions of some of the city police officers gave her a glimpse into the prisoner torture abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. “We were treated like criminals, as if we were not human,” she later recalled in a letter detailing her experiences. “I was just picked up off the street. How can they look at a woman in pain, listen to her plead and do nothing?”

Manu Raju is a reporter in Washington, covering Congress and the presidential election.

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