The Day of the Barricades


“I was maced in the left eye and face by a police officer at 53rd Street and Third Avenue. We were forced by the police to march into a cul-de-sac, and the weight of the people behind us pressed the crowd against the pen, whereupon a police officer sprayed me and several other people. Another police officer refused to allow me out of the pen to get medical assistance.”

-from a report by a 65-year-old woman to the New York Civil Liberties Union after February 15

“Severe restrictions were made even on First Avenue. Each block was surrounded by guardrails, with the exits and entrances guarded by officers. Protesters were not allowed to move from one block to the next, and were even held at the block above the one containing the rally stage, despite plenty of room. Exits were made easy, while entrances were nearly impossible.”

-protester’s comment to the New York Civil Liberties Union about difficulties of accessing the main rally in Manhattan February 15

At, you can revisit the global February 15 rallies (the one in Antarctica is a gas — few people but lots of color and even more snow; at over a million people the one in London was so huge there are three photos, not just one) and feel your exhilaration mount, photo by photo–We are a world-wide movement! (Other figures: Rome, 2 million; Barcelona, 1.3 million; Sydney, 200,000.) Included is the familiar New York City photo The New York Times ran on its first page the next day: a sea of protestors on First Avenue against a backdrop of the 59th Street Bridge’s arches. The picture gives no hint of the repressive nature of the day, which followed from the New York Police Department’s refusal to allow a march (Mayor Michael Bloomberg soon seconded the ban)–the only such refusal, apparently, to have been issued anywhere in the world. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) challenged the order in District Court where Judge Barbara Jones argued that post-9/11 security concerns and the week’s terror alert trumped a march of such “size and uncertainty.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the District Court with “a logic that,” in the words of Anthony Lewis writing in The New York Times February 24 (p. A21) “would have justified bans on marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.”

While the march was prohibited, the rally itself seemed to get an initial green light from Assistant Chief Michael Esposito, southern Manhattan’s commanding officer, who said it could fill First Avenue as far north as necessary. But even this prospect was scotched as early as 11 a.m., a full hour before the rally was to begin, as cross-streets between 33rd and 63rd were sealed off by police barricades. In a statement to the NYCLU one writer described an experience shared by tens of thousands of other demonstrators:

“I [tried] to reach the rally site from 11 a.m. As I walked up 2nd Avenue from 33rd Street expecting to be able to approach the rally site somewhere along my route by turning east on a cross street, I was directed by the police blocking every cross street to proceed to X street where a crossing would be allowed. Each time I reached that cross street it had been sealed off and we were directed to the next until the stream of protesters grew to a size that could no longer be kept along the sidewalk. We filled in the avenue and eventually reach 63rd Street where we were told we would be able to cross over to First Ave. Again we met a road block of at least 12 to 16 police.”

It was the triumph of the crowds (estimated at around 400,000) to turn long stretches of Second and Third Avenues into innovative sub-rallies; to create an anti-war cafe society in restaurants along the way; to brave the hideous cold (below 0 degrees given the fierce wind-chill factor); their triumph to be almost uniformly patient and pacific, with few tempers erupting into anger in the face of immense frustration. Those who did reach First Avenue found barricades stretching vertically between cross-streets, while other barricades sealed the boxes fore and aft at the north and south sides of the cross streets, across four of six lanes. The result was a long series of pens in which the crowd stood about restively in the bitter cold.


According to former NYCLU Executive Director Norman Siegel, the cattle-pen method of crowd control was introduced in New York, about a decade ago for New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square. But while he feels this might be appropriate for mass parties, it should not be used for protest rallies. In his opinion the right to march in protest is “sacrosanct, a First Amendment safety valve,” and what he calls “visuals” essential. “Imagine August,1963, Dr. King in front of the Lincoln Monument giving his ‘I have a dream’ speech. It changed race relations in the US. The visual is still of thousands of Americans on the mall. Think of the model they’re now using for protest, separating people in chunks of 5000, the visual on the mall would be very different than it was in ’63.” In the process of the initial litigation over the prohibition a police department official testified that since fall of 2002 the NYPD has had an unwritten practice of banning marches larger than 1000 people. “Veterans of protest,” says Siegel, “have to step back and realize what has happened. This is a terrible precedent. It’s a seminal moment in social justice. If it happened in New York City it can happen anywhere else.”

