roughly 1,100 people arrested on Aug. 31, 2004.
--Photo by Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Along the terrace of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, two teenage girls played guitar and sang. A yoga teacher hunted for a friend from New Orleans. A young woman who had spent the summer traveling around the country struck up a conversation with two men from Quebec. Hundreds of others sat or stood on the steps, holding flags and signs.
That peaceful moment, a few minutes before 6 on the afternoon of Aug. 31, 2004, would not last. It was the second day of the Republican National Convention in New York, and a date set for multiple demonstrations, some of which had unconcealed agendas of civil disobedience. For months, undercover police officers had been collecting information on groups planning protests. The library had been listed on Internet sites as a gathering spot for people interested in civil disobedience.
That day, in the space of about four hours starting about 4 p.m., some 1,100 people were arrested around the city, and many were held for 30 or more hours. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the police stopped many dangerous troublemakers from creating havoc. Now, though, the city faces 605 federal lawsuits; it has already paid $694,000 to settle 35 such cases, according to the city comptroller.
If the absence of widespread violence during the convention reflects successful police work, as the mayor has maintained, the narratives slowly emerging from the lawsuits are revealing the hazards of mass arrests made that day.
At the library, that included scores of people who, it appears, were not doing what they were charged with, according to testimony and video from the lawsuits, as well as video recordings collected by I-Witness Video, an organization that documents public demonstrations.
“I met up with these two men from Montreal, and they said, ‘Would you like to help us hang a banner?’ ” recalled Amber Tejada, now 27, who had timed a cross-country trip so that she could join protests.
The three had just stretched the banner along the base of one of the library’s famous lions when Capt. Ronald Mercandetti approached. A videographer recorded the moment.
“Excuse me,” Captain Mercandetti said. “You can’t hang signs on Parks Department property.”
They immediately took down the banner.
“You can hold it, but you can’t hang it,” Captain Mercandetti said.
Two seconds later, as the men stood on the steps, holding ends of the banner, other officers moved in and arrested them.
As their wrists were bound, people on the stairs shouted that the officers should let them go.
“What did they do?” hollered one.
The answer, given in the police criminal complaints, is strikingly different from what videotape showed.
Although Ms. Tejada had been well up the stairs of the library, she and the two men were accused of “obstructing the entire intersection” of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue “so that no cars or pedestrians could pass through.” The complaint also said police officers had ordered her “to leave the area on numerous occasions and the defendant refused.” And, the arresting officer said, she had paraded through the intersection with at least 50 other people but did not have a permit.
“I’m totally willing to be held responsible for any violation of the law, but this was ridiculous,” Ms. Tejada, who lives in Oregon, said in an interview last year.
The only part of the complaint that resembled the situation on the steps accused her of hanging a banner on Parks Department property without permission.
After the uproar over the banner arrests had quieted, two girls then in high school, Gwynn Galitzer, who was 16, and Grace Kalambay, 17, sang and played guitar at a cafe table, the music drifting across the terrace.
Then the police searched the backpacks of at least three people on the steps. Although none of them were arrested, a fresh outcry rose from the crowd, and more police officers moved to clear the crowd.
“I had made the determination that it was no longer safe in the mezzanine area,” Chief James P. O’Neill, a police commander at the library, testified in a deposition. “There were a tremendous amount of people. It was loud, there were chairs, there were tables that can be used as weapons.”
The fracas swept up the two guitar-playing girls. Once again, the criminal complaint placed the action elsewhere: Both girls were accused of holding a banner and blocking the intersection of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and of parading without a permit.
With the library steps cleared, the crowds streamed away. Among them was Ben Kappel, pulling his luggage on wheels; he had arrived on the airport bus after flying in from New Orleans, and met a friend, Wendy Tremayne, on the library steps. They were heading for the subway, Mr. Kappel said.
“We’re about to cross 42nd and Sixth, police said, ‘You can’t cross here,’ and turned us around,” Mr. Kappel said. Blocked from going west, they found that they also could not go east, south or north. “They countered us with those orange nets,” Mr. Kappel said.
The nets had followed the crowd from the library down 42nd Street. A police commander, holding his own video camera, gestured to the people trapped in the pen. “Sit down,” he ordered. The crowd — shoulder to shoulder, backpack to bandanna — sank awkwardly to the sidewalk.
Among them were Ms. Tremayne and Mr. Kappel. When they saw their arrest documents, many hours later, they discovered that they had been accused of disorderly conduct: for sitting on 42nd Street and blocking traffic.