Democracy Now!’s Jeremy Scahill reports on how police cracked down on protesters and made mass arrests at Critical Mass, near Madison Square Garden and in Times Square. [includes rush transcript]
- Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! producer and correspondent.
AMY GOODMAN: The Democracy Now! team was on the streets of New York in different parts of the city yesterday to cover all of the different protests before and after the major march. Producer and correspondent Jeremy Scahill joins us in the studio now. We’ll be speaking with one of the protesters who was arrested this week in a banner-hang and she faces many decades in jail. We begin, though, with Jeremy. Jeremy, welcome.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Good to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well it was quite a day yesterday.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s really remarkable what’s going on. I think the real story of yesterday beyond the enormity of that march is the battle going on between the independent media movement in this country and activists and the police in terms of who is becoming more sophisticated in their tactics. What we’re seeing is this unprecedented level of text messaging around the city. Various activists groups and the Independent Media Center are blasting out these text message updates to people’s telephones telling them where the action is. If the police are beating people on a certain corner, within moments, hundreds, or thousands, of activists are getting the text messages on their phones. They’re responding to it throughout the day. Going all the way to Central Park. But the police are using sophisticated tactics. There are at least 200 police officers roaming the city that have cameras mounted on helmets that are beaming back, wirelessly, video images to the central command area they have set up called the Multi-Agency Coordination Center. Some 66 federal, state, local agencies working in coordination with each other. On a tactical level, what we’re seeing in the streets is the police — many of the police not identifying themselves in any way as police. In fact, Amy, you and I yesterday were at a protest of the mouse bloc where they were moving from theater to theater, in the theater district around Broadway, around 47th street. When the republican delegates would come out of their discounted theater shows, the mouse bloc would confront them and get into arguments with the Republican delegates as they were coming out. Well, as they ran around and made their way from theater to theater, a number of times, the police used tactics to cut them off, to split the march. One of the things they did, was to take orange fence-like — a mesh — orange mesh fence-like material and to literally surround the demonstrators with it. Anyone caught in the orange mesh netting was then arrested and was put onto city buses, New York City buses. One of the things that I thought was one of the most disturbing tactics is when we were moving up Broadway as the mouse bloc was moving to another Broadway show, the police came in on motorcycles, there was no identification that they were police whatsoever. They were actual motorcycles, they were wearing helmets that said Harley-Davidson. At first I thought it was a group of bikers who were coming to attack the protesters. And they drove the motorcycles into the middle of the crowds.
AMY GOODMAN: And as we followed the crowds, it was frightening. The motorcycles would race up, and Sharif Abdel-Kouddous, another producer, and I were walking, the police were moving in on the protesters and not giving them a chance or warning. There was a man in front of me wearing a bandana and jeans who was walking slowly, and I said to him, it seemed like a bystander, I said, please move ahead. We were just about to be — the police were moving in very fast. He slowed down. I realized later, he was an undercover cop, which meant he was penning us in with the protesters. And as we quickly made our way down the street trying to observe everything, as the police tackled these protesters, who were saying “I’m trying to get away,” we heard one of the officials in charge, say to the other police around him, “If they stop, if they ask a question, cuff them.” Cuffing them is not just cuffing them. It’s slamming them to the ground as they say, “What have I done? What have I done?”
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also had, I noticed in the theater district as well, an enormous number of private security, by the Republican National Committee itself working in tandem with the police, and in front of every hotel, you have a large number of private security that are all communicating with walkie-talkies as well as with the police. I mean, the display, I think outside of Phantom of the Opera alone there must have been 50 policemen lining the streets as the republicans were going into the opening of the play.
AMY GOODMAN: We also bumped into a legal observer. They’re wearing the bright green hats. She took her hat off and I said, “What are you doing? You’re the one who’s watching.” We were watching as people were being handcuffed, all of their belongings were put in plastic garbage bags that are hung over their handcuffed hands at the back. And I said, “Why are you taking your hat off.” She said, “I think we’re being targeted.” We were watching as legal observers themselves were being arrested. She said, “I think it’s easier to operate not saying that we are legal observers.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: I think it’s important to encourage people to check out the work of the Independent Media Center. There is a remarkable story under way here. That is the way that independent media is covering this. We had 15,000 journalists in Boston allegedly covering the convention. What the young people from the Independent Media Center have managed to do in the last 48 hours is to provide more coverage of what’s happening in New York at this convention and it hasn’t started yet, than 15,000 journalists did combined in Boston. It’s remarkable and the quality of work. We all were in Seattle in 1999, when the Independent Media Center really burst onto the scene. The quality of work has improved so much since 1999. So many of these young people are becoming serious, responsible journalists who are doing work that is important and credible.
