By Wendy Stefanelli
|Guantanamo on the Hudson
|The story of my unjust arrest during the 2004 Republican National Convention
September 19, 2004
Maybe you've heard recently of the many so-called "anarchists" being locked up in New York at the piers and thrown in jail during the Republican National Convention. I was one of the arrestees -- the falsely arrested -- whom Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a threat and has compared to the 9/11 terrorists. From the New York Times:
"It is true that a handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they don't agree with their views," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Think about what that says. This is America, New York, cradle of liberty, the city for free speech if there ever was one and some people think that we shouldn't allow people to express themselves. That's exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9/11. Now this is not the same kind of terrorism but there's no question that these anarchists are afraid to let people speak out."
Although I have marched in several antiwar protests in the last couple of years, on the night of my arrest, August 31, I was not participating in any protest. Around 8:30 p.m., having just finished work, my friend Gwynne and I were going to go have a drink. We saw hundreds of police running everywhere on 26th Street, then up Park Avenue. A man, who later turned out to be an undercover cop, suggested to us that if we see police going down the street to go the other way because there could be trouble. Mind you, at no point did he tell us that if we did not disperse we would be arrested.
I saw a man -- who said he had done nothing -- being handcuffed and thrown down. The cop was using a lot of force and I asked that he please not hurt this man. Right after, the undercover cop returned. While I was trying to call a friend who might have a camera to document this injustice, the undercover cop ordered two other officers to arrest Gwynne and me.
| During the 2004 RNC in New York City, arrestees -- comprising peaceful protestors, innocent bystanders and others -- were handcuffed and made to sit on the sidewalk, sometimes for hours on end.
There was total chaos. An officer yelled at us to get away. Another grabbed Gwynne's arm, but then let go. Being less fortunate, I was cuffed and thrown on the sidewalk, made to sit with several others. We had been netted in as criminals. I asked one officer if I could use my cell phone with my cuffed hands; he didn't mind. But then I was screamed at by one of his superiors who came over and turned off my phone. No call to the outside world would be allowed. We all sat there while the cops videotaped us and people on the street took photos. After about fifteen or twenty minutes I heard an officer say that they needed five women. I looked next to me: there were many males and only four other females. I made five -- quota for that street corner, I suppose.
We were loaded onto an empty Metropolitan Transit Authority bus and waited until it was full and then, for no apparent reason, for a couple more hours. My cuffs were too tight and I asked if they could please be loosened. My shoulder bag had been cuffed as well; it was weighing down my cuffs, making them tighter. The officer who was assigned as my arresting officer an hour later (even though she hadn't witnessed my arrest) eventually had to cut my cuffs in order to take my workbag and purse into possession. I was then cuffed again just as tightly for over four hours.
The bus was finally driven to Pier 57, a former transportation depot, where rumor had it that there was asbestos, oil and other toxic substances on the floor. We waited on the bus for quite some time; there was a long line of buses ahead of ours. One of the women said that she needed to use the restroom. Tough luck, not the cop's problem. Brian, a man from Oregon, sitting at the back of the bus, was very sick. He had Crohn's disease; his colostomy bag had burst and he was throwing up all over the back of the bus. All the arrestees in the entire bus begged the officers present to please get medical attention to this man. They completely ignored us. We asked that he be let off the bus first. Again, they ignored us.
Around 1:00 a.m., my cuffs were finally cut off. This was the first opportunity to use the portable toilet. We were given stale Wonder-Bread-and-cheese sandwiches and locked in one of the many barbed-wire fenced cells within Pier 57. Women had to sit or lie on the filthy cold black concrete pavement, only to be covered immediately in soot. Some women broke out in rashes. There were no mats or blankets and the fans were blowing directly on us. We asked for the fans to be turned off because we were freezing. The police refused. Our water supply ran out and I had to ask many times before a new tank was put in for us to drink from.
On Wednesday, September 1, at some point after sunrise, we all found ourselves very hungry. There was a large box of cereal on the floor by the other side of the fence. An officer told us that there was not enough for all of us, so therefore nobody could have any. (Apparently, the average prisoner does not share.) One bold girl -- I was in the cell with at least fifteen girls under the age of eighteen -- finally decided to break through the fence into the box and hand out the individual mini boxes of stale flakes. Naturally, we divided them equally and each person had a handful.
Around noon, after watching many, many inmates leave before us, mostly men, I was finally about to board the correctional detention bus to go to the Center Street jail. Already on the bus was a young woman, Tonya. She was screaming that her wrists hurt and yelling at the officer to stop touching her. She was trying to loosen her cuffs because of her hypoglycemic condition. She asked for her cuffs to be loosened and instead had them tightened and was forcefully locked into the solitary confinement section on the bus. We all pleaded with the driver and officer to please, please loosen her cuffs -- if nothing else -- because her wrists were turning blue. We were completely ignored. We all then screamed, "Medical emergency!" over and over and were again completely disregarded by all of the officers standing outside the bus. The bus driver then drove as fast as possible with a police escort to Center Street, trying to scare us and causing several cars to slam to a halt.
We waited on the bus with only a few open windows and painful wrists for at least another hour, watching twenty or thirty cops hanging out in the quad area eating bagels and talking. Many other buses full of females came after us and got the honored privilege of entering jail first. I guess the driver was trying to teach us what happens when we speak out in this so-called free country. (Is it really us "anarchists" who are afraid to let people speak out, Dear Mr. Bloomberg?)
