Protest goes awry in NYC

By Jeremy Pelzer

One week ago today, Champaign resident Colleen Cook was arrested, thrown into a crowded detention pen and held for 30 hours without knowing the charges against her.

Cook, along with four other local residents, was one of thousands arrested and detained by New York City Police during massive protests against the Republican National Convention last week.

Cook said she didn’t plan on being arrested when she went to New York – she didn’t even plan to protest. Instead, she made the 17-hour drive to New York to record and document the protests for the Champaign Independent Media Center.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cook “embedded” herself with a video camera in a protest march that the War Resisters League organized. The march was planned to go from Ground Zero to Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was being held.

Cook said the march was completely legal – marchers kept the sidewalks clear, she said, and march organizers claimed police gave them permission to hold the demonstration.

“We’ve had more rowdy protests in Champaign,” she said.

Cook said the marchers hadn’t gone one block when police blocked off the street and surrounded them with orange netting. Mass arrests followed.

“Nuns, minors, priests – they just grabbed everyone,” Cook said.

Cook said she wasn’t worried at first.

“At first we thought it was kind of funny, because it was just so absurd for us to be arrested,” she said. “We thought someone would come forward and say, ‘You can’t arrest people that haven’t committed a crime.'”

Cook, along with about 450 others, were herded into gray prison buses and taken to Pier 57, a storage warehouse on the Hudson River.

Inside the warehouse, police had set up detention pens made of chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Cook was led into a 20-by-40-foot pen along with 90 other women.

The pen was so crowded, Cook said, that it was impossible for more than a few women in the pen to lie down to sleep at any one time. Because the three small benches in the pen were quickly taken, Cook said she had to lie down on the floor, which was covered with an unknown chemical.

“When you touched the ground, it was slimy and you couldn’t get it off you,” she said.

After touching the ground, Cook said she and many others developed sinus infections and rashes. Cook said she is now on antibiotics to treat her ailments.

Detainees were given bologna sandwiches – which many couldn’t eat because they were vegetarian or vegan, she said – as well as milk and water. While police let people out to go to the bathroom, Cook said there were “a couple cases where people went to the bathroom in their pants, because they weren’t let out – which is kind of humiliating.”

After spending several hours in the pen, Cook was transferred to the Department of Corrections building in downtown Manhattan, nicknamed “the Tomb.” She was fingerprinted, photographed and then shuffled from cell to cell several times during the next few hours.

Cook said she was finally allowed to make a phone call – but the call had to be local and could only last for one minute.

While Cook’s group had a local lawyer to call, “many people were out-of-state, so there was no one they could call locally,” she said.

Finally, late Wednesday night, Cook met briefly with a lawyer and then was charged with three violations, including parading without a permit and misconduct. A violation is a type of charge that Cook said was “equivalent to a parking ticket.”

Like most detainees, Cook agreed to a deal in which her charges were dropped on the condition that she not commit a crime in New York state for the next six months.

More than a day after they were arrested, Cook and the other members of her group were released.

“We were just absolutely exhausted with lack of food, lack of sleep,” she said.

Cook said she gets frustrated when the arrest and treatment of protesters by police is labeled as a political issue. Rather, she said, it is a matter of preserving Americans’ constitutional and human rights.

“The people detained were not dreadlocked hippies or mohawked radicals or anarchists,” she said. “They were middle-of-the-road Democrats or people that opposed the war – middle-aged women, minors. When 2,000 people are arrested for no reason, you’d think someone would try to stop it.

“If this wasn’t stopped, I don’t know what else won’t be stopped in the future.”