The City of New York has agreed to pay $2 million to a group of fifty-two protesters who were swept up in a mass arrest during a peaceful antiwar protest outside the headquarters of the Carlyle Group in 2003. We speak with the lead plaintiff in the case, Sarah Kunstler. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Around 8:00 a.m. on the morning of April 7, 2003, Sarah Kunstler, the daughter of the legendary civil rights lawyer Bill Kunstler, joined a small protest in Manhattan against the fledgling Iraq war.
“I was in law school at Columbia at the time,” Sarah Kunstler recalled Tuesday. “I had my knapsack and books with me, and I thought the demonstration was early enough so I’d be able to get to class on time.”
She thought wrong.
Kunstler hadn’t counted on the ironfisted crowd-control tactics the NYPD had begun to adopt, tactics the department would later employ in even more shocking mass arrests at the Republican convention in 2004.
That day in 2003, Kunstler started walking in a picket line outside the offices of the Carlyle Group, a major war contractor.
Police immediately cordoned off the street and allowed no one to enter or leave. Then, without any announcement, they started arresting all the protesters on trumped-up charges.
This according to dozens of witnesses and the NYPD’s videotape of events that day, all of which came to light as part of a 2004 federal civil rights suit that the Bloomberg administration finally agreed to settle Tuesday for $2 million.
AMY GOODMAN: The case is called Kunstler, et al. v. New York City. Sarah Kunstler joins us now in our firehouse studio.
$2 million, you have won.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a tremendous statement, and it’s a tremendous victory, I think, for free speech rights in the city, and a long time coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it happened and how the court case went on. You were arrested — you were planning to go to school, but you got arrested.
SARAH KUNSTLER: I was planning to go to school. I went to the protest around 8:00 a.m. Within half an hour, we were ringed by cops in riot gear. It was very frightening. I had never — I mean, I’ve been going to protests in the city since I was a child on my father’s shoulders, and I had never seen a police response like this one. I had my backpack. It was filled with books. It was heavy. I walked up to an officer, and I said, “What do I have to do not to get arrested?” And it was at that point that I was arrested.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you, as you had told me earlier this week, you heard one of the white shirts say, “Nobody leaves.”
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah, no, I heard, “Nobody gets in, nobody gets out.” You know, when the officer arrested me, one of the white shirts said, “Get that one.” It was really frightening, because nobody understood why it was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Your mother represented you?
SARAH KUNSTLER: My mother represented me.
AMY GOODMAN: Margie Ratner?
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah. I was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct. And there was a — we — I actually didn’t know anyone that I was arrested with at the time I was arrested. I wasn’t part of the organizing of the protest, but we became very organized very quickly, because we all shared this outrage and frustration over what had happened to us. We were — nobody was taking ACDs. We took a —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: ACD is adjournment contemplating dismissal, for those people who -— in other cities that don’t understand the term.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah, no, they offered us an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which means if you don’t — if you keep your nose clean for a number of months afterwards, then it will get wiped from your record. But on principle, we hadn’t done anything. And so, I went to trial. It was a one-day judge trial, and I was acquitted.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, according to the New York Times, the City had five lawyers handling the case over four years, along with a special appellate team. A conservative estimate is that New York City spent a million dollars on the defense of this case, including the salaries and benefits of police officers and lawyers before agreeing to the settlement.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah. It was a tremendous waste of money, from beginning to end, from the number of officers they brought out to police the protest and arrest us, for putting a hundred of us through the system, through winding our cases through the criminal courts for months, and then for defending a meritless position in this lawsuit for almost five years. I don’t know how the City justifies spending that kind of money.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I think one of your lawyers told me that they, the City, deposed 150 people — relatives, spouses of the complainants — trying to prove that they didn’t really suffer much distress as a result of these actions.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah. I think that our lawyers spent a number of years and were doing depositions two days a week solid for at least two years.
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you protesting the Carlyle Group?
SARAH KUNSTLER: The protest was right after the bombing started in March 2003, and it was right after there were a series of protests in New York, starting in February, where there was outrage building in the city.
And that protest, the Carlyle Group was a target because of war profiteering, military profiteering. They’re an investment group that has ties to a number of ex-presidents and the Bush family. And they have — a large number of their holdings are in military investments, and they’ve done very well over the past five years.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I mentioned in my column in the Daily News this week that you had just finished not too long before that the making of a documentary on Tulia, Texas, the scenes from the drug war, where you talked about all the false arrests that were conducted in the small town in Tulia. And here you were, fresh from making that film, and all of a sudden you’re dragged in, into a false arrest situation right here in New York. You’re — now you’re a lawyer.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Now I’m a lawyer.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now you’re a criminal defense lawyer. The education you got on the streets there versus what you got at Columbia Law School?
SARAH KUNSTLER: You can’t compare the two. I mean, you know, real-life experience wins every time. I think that as a lawyer and as a political person, I actually — I value this experience. I value this experience, because I was naive before it. I thought that as, you know, as a white middle-class person, that I was immune from this kind of treatment. I had seen it happen to people of color and poor people my entire life, and I thought that I was invisible to the police, and that if I wanted to get arrested, I could choose to commit civil disobedience and participate politically that way, and if I wanted to go exercise my free speech rights in a protest lawfully, I could do so, and I could control the parameters of that. And I learned that I don’t have that freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: The city lawyer Susan Halatyn said, “This settlement was reached without any admission of liability on behalf of the city and the individual defendants.”
SARAH KUNSTLER: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, that’s why they settle these cases. They should have settled it a lot earlier. The police in this case, during these depositions, contradicted themselves constantly. At my trial, the officer who arrested me admitted he never heard a lawful order to disperse when he — actually, he lied and said he heard one, but that he didn’t know where I was, he didn’t see me, when he heard the order. So I couldn’t be convicted for that, because he didn’t see me hear it.
AMY GOODMAN: Any words of wisdom, Sarah Kunstler, for people who are going to Denver and to St. Paul who are planning to protest at the conventions?
SARAH KUNSTLER: Well, we have the NYPD advising the police departments in Denver and Minneapolis, so my word is, you know, is to be wary of the tactics that are going to be employed and to prepare for preventive arrest, because that’s what happened in our case, that’s what happened here in New York with the Republican National Convention in 2004, and that certainly will happen in Denver and Minneapolis.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, it was revealed Denver had these warehouses ready with dozens of metal cages set up with razor wire above, with warnings of stun gun use around the warehouse.
SARAH KUNSTLER: That’s very frightening.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sarah Kunstler, I want to thank you very much for being with us. She is now a lawyer. She is a filmmaker. And she is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against New York City. The settlement, $2 million. I think each of the protesters get something like $18,000. The lawyers get over $1 million. Thanks for joining us.
SARAH KUNSTLER: Thank you.