This past January the crowd in Washington, DC braved a cold almost as great as February 15’s in Manhattan [see my report, “We The People,” COUNTERPUNCH], but the event was relaxed, even festive. To march down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Navy Yard and look back was to see a vast ocean of people, sense the connection between oneself and the hundreds of thousands: maybe we can change history! This is what political protest marches are all about: I had my first experiences of them in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US in the late 60s, and in Italy in the early 70s. Nothing can duplicate the feeling of power inherent in one’s connection to a vast throng. Singing and chanting through bullhorns is also a time-honored part of it all; so is carrying placards affixed to sticks. Both bullhorns and sticks were prohibited in Manhattan February 15 (at a pre-rally protest of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, busses letting off demonstrators at the Israeli Consulate at 42nd and Second Avenue were met by police who searched backpacks and took away anything resembling a “stick.”) Throughout the day crowds were split up all over midtown Manhattan. There were hundreds of innovative responses to the day’s frustrations–examples: the enterprising fellow walking around in the low 50s on Second with a boom box blaring out John Lennon’s “Imagine;” a “Rhythm Workers Union Jamming for Justice” which set up a merry din on drums, cowbells and chimes at 53rd and Second. The jam was soon scuttled by mounted police who wrote their horses into a crowd, while a bullhorn blared, “Move north or face arrest!” The feel of the day could be described as patient; frustrated; puzzled; angry; resigned; freezing — but hardly relaxed.


On my own odyssey up Second Avenue to find the yellow brick road that would take me to main-rally Oz, I spoke with several people who felt the police had a clear divide-and-conquer strategy. “What you’re observing,” said Martin, 66, a psychiatrist who works with families of 9/11, “is a new technique so there can be no mass gathering.” “This is only to divide, to keep crowds from gathering,” said Rita Leistner, a 48-year-old photographer. At 53rd Street 46-year-old Henry Haggerty was handing out blue postcards: a heart-shaped American flag was superimposed with a stylized ascendant human figure beside which Haggerty had printed the legend, “A visual prayer for the souls who left us on September 11. May we honor them forever. May they ever rest in peace.” “I’m just infuriated by the arrogance of what they’re doing,” said Haggerty. “It’s outrageous that we can’t march. If we could march on Pennsylvania Avenue three weeks ago, why can’t we do the same here?” I phoned the NYPD Public Information division with that question: “I don’t have the answer at this point,” said a female voice, “but I’m sure it’s for crowd control.” Crowd control? For what? To control them how? “Your party has rung off,” came a robot voice, “If you wish to continue, dial. . . ”

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Police abuses flowed from the extraordinary restrictions on crowd movement. “As tens of thousands of protesters were forced onto Third and Second Avenues, the sidewalks became full to overflowing and people were forced into the streets,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told New York’s City Council September 25. “There was also extreme congestion at the intersections, where protesters congregated in an effort to move east towards First Avenue. At various times, mounted police rode into the throngs of protesters and, apparently without provocation, began to charge into the crowds.” According to Lieberman the NYCLU received “numerous complaints” on that score. Writes a 79-year-old “wounded and decorated combat infantryman” who went to the rally with his wife and twin five-year-old sons:

“[A]ll of a sudden a troop of mounted police officers moved into the crowd . . . falling bodies came towards me. My son and I were knocked over, I onto my back and he, fortunately, on top of me, but a woman in front of him was about to fall on him and crush him when I used my arms to deflect her . . . I did sustain substantial damage to my arm and shoulder . . . I am not writing to make a claim against the City other than to ask that the idiot who [ordered] these beasts into the herd of humanity which had been placed there by police officers be . . . appropriately punished . . . for reckless disregard of the safety of citizens exercising their Constitutional rights.”

