Police Arrest 22 at New School Building

April 10, 2009, 10:05 am

By Colin Moynihan AND Sewell Chan

Updated, 10:37 p.m. | About 20 police officers wearing helmets and carrying batons, plastic shields and pepper spray entered a New School building at 65 Fifth Avenue around 11 a.m. on Friday, arresting 19 protesters who had occupied it as part of a determined protest aimed at the university”s president, Bob Kerrey.

(Please note that this is a blog account updated over the course of the day Friday. You may also read the news article prepared for Saturday editions of The Times, watch related videos or read blog comments. )

The 19 people arrested inside – 16 men and 3 women – were charged with third-degree burglary; one was charged with assault and grand larceny for stealing a radio from a building employee. Three other protesters, who authorities said were part of a group of about 8 people who tried to escape the building as the police surrounded it, were charged with second-degree assault, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration.

The protest followed a similar occupation of a cafeteria in the same building nearly four months earlier. That protest ended peacefully. This time, the university”s response was more confrontational, and the outcome violent. “The Police Department was asked to arrest individuals trespassing on the property,” said Paul J. Browne, the department”s chief spokesman, who said the operation “was done in a very organized, orderly fashion.”

But students at the scene described a tumultuous situation in which protesters were pepper-sprayed before being placed in handcuffs and loaded by police officers into the back of a white van, around 11:30 a.m.

Mr. Browne said it was “untrue that pepper spray or mace was used in effectuating the arrests” – though he later clarified that he meant the arrests inside the building.

Witnesses said that the protesters had sought to leave the building by a side door, but were pushed back and pepper-sprayed. The witnesses said that several students pushed open a door that exited onto 14th Street, and that police officers stationed outside that door used pepper spray on the students in the corridor and slammed the door shut.

“The students tried to open the door,” said Kristina Monllos, a sophomore at Eugene Lang College, part of the New School, and a reporter covering the scene for the New School Free Press. “When the students pushed the door open, the police sprayed pepper spray inside and pushed the door closed.”

Mr. Browne, however, said that if some students believed they were unable to leave, it might have been because they had used a chain to lock themselves inside, which officers then had to cut through.

Mr. Browne said in a statement:

At some point, as police were entering the building on Fifth Avenue, a group of 30 to 40 individuals advanced on a side entrance of the same building on East 14th Street. While an individual or individuals pushed against the side door from inside, others from the advancing group began to throw metal barriers at the officers. Additional officers were summoned. They pursued fleeing members of the group, and affected three arrests for charges that included: assault, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration.

Footage recorded by a videographer, identified by the New School Free Press as Chris McCallion, and shown on the Free Press Web site, shows a turbulent scene in which demonstrators briefly scuffle with police and heave a metal barricade. At one point, a protester appeared to try to wrest a woman away from an officer who was trying to arrest her.

A video, above, shot by a freelance journalist, Brandon Jourdan of Brooklyn, showed about a half-dozen police officers standing near the door on 14th Street when it was pushed open from inside. Then it shows officers shaking cans of pepper spray as they hold the door back, spraying inside the corridor, and forcing the door shut. It shows an officer, a few moments later, lunging toward Mr. Jourdan”s camera, before swerving toward a young man standing on the street shouting. In the video, the officer pushes the man”s face and knockes him to the ground before arresting him. (Be advised, the video includes some profanity.)

As senior police officials, firefighters and emergency medical technicians looked on, the police officers surged into the building around 11 a.m., carrying bunches of white plastic handcuffs attached to their belts. Moments later, several were seen leaning over the parapet; the banners that the three dozen or so students occupying the building had hung were removed.

Officers from the Emergency Service Unit cut the chains and then officers from the Manhattan South Task Force entered the building around 11 a.m., and “began to make arrests in an orderly fashion,” Mr. Browne said.

Neither Mr. Browne nor the university could immediately say whether or how many of the 19 people arrested were New School students. The university said that the three people arrested on assault charges after leaving the building were students: one from the New School, one from Brooklyn College and one from New York University.

