Crowd Control Was Out of Control
Lorraine Kreahling, USA
February 20, 2003
When I learned Tuesday about the video that shows New York police behaving badly at Saturday's peace demonstration, I wasn't surprised. On Sunday night, as the first flakes of the blizzard had just begun to fall, I had been making my way to the Criminal Court building where my nephew, a Bard College sophomore, had been in jail nearly 24 hours.
I had in mind a "talking to" that I planned to give him—maybe about how
protesting may make you feel good, but real change usually comes from inside government, or something about hurting only yourself by hurling your body against institutions.
But I had been at Saturday's demonstration, and I was miffed, too. The orders for crowd control handed down to the police meant hundreds of thousands of demonstrators—many of whom had traveled hundreds of
miles—were prevented from attending the rally. The threat of "terrorism" was being used to treat peace advocates as dangerous types.
You had to be there to know how laughable this was.
The crowd was made up of the people from your supermarket. People who wrote literate, clever signs like, "Wise men don't start wars they stop them." People with baby carriages, and grandparents in scarves that probably had been knitted by a relative.
Seeing this mild-mannered group, who apologized to one another when they stepped on toes, faced by a wall of police in hard hats and plexiglass face protectors, carrying wooden riot clubs, suggested something was seriously out of whack.
When you treat people like animals, they are more likely to behave that way. The more people get pushed up against one another, the more tensions rise. And the riot control techniques contributed greatly to mounting tempers. Demonstrators who couldn't reach the rally were herded into "holding pens." And we got pretty tightly packed in between those metal barriers.
The frustration of this crowding was heightened as we stared down empty streets that led to the rally where we wanted to be. Every artery to First Avenue and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza had been blocked off by blue police barricades. And we were being marched away from the rally—even though we'd not been given a permit to march.
Still, the group I was herded along with did all right. A woman with a big gospel-singer's voice, wearing a black leather jacket with an indecipherable symbol painted in white down its back, tried to rouse the crowd into singing "We Shall Overcome." Students with empty white plastic buckets drummed and chanted, "Take the Street!"
But we didn't.
"GET BACK ON THE SIDE WALK," the loud speakers of a police truck ordered
anyone who dared stray off the curb. "Get back on the sidewalk, please," I
said into the truck's open window. I nearly got my toes run over. I got back
up on the sidewalk.
When barriers were removed—because there were just too many
people—and the crowd surged into the avenue, mounted police rode horses through the crowd still trying to keep it contained.
And talk about breaking one's will. Two hours of milling northward in the cold—in the opposite direction from where I was trying to go—did it for me and a lot of others. The crowd control techniques had worked; the mass that had never quite become a mass dispersed.
Walking home, I realized I was angry. I felt cheated. What if we'd been
allowed to simply march up Fifth Avenue? We were no more rowdy than the St. Patrick's Day crowd. We could have converged in Central Park, listened to music and speeches over loud speakers provided by the city, just as we had done in Washington more than 30 years ago.
I would not have the memory of that vast sea of faces and signs, the kind of memory the people who were at the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin and at the Roman Coliseum will have. After all, America is the democracy with a Constitution that guarantees the right to peacefully assemble. It could have been a beautiful thing—a real testament to peace rather than the strong arm of the law.
It almost made me wish I had forced my way through those barriers. Which is exactly what my nephew and his fellow students did.
And on Sunday night, outside the court room, as I learned the charges against my nephew had been dropped, I decided to save my lecture for another day. I realized that while my memories of peace demonstrations in the past are of loud rock music, fiery words, and soap bubbles and marijuana on the wind, his will be of holding pens and a holding cell. He has more to be angry about than I do.
Lorraine Kreahling is a writer who lives in Manhattan and Greenport, Long Island.
From New York Newsday,, February 20, 2003. Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.