MANHATTAN (CN) - Protesters arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention agreed to settle their decade-old civil rights claims against New York City for a potentially record-breaking $18 million.
On Nov. 22, 2004, 24 protesters sued New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and dozens of other NYPD cops and officials for false arrest, punitive detention, abuse of process and other constitutional violations. They said the city had an indiscriminate mass arrest policy that called for the use of mesh netting and lines of police officers to barricade and corral large groups of protesters, reporters, legal observers, and bystanders, without giving audible dispersal orders.
In their original complaint, the plaintiffs said they received "cruel and inhumane" treatment in cold, loud, chemical-strewn, makeshift cells in Pier 57, along the Hudson River.
"Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson" was a nickname given to the pier by more than one attorney speaking Wednesday at a press conference outside New York City Hall.
"On information and belief, the floors of the cages in Pier 57 were covered with numerous highly toxic chemicals and substances, including, on information and belief, those known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, hepatogenic, and immunotoxic ... The floors of the cages in Pier 57 were also covered in other dirt and grime," the original complaint stated.
The protesters said in their complaint that city police taunted them and said they would be held "until George Bush left town."
In 2011, the protestors won class certification, covering 1,800 individuals, and U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan rejected the city's defenses a year later when American Civil Liberties Union attorney Christopher Dunn revealed in an interview settlement was in the works.
The settlement provides $10.4 million for the plaintiff class and $7.6 million for their lawyers.
Seven protesters did not sign onto the settlement and still have active cases. They include two transgender women who say that police groped their genitals "to determine their gender for purposes of arrest processing." Another two objectors claim they have permanent injuries after flexicuffs cut off their circulation, and the final protester not included in the settlement says she suffered a burst ovarian cyst in custody and that she was handcuffed to a gurney with a male police officer in the examination room.
City lawyer Celeste Koeleveld nevertheless spoke about "major victories" in a statement. She said that "key police policies used during the RNC" were upheld, and an "effort to restrict the NYPD's ability to police large-scale events was rejected."
Dunn, the ACLU lawyer, brushed off the city's statement, calling the settlement the largest for a protest case in the United States. The message that sends "is more powerful than any ruling for injunctive relief," he said.
Lisa Martin, who attended the conference as a spectator, wore a name tag stating that she was arrested five blocks away from her Union Square home, and that she was not a registered voter at the time. She said she was not participating in the protest when she was arrested, and that the experience prompted her to complete her registration within a day of her release.
"Bloomberg made me a voter," she quipped.
Sarah Coburn, who was a speaker at the conference, said her arrest inspired her to go to law school and "practice law in the public interest," as spectators applauded the announcement.
Some activists appeared disappointed, however, by legal battles that were lost and cynical that the settlement boded change.
The New York Times reported in 2010 that the 2nd Circuit allowed the NYPD to withhold 1,900 pages of records detailing police surveillance in advance of the 2004 RNC.
Civil libertarian activist Bill Dobbs asked at the press conference about the fate of those files and what happened to police accused of civil rights violations.
"They were promoted," shouted back Jeffrey Rothman, a lawyer for the plaintiff class. "All of them have higher ranks now."
Some interpreted the timing of the settlement as evidence that the administration of Bill de Blasio will put civil liberties more on his agenda than his predecessor, but the settlement was actually signed in November 2013, at the tail end of the Bloomberg administration.
Jessica Rechtschaffer, who was arrested in connection to the burning of a papier-mache dragon float, expressed cynicism at prospects for the change under a de Blasio administration with the governor's recent appointment of Bill Bratton as police commissioner.
Bratton also served the administration of Rudy Giuliani.
The National Lawyers Guild's Martin Stolar and Beldock Levine & Hoffman attorney Jonathan Moore spoke at the conference.
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