AMY GOODMAN: Which precisely, is why, Jeremy, why I think we are seeing them under attack right now, the Justice Department just having opened a criminal investigation into the New York Indy Media Center. The Justice Department is demanding that the IndyMedia’s internet service provider hand over records regarding posts on the site that listed the names of republican delegates. The American Civil Liberties Union is defending IndyMedia and the internet provider saying that we cannot see legitimate purpose behind the investigation. It looks like another attempt to repress political dissent. These are very serious issues. Also many IndyMedia folks covering the Critical Mass Bike Ride on Friday night, our own reporter, Elizabeth Press, got caught up in a dragnet. I was watching the bikers as they were going through Times Square, a huge celebration, 5,000 cyclists. There were people all over Times Square. The bystanders, everyone was smiling. Very liberating moment as people were singing and they were chanting, as they raced through Times Square right around Macy’s. Right around 35th street, Elizabeth got caught with other of the cyclists. She had a camera on her bike, and there’s no way to cover it, other than on roller-skate, John Hamilton did, our other producer, who was rollerblading down the street. Elizabeth got caught. She was handcuffed. She was going down as we listened to the police talking about the protesters as “our guests.” This is how the guests in New York are treated. It was interesting to see just as they were about to corral her into another bus, above as The Daily Show ad in Times Square that got that sign, “Welcome to New York. That Smell? Freedom.” And — but fortunately, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union prevailing upon finally on officer who would listen, we were able to have Elizabeth released and unhandcuffed, her bike taken out of the mass that was being taken away. Meanwhile, the young woman next to her, her bike and her bag, she was taken away from it, blocks away she was begging for them to get it. She was saying this was unfair. The police officer saying to her, Elizabeth Press overheard, “You’re used to wearing handcuffs; they must just be pink and furry at night.” She was yelling sexual harassment.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I wanted to turn the tables on Juan a second. I wanted to ask you a question, Juan. You are covering these protests and also you were a student leader, a leader of the Young Lords in 1968. I wanted to ask you this question that is being talked about a lot in the protest circles. That is the question of provocateurs. And the police having provocateurs or others working as de facto provocateurs.
JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s no doubt in my mind it’s operating here. We saw it operating in Philadelphia at the Republican Convention there, where there were undercover cops that were in with some of the groups actually fomenting some of the activities that the people were arrested for. We saw the report that just a couple of days ago about two young men, 19, I think, 20 years old, who were arrested on plotting to set some bombs in Herald Square when it was an undercover agent who was actually involved with them. I — that smelled to me right away of an agent provocateur situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And right before that in Albany, two leaders of the mosque in Albany, New York, are arrested and then it turns out that there is an undercover agent who was trying to get them to engage in a violent act against the Pakistani Consulate, and they say this is not — they don’t want to engage in violent Jihad. Finally, a judge got so frustrated. Ashcroft held a news conference, the Attorney General, and now they have been released.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I think it’s anyone who has looked at these kinds of activities historically knows that the undercover agents are often the most militant, urging the most extreme actions and then as an opportunity to draw people in and to arrest them, so that I think that many of the protesters have to be careful of that, and watch out for that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: In Miami, what appeared to be one protester using an electric shock tazer against another protester. Of course, the person was an undercover cop who then crossed back over the lines and was driven away to safety after shocking another protester.
AMY GOODMAN: After we were in Times Square last night and we were watching the police take down some of the protesters who were going from theater to theater, just in the sidewalks, just speaking out and protesting against war, we bumped into one of the revelers. He was a North Carolina state senator, and he just had come from Bombay Dreams.
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: My concern is that this town is under a siege. It’s under attack. There are people who have threatened the entire security and safety of the entire region. And these — right now, what has happened is there’s a major impediment for the officers trying to protect your life. Unless we allow them the ability and the freedom to do that, you know, we’re making a mistake for our own safety. I believe in free speech. I have exerted free speech myself. But at the same time, there’s a time and a place for free speech.
AMY GOODMAN: What did they do?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I’m not sure what they did. I wasn’t here during the time that they were arrested. But I know these men are concerned about your life.
AMY GOODMAN: What is that time and place for free speech.
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: The time and place would be certainly not in this town that’s under threat.
AMY GOODMAN: in what way?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: When this city —
AMY GOODMAN: In what way is it under threat?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I think it’s threatened strongly. The reality of the convention here and president’s coming, this a major national issue. If you aren’t sensitive to that as a national problem, I think we have major problem of communication here.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the protests today of about a half million people who marched down the street. What message did that send?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I believe in dissent, God Bless that they lived in America. If they lived in country where the people are trying to kill us, they wouldn’t have the freedom, would they?
AMY GOODMAN: Specifically what they were saying of aside from of the issue of free speech. What was your response?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I didn’t hear their message.
AMY GOODMAN: They were protesting against the war and against the U.S.A. Patriot Act. I
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I think it’s —
INTERVIEW: Against the loss of jobs —
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I’m working for the loss of jobs.
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: I’m working real hard back in my state. But we have a major concern in this town today, and right now, you’re presuming a major — you’re presenting a major obstacle for these gentlemen, these officers trying to protect your life.
INTERVIEW: What’s your name, sir?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: Robert Pittenger.
INTERVIEW: You’re a state senator from North Carolina?
SEN. ROBERT PITTENGER: These officers trying to protect your life. We are people creating a major distraction so they cannot focus of the concerns of trying to protect you and me. And unfortunately, if we have a disaster that will prove me right. I hope that doesn’t happen.
AMY GOODMAN: North Carolina state senator, Robert Pittenger, speaking outside Bombay Dreams that he had just gone to with other North Carolina delegates, talking about the protests. You could tell the delegates because they were often wearing a red bag that said nytimes.com, New York Times supporting the Broadway shows that delegates went to. That’s a story itself which we have talked about before, you can go to our website and check it out. The delegates were not pleased that one of the discounts offered was to Naked Boys Singing. That is a play with an openly gay theme, celebrates sexuality, and though delegates took advantage of the discount for that, the Republican Party said they didn’t want the tickets offered anymore, so only those who had gotten them in time were able to see the play. There were other interesting issues about what plays they’re allowed to see and what plays they are not. If you want to get information, news headlines and other ongoing accounts of what’s going on in the city, in addition to democracynow.org, check out the IndyMedia website. It’s nyc.indymedia.org. Right near us on White Street is Gas which shows independent — on Franklin — independent journalists, independent journalists, their photographs, their films, their creations of work. It’s a real gallery of that work. It’s here in New York City. Just below Lafayette Street and right next to Lafayette just below Canal. Jeremy, thanks very much.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you.