A couple of hours later, our tight plastic handcuffs were cut off, only to be replaced by metal daisy-chain cuffs linking us together by the wrists in a single-file line. Inside, for hours, women were moved randomly from cell to cell. One by one, our names were called off a list so that we could each put into the cell next door, only to be moved back an hour or two later. It made no sense; there was no rhyme or reason to the order of names called for "processing." There was a lot of confusion among the officers, who didn't seem to know what was going on themselves.
A young woman in her mid-twenties was crying. She had been crossing the street on her way home and, like many of us, was falsely arrested (as were the peaceful protesters, I might add). She was one of the first women to be locked up, and she watched many females being released before her, despite their much later arrest. Charlie, a woman in her late twenties, had been pepper sprayed in the face (including in her eyes) and was denied medical treatment for eight hours. Another falsely arrested woman I spoke with showed me her wrist, which, due to her cuffs being too tight, had been sliced as the cop cut them off. Many people who had been shopping were caught up in the city's sweep. I heard that they even got a man delivering Chinese food on his bike. What were they trying to protect, and from whom?
We were packed like sardines into the 20- by 25-square-foot cell so, at some point, we counted ourselves: there were 105 of us! We could barely move; it was nearly impossible to cross the room to use the toilet (which, by the way, didn't have a door) or to drink the dirty tap water from the sink. After many hours of telling the officers that this situation was a fire hazard, we refused to allow any more women in our cell. They eventually moved several of us to the practically empty cell next door. A lucky few made their phone calls at this time. I asked if I could have some Tylenol for my migraine headache. They told me that they did not provide "meds," so I asked if I could see a nurse. Not in this part of the building, they said, but I could see one later.
On Wednesday night at around 10:30, I was finally allowed to make my first phone call. (I got no answer.) We were offered bruised apples and oranges and later the occasional soy sandwich on stale white bread -- because the police figured that there were so many "vegetarian 'criminals' in there." The only drinking water available to us was still the tap water from the filthy sink. There was no soap at any of the sinks to clean our blackened -- and possibly toxic -- hands. I asked several different officers if we could have blankets, pillows or mats. They said that they only have four mats in the whole building, and that they were reserved for the "pregnant prisoners" downstairs. I requested some pain-relief pills once again, but they said that I had to ask at the place at which I had initially asked for them. Meanwhile, three women were suffering from asthma and were denied treatment for many hours.
I made myself get an hour or two of sleep, the only sleep I was to have during my forced 47-hour visit to the slammer. A young woman lying on the cold damp concrete floor next to me was kind enough to share her sweater as a pillow, buffering our faces from the scum.
Early in the morning on Thursday, September 2, we were moved again, again chained to one another by the wrists, passing more chained females in the halls. Our fingerprints were taken only after an officer sprayed and scrubbed our hands with Windex to clean off the dirt from the pier. This was now well after my 36th hour. A sarcastic male officer told us that we were all about to go home any minute. We were split up. Although we informed the police that there were several women, including myself, who suffered from asthma, they continued to spray our poorly ventilated cell with Lysol. I made yet another plea for painkillers for many of us, which once again fell upon deaf ears.
A few hours later we were called into random groups of five to go in the usual daisy chain fashion and have mug shots taken downstairs somewhere. After my photo was taken, an officer sitting at a desk near the camera asked how I was. I said that I had a severe migraine and back pain and that I needed painkillers at the very least. He handed me two Tylenol pills, simple as that -- outrageous after being told they did not have any in the building. There was no water there, but I eventually got some good old jail tap.
Despite thinking that we were about to go to court as we had been told, we were taken back to the twelfth floor. We sang peace songs, chanted radical cheers and listened to each other's stories to pass the time. What got us through this nightmare was each other.
At long last, around 5 p.m., I was put in the cell next to the court. I asked for a lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild and was advised to take the ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal) that was being offered at that hour; otherwise there could be a possible misdemeanor on my record. I was written down for "parading without a permit" and two counts of disorderly conduct -- because five-foot-three me was trying to help a guy out. I was told I that if I chose to plead not guilty, I would have to stay in jail longer that night. The judge basically wanted everyone out and not clogging the system with their inconvenient "not guilty" pleas, which would have to be dealt with at a later date.
So, at 7:30 p.m., two nights after my arrest, I was told by the judge that as long as I am "good" for the next six months, my case will be sealed and dismissed. I guess that means not to walk down the streets of New York -- and, above all, not to assist or talk to strangers.
Luckily there are organizations helping all of those arrested. There will most likely be a massive civil law suit against the city of New York and the NYPD. I have been in contact with the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Sadly, the press is not giving us the full story of what happened, so I thank you for taking the time to read this. If you feel angry about what happened to me and to so many other innocent people, I encourage you to speak your mind to Mayor Bloomberg, the press (New York Times, Village Voice) and each other.
What happened to me is not OK. And if this can happen to me, it can happen to you. It goes without saying, but please make sure to vote on November 2 and get others to do the same.
Be well. Be active.
Wendy Stefanelli is a costume designer.
Editors' note: Shortly after her arrest, Wendy Stefanelli testified at the New York City Council hearing on police conduct during the 2004 Republican National Convention. An edited version of her report appeared in the New York Daily News. This is the original version of her story, published with Stefanelli's permission and copyedited only for corrections and clarity.