On Sept. 2, as terrorists were holding children hostage in Russia, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was talking about terrorism closer to home.
“And that’s exactly what the terrorists did,” he was saying. “If you think about it, 9/11, it’s not the same kind of terrorism. But there’s no question that these anarchists are afraid to let people speak out.”
What had the anarchists done to provoke this comparison?
They had, the Mayor said, been “going up and yelling at visitors here.”
Four days of terror rhetoric in Madison Square Garden were enough to make your head spin, and maybe that’s what happened to the normally restrained Mayor. It’s hard to believe that he really thinks that murderous is just a few notches down the same spectrum from obnoxious. And certainly there were some obnoxious protesters. As I passed out of the security perimeter outside Madison Square Garden after the Republican convention ended, a woman walked up to me and hissed, “Leave!”
That was the kind of speech the Mayor had compared to terrorism. Its perpetrators,Mr. Bloomberg said, “have tried to destroy our city,” his logic being that scared delegates would never return for Broadway shows, wrecking the city’s economy.
Mr. Bloomberg’s comparison-obnoxious protesters, murderous terrorists, whatever-was part of the week’s merger of dissent and terror. It was a week that left many people baffled by the distance between the sinister “anarchists” portrayed by City Hall, the Police Department and tabloid headline writers, on one hand, and, on the other, the picture on the streets, where the sum of the criminal protest activity was bikers running red lights, marchers stepping off the sidewalk, pranksters hanging signs out hotel windows and one firebug who put a match to a paper dragon. All these miscreants were promptly taken away in plastic handcuffs. So were several people who had the misfortune to be standing near protesters, according to news reports.
One study in the distance between perception and reality came during the ugliest moment of the week. It was a few minutes after 8 p.m. on Aug. 30, when a crowd of protesters dragged an NYPD detective off his scooter outside Madison Square Garden and beat him badly. Local news footage showed a young man punching and kicking the detective, apparently without provocation.
It was evidence, to a New York Post editorial, that “the hate-and-anarchy crowd began to get uppity, with protesters resisting and assaulting cops.”
But a video shot that evening by a protester, Alex Young, shows a very different scene, one which clouds the official story. The video shows a man on a motor scooter who appears to be the detective, William Sample. The man doesn’t look like a police officer: He’s wearing a vintage New York Yankees jersey and driving his unmarked motor scooter into the crowd. On his first attempt, several people leap backward. On his second, he’s got them cornered, and at least one man falls under his wheels. Perhaps an expert in policing would see something else; it looks to the untrained eye like he was trying to hurt people.
This, says the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, Paul Browne, is appropriate police behavior. “I wouldn’t describe it as ‘crashing,'” he said. Detective Sample, he continued, was “aggressively trying to move the crowd back” amid a scuffle over the placement of metal barriers.
From the video, though, it’s hard not to agree with Elsie Chandler, the lawyer for the man charged in the beating. “Nobody could have known it was a police officer,” she said. “Some maniac drove his motorcycle into the crowd.”
Detective Sample’s accused assailant, it turns out, isn’t actually an anarchist, or even a member of an organized protest group. He’s a troubled 19-year-old living in a group home in Harlem.
Strike that from the anarchists’ rap sheet, and you’d have to say the threat failed to materialize. The city’s aggressive approach to this imagined danger had its effect, though. To protest has become a risky thing: You could be arrested for standing near the wrong people, and if arrested, you could be held for days on a West Side pier. Those risks are an obvious burden on free expression, though hard to measure.
Ironically, the week’s worst lawbreaker was the City of New York itself. On Sept. 2, Justice John Cataldo found the city in contempt of court for holding hundreds of protesters on a West Side pier for longer than the permitted 24 hours.
Mr. Bloomberg probably won’t lose many votes over the police tactics during the convention. But city taxpayers should get ready to pay the price for New York’s approach to dissent. The city faces a possible contempt fine, as well as scores of potential civil suits from protesters and passers-by who were held on the pier. The sum of their settlements and judgments is hard to predict, but taxpayers can keep in mind that it’s the price of confusing yellers with bombers.