There's a Police Riot Goin' On

Anti-war marchers feel the chill in Connecticut

by Hank Hoffman

In These Times magazine, December 2001


It was bad enough that police arrested 18 anti-war demonstrators during an unpermitted march on October 25 to the downtown office of hawkish U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Cops beat and peppersprayed a 61-year-old asthmatic man, cracking two of his ribs. Four or five other demonstrators were hit with pepper spray, and two marchers were thwacked with batons. Police drove their cars diagonally into the crowd to force it off the rush hour streets and onto the sidewalk.

And bicycle cops rammed their bike tires into the backs of marchers' legs, according to Chris Harris, a reporter with the Hartford Advocate. Harris called the reaction a "police riot."

But worse were the severe charges and high bonds slapped on several of the those arrested. More than a half-dozen activists were charged with felonies- specifically "inciting to riot" and "inciting injury to persons"-that carry potential five-to-20-year jail terms, even though eyewitnesses say the crowd was nonviolent and no property was damaged. Five of the "Hartford 18," as they are being called, had to post bonds of $35,000 to $50,000. All were held over-night. More than $10,000 had to be paid to a bail bondsman, money that is unrecoverable even after the defendants make their court appearances.

Coming on the same day that the Senate voted 98 to 1 to grant law enforcement agencies broad new powers to fight terrorism, the severity of the Hartford judicial and police response fanned fears that dissent will not be tolerated. Since September 11, there have been demonstrations in the thousands in New York City, Washington and Berkeley, and rallies and vigils have been organized on more than 150 college campuses. But the reaction to the Hartford demo-which, unlike most other actions, was an unpermitted street march-is the harshest to date.

Hartford civil rights attorney Leon Rosenblatt, who has provided legal counsel for some of those arrested and attended the demonstration, says the charges are "wild exaggerations." In the case of Adam Hurter, who was charged with "inciting injury to a person or property" after facilitating a sidewalk meeting after the arrests, eyewitness Rosenblatt says the charge is a "complete fiction and fabrication."

"It was quite obviously an attempt to stifle the peace movement," says Wesleyan University student Sarah Norr. Norr was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with an officer after she cited her constitutional right to free assembly when told by a police officer to clear off the sidewalk. "It was very clear from what the cops were saying as they arrested us that they were angry at us for our beliefs," she says.

Norman Pattis, a New Haven civil liberties attorney representing some of the defendants, described the atmosphere during the bail hearings in court the next day as "scary." "The non-political defendants were muttering that (the protesters) ought to be given 'life,"' he said. "The prosecutors were in high dudgeon, and the bail commissioner said 'these dangerous times' justified the bonds."

Were police actions politically motivated? Police spokesman Lt. Neil Dryfe says "absolutely not." Dryfe says the felony charges were justified, stating there was "violent resistance to being arrested" and defends the bonds, saying, "Bonds of this size for this amount, for people charged in some cases with felonies who do not live locally, is not uncommon." (When I relate this to Pattis, he says, "That's bullshit.")

"There was no violent resistance," Norr says. "The police are trumping up the charges and trying to make it look like a riot in order to justify their actions."

Trials are scheduled for the end of November, and defendants are still assembling their legal team and developing strategy. As one says, "Nobody made a violent act of any sort, and we're all equally innocent." Their foremost legal priority is that no protester serve any time in jail.

"As we continue to question what's going on," says Jessie Duvall, another Wesleyan student, "we have to be aware of a probable harsher reaction from both the police and the government."


Hank Hoffman is a contributing writer for the New Haven Advocate.

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