Part of the paradox of living in New York is to have dreaded the idea of the Republican party’s staging its convention here and yet be grateful that the demonstrators weren’t allowed to shut things down, either. This sort of polyphonic urban chauvinism—delegate and demonstrator, both equally royal pains—has turned Police Commissioner Ray Kelly into a star. In the middle of a convention that labored to justify a war, Kelly promised us peace, and he largely delivered: few arrests, a minimum of traffic disturbances, an enormous march on Sunday that at times felt more like a street fair.
But now, with George W. Bush’s pep rally safely in the rearview mirror, two competing story lines have emerged. There’s the RNC as a new model of nonconfrontational policing, featuring Kelly as the mastermind behind four days of peace, love, and demonstration—and the RNC as a place where dissent was quashed by borderline-unlawful detainments, starring Kelly as the man being chastised by a judge for violating the rights of hundreds of protesters. Whichever version becomes history, Kelly, naturally, is more than convinced he did well. “For the Police Department operationally, it was a success by any measure,” the commissioner says, sitting in the conference room turned command center on the top floor of One Police Plaza, where six wide-screen, high-definition TVs streamed live feeds from the Fuji blimp, from police copters, and from cameras mounted on buildings, including four atop the Garden itself. (Yes, protesters, you were being watched. We all were.)
During the convention, the Bloomberg administration crowed that New York may have the only police force that can handle a modern anarchist threat. And as things wound down, a new paradigm in crowd policing did seem to materialize—what cops called a “Kelly doctrine” of rapid response and passive resistance. Of the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated, fewer than 2,000 people were arrested, and, by Kelly’s estimate, only 33 have filed charges with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. But if, in the beginning, Tom DeLay wanted to seal the delegates away from the city in a cruise ship, by the end it was Kelly’s large pier on the Hudson shore that held the protesters—many for longer than the requisite 24 hours, until the president was safely out of town. “The city has acknowledged that if you were arrested for shoplifting during the convention, you got out in a flash, but if you were arrested for walking near a demonstration, it took you 30 or 40 hours,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. While the quality of life in that makeshift pokey is now the subject of litigation—and the city will likely be fined for keeping people in the pen too long—Kelly frankly insists that, given everything we had feared about this convention, this is hardly another Guantánamo.
“Each holding area had two Port-a-Johns,” he says. “You had 60 people in an area and you had two bathrooms. And in each of the holding areas was a water spigot. And you had a cup. It was clean. They were fed. They were not fed vegetarian food, granted.” He chuckles. “But hey, don’t eat the bologna.”
Crowd control could be the central theme of Ray Kelly’s law-enforcement career. On his first tour as commissioner at the end of the Crown Heights riots, he learned how the interplay between demonstrators and police can make any clash spill over into chaos. So, long before the convention, he sought almost to take the police out of the equation. He made a study of the demonstrators, gaining a new fluency in the nation’s anarchist groups. He wasn’t above fuming to reporters ahead of time about anarchists who might disable bomb-sniffing dogs, or toss out bombs or ball-bearings, but his officers watched new training tapes that began with the phrase “The whole world will be watching.” Playing on the ’68 Democratic-convention slogan was nothing short of a direct order for officers to behave. That seemed to pay off. “There was a tremendous amount of taunting,” he says. “People right in their face, calling them all kinds of names. And everyone had a camera. And they would walk up to the police and take their picture six inches away from their face. It was an instrument of goading, to try to get them to blow their cool. And they didn’t. They were terrific.”
He also heeded the lessons of Miami and Seattle. Instead of one barrier between demonstrators and police, the police used two, creating a buffer zone that discouraged physical engagement. Instead of relying on a phalanx of cops around Madison Square Garden, he created three large mobile task forces, with bicycles, Vespa-like scooters, vans, and in some cases mounted officers. “Speed and the presence of a small number of officers early on are more important than having a large number of officers later,” Kelly says. “We had done research of other cities, and the protesters would go against the flow of traffic or take the subway and pop up in some location unannounced. The mobility enabled us to react very quickly to that. The protesters, they even said that—they were unpleasantly surprised.”
Those arrested “were not fed vegetarian food,” says Kelly. “But hey, don’t eat the bologna.”
Then there were the nets—the orange webbing that tangled people before they had a chance to demonstrate. If the police snagged the occasional dolphin—reporters, or commuters—Kelly believes most of those people were set free. “We’re not gonna grab people coming out of Macy’s,” he says gruffly. “We’re a bit smarter than that, a bit more sophisticated. What you do is give people notice with a megaphone, ‘You’re breaking the law.’ And you use the nets to delineate the people who are doing that. They limit the amount of physical contact that the police have to do in actually taking somebody into custody.”
Not that there wasn’t any contact. “There was someone on her way to work on 16th Street—she teaches there,” Donna Lieberman says. “She was arrested and was hospitalized for a very serious panic attack she had before she even got in the van.” There was clearly something tactical—proactive—about these sweeps. Take the Friday-night bicycle demonstration. In all, 268 people were collared—and though they were warned beforehand with some 3,000 leaflets, Kelly admits now that he was sending a message. “It was clear,” he says, “that if they succeeded on Friday night, you were going to see a lot more of this when the convention kicked in.”
Kelly calls Sunday’s big march a “win-win for everybody,” and he was so happy about it he didn’t want to spoil things by confronting the 3,000 or so people who took their act into Central Park. The group that lit a papier-mâché dragon on fire, he says, “must have known they were going to be arrested.” Kelly’s line on the anarchists is that most were pros, from out of town. “They want to have confrontations,” he says. “The Black-Bloc group—none of them were from New York and one of them was from France.”
Kelly fought resistance with resistance. The protesters had lawyers, the police had lawyers—negotiations would start before every unpermitted march. The protesters chanted and made announcements; the police announced they would make arrests in a matter of minutes—and in front of the library chanted Move, move , move, to push back a crowd. But on Tuesday, he says, 1,000 arrests were made over four hours, creating a logjam. “The judge, in my judgment, made an incorrect ruling,” Kelly says. “You’re not guaranteed to get out in 24 hours. We were never given the opportunity to explain the situation to the judge. It’s strange, most unusual.”
Prisoners said the pier had oil on the floor. “It was so bad,” says arrestee Cristina Gallo, “that when we got to central booking, officers said, ‘Why are you so dirty?’ ” But Kelly ascribes to the protesters a certain deviousness. “I was there when that place was scrubbed down. It was spotless. Now, let’s say oil came out on the floor as a result of people there or body heat, I don’t know that to be the case. I’ll tell you, though, many of the demonstrators were very scruffy. I don’t know if it’s a tactic or what. But when we heard their complaint, we went out and spent $10,000 and carpeted the facility on Wednesday afternoon, the day after.”
As a police strategy, preemption works. But it’s not so great for civil liberties. It’s the netting that most upsets Bill Dobbs, spokesperson for United for Peace & Justice. “If you used the same tactic against Act Up in its early days, we never would have seen the good its signature die-ins did around the world,” he says. “The same thing could have stopped lunch-counter protests in the South. It’s important to let civil disobedience, and even uncivil disobedience, have time and space to unfold, and these tactics—the overwhelming show of force and the fearmongering before the convention—were intended to scare people away.”
When I ask Kelly if people were rounded up in netting for demonstrating or for just blocking traffic, he says that most often it was the traffic. They were violating the law. “They were going to close the financial district,” he says. “And we effected arrests.” Case closed.
Last Monday, Kelly played the steel drum at the front of the West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn. All along the parade route, police used the orange netting. Get used to it.