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Guantanamo On the Hudson: Detained RNC Protesters Describe Prison Conditions

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We speak with detained protesters being held at New York’s temporary holding facility, Pier 57. They describe the conditions of the holding facility saying it is crowded, dirty and contaminated with oil, causing rashes. And we speak with the lead organizer of the National Lawyers Guild’s campaign to protect the rights of protesters. [includes rush transcript]

Protests against the Republican convention continued yesterday throughout New York as Democratic Sen. Zell Miller delivered the convention’s keynote address and Vice President Dick Cheney accepted his nomination to run for a second term.

Early in the day, AIDS activists from the ACT UP group breached the Madison Square Garden convention hall and briefly interrupted a speech by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to young Republicans, including Bush’s twin daughters.

Outside, five thousand people protesting high job losses formed a silent, single-file unemployment line that stretched for three miles from Wall Street to 31st Street, just shy of the convention center. Tens of thousands other protesters gathered for two hours in a designated demonstration area two blocks from Madison Square Garden in support of more union jobs in the United States.

Later in the day, some 2,000 people staged a “March on the Media” to protest what they say is uncritical coverage of the Bush administration by the mainstream press. Other major protests yesterday included a women’s rights demonstration and a protest against Coca-Cola.

The police arrested 19 people, bringing the total of those detained so far during seven days of relentless convention-related protests to more than 1,760, a record for a political convention.

Hundreds of people yesterday protested the conditions under which those arrested are being held before going to court saying the site was contaminated with oil and asbestos. Pier 57 is a three-story, block-long pier that has been converted to a holding pen.

Yesterday morning we received a call from one of the protesters being held at Pier 57 who had smuggled a phone inside. Detainees passed the phone to each other and described the conditions of the holding facility. Democracy Now! producer Mike Burke took the call and spoke with the detained protesters.

  • Detained protesters call from prison

The voices of protesters detained inside Pier 57. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has denied the city was operating what some called “Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson.” And defended the use of the of the pier garage saying “It’s not supposed to be Club Med.”

Last night, a judge ordered protesters who had been held for 24-hours released with desk appearance tickets if they were not charged with serious crimes. Before midnight, some protesters started emerging from 100 Centre St. around the block from our firehouse studio. Some 200 supporters greeted them with cheers and offered food and medical treatment. Despite the judge’s orders, a large number of protesters remain imprisoned.

  • Simone Levine, lead organizer of the National Lawyers Guild’s campaign to protect the rights of protesters during the Republican National Convention.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds of people protested the conditions under which those arrested are being held before going to court, saying the site is contaminated with oil and asbestos. Pier 57, where they are being held, is a three-story block-long pier that has been converted to a holding pen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yesterday morning we received a call from one of the protesters being held at pier 57 who had smuggled a phone inside. Detainees passed the phone to each other and described the conditions of the holding facility. Democracy Now! producer Mike Burke took the call and spoke with the detained protesters. Listen closely. After the first caller passes the phone, you can hear a prisoner in the background calling out for help and medical assistance.

EMILY: My name is Emily. I was arrested yesterday off of Union Square East, on East 15th Street in between Union Square East and Irvine. [sic] I was on the sidewalk, and I was never told that I would be arrested. I was just on the sidewalk. And no one ever read me my rights. They just took us all away. They trapped us and put us all into buses. We’ve been in jail for over 13 hours right now. In our first nine hours, the only food we received was an apple. In our first four hours here we weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom or get water. So none of us were read our rights; we haven’t been able to talk to any lawyers. A lot of people here that were arrested without even protesting, they were — just happened to be on the sidewalk where everyone was on that block — was arrested. And there are chemical warning signs all over this place that we’re being held. A lot of people are forming rashes on their skin from the floor — from whatever it is that is on it. And I’m going to pass this on to someone else who has another story.

VOICE SHOUTING IN THE BACKGROUND: I need medical attention!

ALTHEA: My name is Althea and I was — am a New York City public school teacher. I was out on Union Square on 16th Street between Irving and Union Square just walking, trying to enjoy the day, and I got swept up in a demonstration. I wasn’t a part of the demonstration and I was arrested. I was arrested about 8:00 p.m., handcuffed and we’ve been sitting in the Chelsea piers in very crowded conditions. Right now some people are experiencing toxic reaction to the environment, itching in their skin, and we’re very crowded. We have been given water and a sandwich, but they have not been giving us any information, and we’ve just been sitting here really penned in.