Police Reaction to Video

After Mr. Jourdan”s video was posted on the City Room blog, Mr. Browne viewed it and spoke simultaneously with a reporter by phone. He took issue with an earlier account on City Room that described officers as having “stormed” the building. “There was no storming,” he said. He said the officers wore helmets and had standard-issue batons and pepper spray, but no riot gear, as some descriptions from witnesses had it.

As he watched the video, Mr. Browne explained why the officers held the door shut. “What happens is, we are making arrests inside, and we are trying to prevent people from escaping,” he said. “It”s not like, “Hey, we”re giving up.””

He said that some people were trying to get out of the building and that others were trying to get in, so keeping the doorway closed served two purposes.

“There was a group we thought might be trying to get in,” he said.

It was the activity on the street outside that led to arrests there, Mr. Browne said, and those arrests are on the videotape.

Regarding the use of pepper spray, Mr. Browne said the video made it clear that the spray was, indeed, used. (The department does not use Mace or tear gas, he noted.)

“We apparently used pepper spray for people who were either trying to let more people in or were trying avoid arrests,” Mr. Browne said. “Now, once I see it, I know what is going on.”

He continued to insist that the spray was not used in “effectuating the arrests” inside the building, and that he had not been aware earlier of the incidents at the side door. He also noted that it is standard procedure for all officers to carry batons and pepper spray in most situations.

Mr. Browne reviewed several times the segment of the video showing a protester getting knocked to the ground.

When asked about the tactics used, he said, “He pushed him and he fell down.”

He added: “My comment – the officer pushed into him and he fell down. There were individuals interfering with an arrest being made, and he was one of them, and they pushed into him and he fell down.”

Mr. Browne also questioned the source of the video, which came from a man who was shooting for the liberal news organization Democracy Now and said it was more notable for what was not included in the footage.

“If they want to question the validity of it, the proof is in the pudding,” Mr. Jourdan, 29, said in response. “The video speaks for itself and not only that, there were plenty of witnesses there who believed the police overreacted and lost their cool.” He said he planned on filing a complaint against the officer who, he said, also “shoved me to the ground.”

Donna Lieberman, the executive director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, viewed the videotape – twice, she said – and pointed out that while it is unknown what occurred prior to the yelling, the portions of video that are seen raise “serious concerns.”

“What appears on the video is someone yelling at the cops and getting punched in the face for it and thrown to the ground and arrested,” said Ms. Lieberman. “The Police Department has no authority to use physical force on somebody in this situation and they have no authority to arrest people for yelling at them; that is a violation of civil rights plain and simple.”

The Police Video

Late on Friday afternoon, the Police Department released its own video of the confrontation, a video that showed the police in a more favorable light.

According to that video, the mood at the epicenter of the standoff, inside the New School, was defined by order and efficiency – even if the scene outside was significantly more chaotic.

Uniformed police officers and the 19 protesters who had locked themselves inside spoke to one another in a calm, almost subdued tone of voice, with each side being polite and courteous to the other, the police video showed.

The police videotape showed a detective speaking to one protester, identified as John Clay, as he spoke on a cellphone to an organizer outside named Chelsea.

The detective, Jeff Salter, is seen on the video negotiating for the students to unlock a set of glass doors and let the officers in. At that point, the officers had already cut the locks barring them from an earlier set of doors, said Mr. Browne, the police spokesman.

“We want to end this peacefully,” said Detective Salter. “We don”t want anyone to get hurt.”

The doors were glass. Behind them were some barricades that appear to be movable room barriers or shelves, as well as other furniture, and about 30 feet beyond the doors, the group of students – including four women and the rest men – were sitting calmly on the floor, many with backpacks.

At one point, two students, a woman and a man in a sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse emblazoned on it, got up and walked toward the officers and unlocked some locks on the doors, and then went back and sat down.

“Thank you,” one officer can be heard saying on the video.

Once the doors were opened, the officers entered slowly, led by Chief of Department Joseph Esposito.

“Do me a favor, take your back packs off,” one officer said to the group. The students complied.

Another officer asked: “How many females do we have?”