There was much other police abuse. An elderly woman who came to the rally in a wheelchair told the NYCLU:

“We were herded into pens, like cattle [on First Avenue, the rally site.] The police were a nightmare. Somehow, I got to 58th and First. . . . After about 4 hours, I started to feel sick, and I had to pee as only an old diabetic woman who has had too much surgery can have to pee. I started to go home, and a nasty policewoman named Lawrence said I couldn’t go downtown. I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve been demonstrating since I was a young woman in 1958, but I’ve never seen anything more vulgar than what started to happen. I was sick, so I quietly started to wheel downtown, and Lawrence grabbed my wheelchair, swung me around, and broke my chair. The metal was bent, I couldn’t reach the controls, and I couldn’t move from the spot. I started to panic. Eventually, after a couple of hours, someone got an ambulance . . . . One stupid cop, his face red with rage, was trying to make me get on the sidewalk where there was no wheelchair ramp. He demanded me to tell him who had brought me. I told him that I had come by myself. He started to yell at me, ‘What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you foresee problems?’ I said, ‘No, I thought this was America.'”

377 arrests were made, with much inappropriate, even brutal conduct that included beatings and pepper-spray attacks on demonstrators posing no physical danger to the police. Once arrested, rally-goers were held in barely-heated paddy wagons for up to eighteen hours with no access to food, water or toilets. Some on medication were prevented from getting their pills from backpacks. During the evening, inexplicably, about a dozen arrestees were made to stand for an hour and a half in the freezing cold on Police Plaza, handcuffed–some with no gloves. Most arrests were for offenses so trivial they ultimately drew “Desk Appearance Tickets,” a summons roughly the equivalent of a minor driving violation. It should be processed in under six hours. But many of the arrestees were held as long as 48 hours before arraignment.

For hours after the arrests, lawyers were prevented access to clients, and only three were able to get into central booking at One Police Plaza. They gained access to only ten clients. Says former NYCLU-head Norman Siegel, one of the three, “When they said they’d give me six at a time, in three hours I got ten, finally I said, ‘This is a game I’m not playing anymore, you’re not giving me access, I’m leaving.'” With no lawyers there to tell the arrestees about their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, police grilled them about their political affiliations and reasons for attending the demonstration. A whiff of the “Red Squads” that used to exist in police departments across the US, and the FBI’s infamous “Cointelpro” activities in the 1960s? Such repression victimized citizens engaging in peaceful organizing and dissent–Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were only the most famous: thousands of unknown civil rights, antiwar and women’s movement activists were surveilled, “visited” by the FBI, their phones tapped, their groups infiltrated by agents provocateurs on errands of disruption and vilification. Those with memories stretching back 30 years may feel the chill winds of past witch-hunts; those too young to remember might turn to their history books to bone up on the assaults America can deal the Constitution and Bill of Rights. (Among other books see Nelson Blackstock’s Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom, Vintage Books, 1975.)

* * *

Leslie Cagan, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, the coalition that organized the New York rally and many others around the world February 15, has called for the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelley. An NYCLU civil suit pending against the City on behalf of United for Peace and Justice challenges New York’s policy of not permitting protest marches. According to NYCLU attorney Chris Dunn, the civil liberties organization has asked the City to produce information about its policies and about permits handled since 9-11. “We’re going to try to get to the bottom of this as soon as we can, in a matter of weeks. Either they’ll have to get rid of the policy or we’ll take it to federal court. Will NYCLU win? “These are tough times, but it’s hard to believe the federal courts will allow New York City to ban all protest marches.” Says Donna Lieberman, “[O]ur President and his advisors seem intent upon going to war. This has stirred strong feelings–feelings of patriotism as well as deep opposition. There is a long, proud American tradition of ‘talking with our feet.’ A city that claims to be a cultural and intellectual capital of the world cannot be a place where protest marches are a thing of the past.”

ELLEN CANTAROW plays jazz piano professionally in Boston and New England. She can be reached at:

Readers who attended the New York City rally September 15 and who have complaints about police conduct should contact the New York Civil Liberties Union at or at 212-344-3005.

For related articles on New York City’s assault on civil liberties February 15, see:, “Handschu Decree Gutted by Haight,” by Leif Linder, “Protestors Say City Police Used Rough Tactics at Rally,” by Sheila Dewan, New York Times February 19, 2003; Verena Dobnik, February 18, “Organizers accuse NYPD of misconduct at peace rally


Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.