MIKE BURKE: Have you been able to communicate to any of your family or friends about your situation?

ALTHEA: No, I haven’t. I have been asking my arresting officer when can I make a phone call? And no one knows where I am. Basically I feel like I’ve been 'disappeared.' Nobody knows in my family that I have been arrested. And I was out by myself shopping; so, you know, there’s no one to — they haven’t allowed me to contact anyone.

VEEPA MAJAMUTAR: Hi. This is Veepa Majamutar. I’m calling also from the arresting facility. Basically I was just a stand-by and I was walking on the sidewalk and there was a march going on. They cordoned off the whole street and just arrested all of us. When I tried to explain that I was just walking by — I had a receipt from a store that I had bought something from on that street. They did not pay any attention. And here we are sitting in this almost a human-rights abuse conditions. So many of us are cold. We are freezing. Some of us need medical attention; but nobody’s telling us what to do. Nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s giving us any timeline, any idea of when we might get out. They’ve always been saying 'Next two hours. Two hours.' It’s been more than 12 hours now.

MIKE BURKE: Could you describe what you were doing just before you were arrested?

VEEPA MAJAMUTAR: What was I doing?


VEEPA MAJAMUTAR: Basically I was just — I was walking on the sidewalk. I didn’t even know that there were police and the march was going on. And all of a sudden the street basically just gets cordoned off and we cannot move. So before I was arrested I was just standing still because that’s all we could really do. And then they just started putting handcuffs on people. They didn’t tell us, please leave otherwise we’ll arrest you. They gave us no warning. They gave us no chance to leave. They just basically closed off the street, put handcuffs, and took us. They did not listen to anybody. They did not listen to even pure reason. They just put us off. We thought we would basically get out in a couple of hours if we had done nothing. But here we are 12 hours later and, basically, almost ridicule us. They ridicule us if we start to complain. And the condition here are atrocious. You have to see them to believe it. It’s dirty. It’s smelly. It’s filthy. We don’t have a blanket. We don’t have something to sit on. We are sitting on the floor. There’s dirt on the floor. There’s oil on the floor. There’s chemicals around us. It’s smelling bad. I could go on and on. It’s atrocious.

MIKE BURKE: Could you describe what kind of room you are in? It sounds like there are many, many people in the same room.

VEEPA MAJAMUTAR: We are like a hundred — a hundred people in a very small room. It’s surrounded by fence and we are like — it’s almost like rats in a hole. I mean, there’s nothing, there is just a floor which is very dirty, which is a lot of oil and all dust in it, I mean, all our clothes are dirty our hands are ditty. We had to eat an apple with our extremely dirty hands because we have no tissue paper, nothing to clean our hands with. We are just basically packed. Nobody can sit down. They don’t even give us a plastic bag to sit on. They don’t even give anything to lie down on. We just have to lie on the hard floor, basically. And there is not enough space for everybody to lie down because we have to sit so close together. It’s cramped. And we were freezing before and people were actually coughing, they were getting cold and nobody paid any attention, nobody gave them even a blanket nobody gave them even a plastic bag to cover themselves with.

JANET: My name’s Janet and I was arrested last night. I was actually on the sidewalk. We were having a party in the street, we were dancing a little bit and then the cops started to pen us in, so we moved onto the sidewalk and there was a lot of us crammed into a small space. They did not give us an order of dispersal. Instead, they just smashed us all together; and they started — at first they were picking people out and smashing their heads on the sidewalks. I couldn’t really get a good look of that because I was in the back being like crammed between a wall and a bunch of people. Then they slowly, slowly, slowly broke us off and put us on the buses. We were on the buses for a really long time. Now we are in a holding cell. It’s been probably more than 12 hours. It’s been about 13 hours. They just told me when I got medical attention that there’s — they arrested 1100 people last night and we’re all still in here. It’s totally nasty. The floor is greasy. There are signs everywhere saying we should be wearing masks and goggles; and I have this really bad rash on my hand that’s getting worse and worse. It feels like I just stuck my hand in an oven, it burns so bad, and my arms are tingling and my other hand is getting it, too. I spent a really long time trying to let them get me out of here so I could at least wash my hands and put some ice on it. Finally my arresting officer came and she took me over there and there’s a doctor and a nurse in this office and they didn’t have a sink for me to wash my hands; but they let me pour saline solution over my hand into a garbage can and then rub some hand-sanitizer on my hands. My hands are so black and dirty from how gross it is in here that I couldn’t even get them clean. Then they gave me a wet tissue to put on it. Basically they couldn’t really do anything for me. They told me to put some hydrocortisone cream on it, which isn’t very helpful because I’m in here. And now I am just sitting back in a cell with everybody else. They’re not really telling us what’s going on. It seems like we’re going to be in here for a really long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Phone calls from jail. Voices of protesters detained inside pier 57. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has denied the city’s operating what some have called Guantanamo on the Hudson, defended the use of the pier garage, saying, quote, it’s not supposed to be Club Med.