The female students were handcuffed first. The first one stood and put her hands behind her back and allowed the officer to handcuff her. It continues in that fashion for several minutes.

“Next female, please stand up,” an officer said. “Put your hands behind your back.”

The male students sat on the floor, awaiting their turn.

The Start of the Protest

The students had occupied the building around 5:30 a.m., planning a takeover similar to one carried out at the university in December. A graduate student who spoke to a reporter at 5:55 a.m. outside the building said, “The students just entered the building, and the police are already here.”

Mr. Browne, the police spokesman, said the people who occupied the building ejected a maintenance worker, stole his radio and chained the doors locked. Whoever stole the radio might face robbery charges in addition to trespassing charges, he said.

In a statement (see below), the university called the protest an “illegal occupation” and said the protesters had injured a security supervisor who tried to stop them.

Around 7 a.m. several dozen students, standing on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, cheered when several masked people appeared on the roof of 65 Fifth Avenue, waving red and black flags and lifting clenched fists in the air. The students on the roof draped banners over the side of the building that read, “Kerrey and Murtha resign now!”

Police officers were already on hand, and as the morning went on, the numbers increased until dozens of officers stood on all sides of the building, and the streets surrounding the building held mazes of metal barricades and yellow police tape. Students on the sidewalks outside the building said they were members of various groups – all of which are disgruntled with the administration.

A woman who identified herself as Alex Johnson, a fourth-year politics major, said she was a spokeswoman for the students inside, and spoke to a reporter by phone from what she said was an undisclosed location. Asked how long the students intended to remain inside the building, she said, “As long as they can.”

Asked what it would take to make the students to leave voluntarily, she replied, “It would take Kerrey and Murtha resigning.”

Among the students watching from across the street was Andy Folk, 21, a junior at Eugene Lang College, studying fiction and philosophy. “I”m here to show solidarity and support,” he said. “We and much of the faculty continue to have no confidence in Bob Kerrey.” Mr Folk added that he thought Mr. Kerrey wanted to soften the radical legacy of the school.

As senior police officers and fire officials arrived, the masked people on the roof used a megaphone to address the crowd below. One of the masked figures read a lengthy critique of capitalism and contemporary life, which a student below identified as an essay, “On the Poverty of Student Life,” that originated at the University of Strasbourg.

By 10:30, the part of Fifth Avenue below 14th Street, as well as adjoining side streets, were filled with city vehicles. There were police vans, an emergency services unit truck and a mobile Fire Department command center and Fire Department ambulance. Paramedics stood at the ready, and police officers, holding what appeared to be building plans, huddled together.

Elsewhere, tensions rose shortly before 11, when a crowd of people rallying in support of the students dashed east on 14th Street, pursued by police. Police officers and about 40 protesters faced off on the south side of 14th Street. A line of officers advanced toward the protesters, who retreated toward Union Square, some shouting at the officers.

At the same time, on Fifth Avenue, several dozen police officers wearing visor helmets and carrying long plastic shields lined up in front of the main entrance to 65 Fifth Avenue. An officer made an announcement through a megaphone that officials said was to let students know that officers were about to enter the school.

Other officers on horseback patrolled surrounding blocks where, by 11 a.m., more than 100 police vehicles were parked.

The Earlier Building Occupation

The December takeover lasted about 30 hours. Then, students barricaded themselves inside a ground-floor cafeteria at the building, protesting a host of issues, many connected to the administration of the university”s president, Bob Kerrey.

The students adopted a list of eight demands including a greater student voice in university affairs and the resignations of Mr. Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska; James Murtha, the executive vice president; and Robert Millard, treasurer of the board of trustees, who students said was connected to a private security company working in Iraq.

That action ended after negotiations, but a student group calling itself the New School in Exile promised further disruptions if Mr. Kerrey did not accede to their demand to resign by April 1.

“With their demand still unmet as of this date, students have once again reclaimed this neglected, symbolic building which housed the New School for Social Research,” student organizers said in a news release on Friday. “On the 75th anniversary of the University in Exile, New School students are reclaiming the tradition of protest and political action that birthed the university and gave it meaning for generations to come.”

