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Watching the Parade-Watchers

The police were on edge about the Puerto Rican Day Parade, even if the city’s ritziest neighborhood wasn’t.

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Police scanning the parade crowd from atop the Frick Museum.  

The discreet, co-op-ensconced residents of Fifth Avenue always seemed especially unsettled by the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. In recent years, the street began to look like it was under siege: Buildings installed metal fences around their shrubs and windows were boarded up, girding for the influx of over two million celebrants. But this year those fortifications were missing. Every building used to do it, said Jose Serrano, a longtime doorman at 945 Fifth, but I think the barricades themselves created a sense of insecurity.

Instead, it was Commissioner Ray Kelly’s Police Department that amped up. According to one NYPD source, 2,000 officers were posted between 59th and 86th Streets, as well as several mobile command units, with police vans parked on almost every street. It is by far our largest operation, said one cop on the scene, who didn’t want to be named. Police have been especially vigilant since the wilding incidents in 2000, when dozens of women reported being sexually assaulted after the parade. And the absence of plywood over the windows didn’t lessen the sense of anticipation. Mid-afternoon the day of the march, one officer on 59th Street noted, It’s strangely quiet from what we are hearing on the radio. We are almost waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Soon afterward, it did. His radio informed him of a dispute necessitating several ambulances and detention buses, and he hurried off. In all, 208 people were arrested, 132 of whom were charged with illegal assembly. What happened, of course, depends on whom you talk to. They were sitting relaxing and didn’t do nothing, said Missy Martinez, 23, a day-care worker who witnessed some of the arrests. That’s not right. Then, when people turn violent, whose fault is it? Kelly saw things differently. Officers reacted to the situation. They made, in my judgment, appropriate arrests. Madelyn Lugo, chairwoman of the parade, pointed to the arrests of people like a 55-year-old postal worker and a high-school senior with a college-football scholarship, saying, Something went terribly wrong on Sunday.

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