AMY GOODMAN: Simone Levine is with us, lead organizer of the National Lawyer’s Guild Campaign to protect the rights of prisoners during the Republican National Convention. Thanks for coming in with no sleep. But what is happening here? How many people do you understand remain detained?

SIMONE LEVINE: Well right now, Amy, we actually have a number of 900 people who are still detained.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, I was at the Republican Convention as people were leaving, I was talking to delegates and I asked if they were aware of the protests and one woman said yes. And I said are you aware that there have been over 1500 arrests? For a moment, they couldn’t talk. They were completely shocked.

SIMONE LEVINE: Well that’s good to know that they are actually listening. It’s good to know that they, actually, somebody’s giving them the news.

AMY GOODMAN: Well that was how they were learning. But they certainly hadn’t known it from inside the Republican Convention. As most New Yorkers don’t. Because not very much is being talked about. Why are they being held in this way? Is this common practice?

SIMONE LEVINE: Well, I don’t think that it’s common practice for arrests to be held as long as they have been held. I mean we have now, we have people that have now been detained for more than 36 hours. What the law says is, the law says that somebody cannot be held past 24 hours barring some kind of emergency situation. And that’s exactly what we were arguing yesterday in court. That this is not an emergency situation. The number of arrests that they have made over the last 24-hour period is not more arrests than they would make in a normal day in New York City, so they should be able to process these arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: But they have those arrests, as well.

SIMONE LEVINE: No, they don’t. Because what has happened is they have taken all the police out of the outlying boroughs, out of the Bronx, out of Brooklyn and out of Queens, and they put them in Manhattan in order to work on the protests alone. So they don’t have the other arrests…

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s only a skeleton police force anywhere else in the city. I spoke to a judge yesterday who told me, it was in arraignment court. He told me that the one big problem that they are having is that the, all these arrested are being processed, obviously everyone is fingerprinted and those fingerprints are sent to Albany. But up in Albany, there’s no additional staff so hundreds and hundreds of fingerprints are being backed up there. It almost seems like the city which claims to have prepared for everything prepared for everything but dealing with the massive arrests there and whether this is deliberate or whether this was a sort of unplanned, is not clear. But you suspect that there might have been some deliberate attempt to slow the process down and keep people in jail.

SIMONE LEVINE: I don’t know if I would say it was deliberate, but I think that one thing that I am definitely secure in saying is that the police department has known for over a year that they are going to be having the Republican National Convention here. They have said for over six months that they, themselves, expect 1,000 arrests a day. They decided to set out a completely separate facility to detain people in, and they decided to set up their own central booking system. They go by their own rules and they set up their own special facilities. That being said, they provided a facility, a detention facility which was slick with oil, which is causing people to have chemical burns at this point. It used to be a bus depot. And they have a holding facility in which we have received calls from demonstrators that they have been held in for 20 and 30 hours and nothing has been happening whatsoever. The other thing that I would just mention is the fingerprints, the police department obviously has jurisdiction to give people desk-appearance tickets and summonses without fingerprinting them.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Simone Levine, she is the lead organizer for the National Lawyer’s Guild campaign to protect the rights of protesters during the Republican National Convention. We will be back with her, and then go to some of the speeches on the floor of the Republican National Convention and ask who is Zell Miller, the Democratic Senator of Georgia, who is endorsing the Republican Presidential candidate George Bush and Republican President George Bush. Also we will hear Dick Cheney’s speech, his acceptance speech at the nomination for Vice President, and talk about his record, as well. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bob Dylan here on Democracy Now! Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency. The Battle for New York. I am Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes I would like to ask you something Simone. The New York Times today has an article talking about the enormous success of the police department and Mayor Bloomberg in effecting a preemptive strike policy on these protests to prevent them from getting to Madison Square Garden. But, I have—my colleagues in the corporate press are, many of them who have been out on the streets, are very, very upset. They are upset about the police tactics and they are upset about the fact that many of their stories are not really getting in the papers or on T.V. One Daily News reporter told me the story yesterday that on Tuesday, he attended a protest at the Hummer dealership on 11th avenue on the west side. 15 reporters showed up, 40 police, and only one protester showed up at this rally. One young woman who was by herself picketing in front of the Hummer dealership. The police supervisor approached her and said, “you are blocking traffic”. I am giving you a warning or you are going to be arrested. She was stunned, the reporters were stunned because she was the only protester in front of the dealership. She said what do you mean? I am not blocking anybody’s traffic. The police supervisor said “that’s it. You had your time. Cuff her.” And they carted her away. And the reporter wrote a story which didn’t make our paper and in fact, I think there was only a mention in Newsday of it. So there’s a problem here in terms of this preemptive-strike policy by the police department and also in terms of how the media are covering it.

