RNC Settlement Holdouts Will Not Go Gentle
MANHATTAN (CN) - Seven protesters who refused to sign on to a landmark $18 million settlement related to the 2004 Republican National Convention represent some of the most "egregious" cases of civil rights violations, their lawyers say.
Roughly 1,800 of their peers will split the bounty, minus attorneys' fees, to end nearly a decade of litigation involving the mass arrests New York City police performed after the 2004 renomination of then-President George Bush sparked enormous protests at Madison Square Garden.
Months after the event, dozens of lawsuits poured in alleging that the NYPD indiscriminately roped in protesters, reporters, legal observers and bystanders, using mesh netting and barricades, and tossed them in cold, loud, chemical-strewn, makeshift cells in Pier 57, along the Hudson River. The now-shuttered pier came to be nicknamed "Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson."
Their experiences may pale in comparison to the seven who are not splitting the potentially record-breaking award.
Yusuke Joshua Banno, a then college student in Arizona accused of lighting a papier-mache dragon on fire, was held on $250,000 bail for charges of arson and inciting a riot.
"Josh became the poster child for what they claimed to be the anarchist attempt to take apart the city and justify what the police were doing thereafter," his attorney Jeff Fogel said in a phone interview.
The charges against Banno were dropped, however, when he produced a photograph placing him away from where the dragon first ignited.
Banno currently claims that an undercover officer helped ignite the dragon near Herald Square to burnish his credibility within an anarchist group - and then, fingered him in a cover-up.
In a recent column predicting the settlement, New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer called Banno's case a "lingering mystery" of the 2004 convention. That article cited an anonymous deposition for an officer assigned to "ghost and provide cover" for the undercover officer in question.
Fogel noted that the officer who gave the deposition was allowed to testify in disguise, and wore "a wig, a hat and some stupid-looking glasses" for the occasion.
The officer claimed to have been able to identify Banno, who had been wearing a hat and bandana, from 30 feet away because of his "non-Caucasian eyes," Fogel said.
"How he could see a pair of non-Caucasian eyes through that raises a very serious question," Fogel said.
He called for an investigation within the police department to answer some larger issues.
"Who and how many people in the police department knew about this?" Fogel asked. "Did they really let that happen? Did they really let a cop endanger that many people in order to protect their credibility?"
Fogel's other client among the 2004 settlement holdouts, videographer Brian Conley, claims that he received better treatment from the Chinese government after taping Free Tibet demonstrations during the Olympics than he got from the NYPD.
A New York City police officer arrested Conley on a cobblestone street of Lower Manhattan, purportedly for obstructing traffic that seldom travelled through there.
Fogel alleges that they were actually interested in stopping him from rolling tape, and inexperienced officers slapped flexicuffs on Conley so tightly that the protester's doctor in Massachusetts diagnosed him with nerve damage.
Valarie Kaur, who may have suffered even worse injuries from being cuffed, got diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy after an officer twisted her arms behind her back, her attorney, Rose Weber, said.
"The injury itself can heal up, but your nervous system meanwhile has been put into an endless pain loop," Weber said.
Another of Weber's clients, Joshua Russell, had a particularly severe reaction to the unsanitary conditions on Pier 57.
Weber said that the chemicals on the pier agitated a once "mild form of eczema" that her client Russell thought he had outgrown to flare up and make him look like a "bloody alligator."
"I don't know how else to describe it," she added.
Two transgender women, Kaitlyn Tikkun and Kate Freitag, say that police groped them to determine whether place them in men or women's lockups, under a systemic policy that took the NYPD eight more years to reform.
A Jane Doe corrections officer told Tikkun that she would be searched to determine if she was "a boy or a girl," according to the complaint.
"As Ms. Tikkun begged the officers not to forcibly search her because she had experienced rape in the past, she was shoved up against a wall and her arms were restrained" by three female corrections officers, the complaint states.
Ignoring Tikkun's protests, the officers allegedly said that they were "just following orders," and touched her breasts and her genitals.
After Tikkun had been placed in a cell, a male officer who was not in the room at the time of the search old her, "oh, you're the one," according to the complaint.
Another male officer later chimed in, "oh, you're the one trying to find out if you're a boy or a girl."
Weber, who also represents Frietag, said in a phone interview that this client's experiences were similar to those of Tikkun, with a few important distinctions. Frietag had been searched at the pier rather than Central Booking, and male officers conducted the search, Weber said.
The male officers' confusion about what to do was like a Marx Brother's routine, except that it "wasn't funny," Weber added.
Tikkun's lawyer Andrea Ritchie said that she was involved in the negotiations that the led the NYPD to reform their policies toward transgender prisoners in an October 2012 memo titled "Department Policy Regarding Gender Identity."
It instructed corrections officers to address transgender prisoners by their preferred names and sexual identities.
Speaking of these changes, Ritchie said: "In our case, the policy objective has now been achieved and now it's really a question about compensating our client for her injuries, which were not insignificant."
City lawyers had declared a "major victory" in their press release on the settlement because "key policies used during the RNC" were upheld, but Ritchie said this statement overlooked the court's findings regarding mass arrests and fingerprinting.
"The court declared unequivocally that you can't arrest a group of people on the theory of group probable cause," she said.
Indeed, several of the people arrested asserted that they were not even protesting, but were bystanders caught within mesh netting or behind police barricades.
Kathleen O'Reilly, whose case also has not been settled, said she had planned to meet up with friends near held square at the time of her arrest.
Her lawyer Mike Spiegel said that she knew at the time that she had an ovarian cyst about to burst, and that when it did police waited approximately 24 hours to take her to a hospital.
Her lawsuit alleges that she was handcuffed to a gurney during a pelvic examination, and a male officer was in the room.
While it took nearly 10 years for the Bloomberg administration to settle the class action cases, all of the attorneys interviewed expressed hope that the administration of Bill de Blasio would make quicker work of the remaining cases.
De Blasio, who ran on a civil liberties platform, reportedly distanced himself from his predecessor in his comments on the settlement.
"We're going to take a very different view going forward on how we respect people's rights to express themselves," he said at the time, as reported by the New York Observer.
Days before he took office, de Blasio announced that he would appoint former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter to head the New York Corporation Counsel handling such settlement.
Carter had prosecuted the police involved in the beating of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant sodomized in the bathroom a Brooklyn police precinct.
The former prosecutor will replace Michael Cardozo, who will become a partner at the Proskauer law firm, on Feb. 1.
The New York City Law Department declined comment on the prospects for settlement talks regarding the remaining cases.