SIMONE LEVINE: Well, I would just start out by saying that to the one protester who was arrested outside of the Hummer dealership that you have to be congregating with others in order to be guilty of disorderly conduct. She’s clearly not congregating with anybody just by herself there.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe with the riot police?

SIMONE LEVINE: Maybe with the riot police. The other thing that I was going to mention is I have actually gotten a lot of comments from press who have been extremely upset over this issue, as well. Mostly because we have quite a number of phone calls to our legal office from press who have been arrested themselves, who have had NYPD-issued press cards, have showed the NYPD press cards to the police and have still been arrested and they, themselves, are still in the holding facility.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I heard an inspector, one of the people in charge at times square as they moved in, often not warning them in advance of the kind of zap attack. They move in behind them as they are walking and they are some under cover in front of them and ones come up on motorcycle on the side. So you are totally hemmed in. And they just arrest you and the inspector said to the police around him, if they stop, if they ask questions, cuff them.

SIMONE LEVINE: I have heard the same reports and people have really been caught between police who do come in from the back and also from the front and they have nowhere to go and that’s the way a lot of the press, I believe on Tuesday, had also gotten trapped by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening today? What’s this writ of habeas corpus? Are they going to keep these protesters in on, keep them through George Bush’s speech tonight?

SIMONE LEVINE: Well, we have filed two writs last night. Legal Aid Society filed one. The Legal Aid Society is the major public defenders group here in New York City who are the only unionized public defenders group in New York City. And they filed one last night. It was in front of Judge Gataldo. And Judge Gataldo had said that everybody that is charged with infractions or violations like disorderly conduct should be out by 1:00 last night. In the morning. And everybody charged with misdemeanors or felonies should be up before 9:00 in the morning. My understanding was that there is going to be re-argument this morning on the Judge’s Galtaldo writ at 60 Center Street and we are asking people to get there early at 9:00 in the morning. Supposed to be in room 130. There was also a second writ taken last night by members of the National Lawyers Guild and that was in front of judge, I believe it was Judge Goodman, Judge Emily Goodman. And that writ was to allow access to clients by their attorneys. So attorneys could get access to their clients. We then went down to corrections to go try to meet with our clients, particularly we have about 40 outstanding cases of extreme medical urgency that have not been documented, have not been attended to by the NYPD. And corrections did not allow us in despite the fact that we had a judicial order since last night.

AMY GOODMAN: Simone Levine. Thank you for being with us. Lead organizer of the National Lawyers Guild campaign to protect rights of protesters. Again, the figures, it looks like about 1800 people have been arrested and Simone that number one more time of how many remain in imprisoned?

SIMONE LEVINE: 900 people, Amy, still remain inside, despite the fact that now we have two judicial orders to the contrary.

AMY GOODMAN: And pier 57, I was speaking with the union organizer last night at T.W.U., because this was an old depot that they are being put in at pier 57. He was describing the fire that happened there 10 years ago in 1994. Talked about the asbestos that was there and that they couldn’t get the asbestos out. It hasn’t been used as a facility for human beings to be in for quite a while, until this point now where more than 1,000 protesters have been detained. We will keep folks updated.

SIMONE LEVINE: The has thing I was just going to say, Amy, is that we are telling people to, people who have been released from jail, that they must bag their clothing, seal their clothing, put a label on when they were released and when they were arrested, that there will be follow-up lawsuits.

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Zell Miller: “It is the Soldier, Not the Poet, Who Has Given Us Freedom of Speech”

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