Statements From the New School

The university responded to the protests with the following statement on Friday morning:

On December 15, 2008, an unofficial student organization calling themselves the New School in Exile occupied the cafeteria at 65 Fifth Avenue, barricaded themselves into the room, and issued a set of demands. Early on the morning of December 16, a group of students and non-students broke through a fire exit on 14th street and entered the building.

Although the occupants had violated a number of important security rules, the university made the judgment they were neither an operational or a security risk. Accordingly, we did not file a complaint with the New York Police Department to have the occupants removed. Instead we entered into a process of negotiations with our students and reached agreement on a list of demands including amnesty for all involved early on the morning of December 17. The students left peacefully at that time.

In January, this same unofficial student organization issued a public threat to forcefully shut down the university on April 1 unless the President and Chief Operating Officer were removed. Following this they were caught stealing an entire edition of the student newspaper on account of a story they regarded as unfavorable to them; and subsequently they vandalized the university”s presidential residence.

During this time the university has allowed and accommodated every peaceful protest, teach-in, and demonstration. We have enforced our rules governing such events in such a way as to permit protests, so long as they don”t endanger the safety of other members of the community or destruction of property.

This morning”s illegal occupation of 65 Fifth Avenue was joined by a number of New School in Exile students as well as individuals without any affiliation to The New School. Their claim that this was a simple political protest is false. Their entry into this building was forced, they removed a man who was cleaning the building, took his phone, injured a security officer, and did physical damage to the building.

Accordingly, in this case the university asked the New York Police Department to remove and arrest those who were trespassing on our property. We suspended, pending administrative review, all New School students who were a part of this action.

The New School prides itself on civic engagement. We have been and will continue to be a refuge for open and critical political debate. Students and faculty who choose to peacefully and passionately oppose the policies of the university will have their rights to do so protected as strongly as we protect our right to safely and securely operate our university.

Later on Friday, the university issued an updated statement:

Early this morning, a New School building at the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue was illegally broken into by approximately 30 people, some of whom were New School students. The police were involved and 23 protesters were arrested. Any participant that is enrolled at The New School will be suspended pending completion of disciplinary proceedings. Below is a timeline of activity.

At 5:25 a.m., a maintenance employee for The New School was in the cafeteria in 65 Fifth Avenue. He heard a loud bang when over two dozen protesters with crowbars broke the locks on the side door on 13th Street. As he exited the cafeteria, he was overwhelmed by another group of protesters, some wearing face masks. He reported being physically grabbed by four men and forced out the door. During this time, they stole his security two-way radio.

A security supervisor responded to a call from the maintenance employee and went to the building”s entrance on 13th Street, where he interrupted the protesters in their effort to block the doorway. Although students have publicly denied that anyone was hurt, participants slammed the supervisor”s leg in the door as he tried to enter through the door. He sustained injuries to his leg and went to the emergency room at St. Vincent”s Hospital.

The protesters carried crowbars, bolt-cutters, mace, paint, hundreds of feet of security cable, masking and duct tape, kryptonite locks, and hundreds of feet of nylon rope into the building. They were also carrying sleeping bags and food, indicating they planned to be in the building for some time.

Security called 911 to report a burglary at The New School and gave the location at 65 5th Avenue. The initial N.Y.P.D. responding units arrived at the scene in three minutes and began assembling a comprehensive team to deal with the break-in. N.Y.P.D. have been on alert since December 2008 as there have been numerous attempts to break into this building before. N.Y.P.D. protocols dictated the nature of the response by the police.

The protesters, some but not all of whom were New School students, blocked all building entrances. They used conduit pipe, or hollow metal bars, heavy, plastic-coated security cable, and gravity locks to block the doors, which were then reinforced with desks and chairs. They used Crazy Glue on all the locks. They put duct tape over all security cameras and transmission devices, effectively cutting off the building”s network service. They also cut through the cage inside the building to the cafeteria and smashed the cash register.

Between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., up to nine hooded individuals appeared on the roof of the building, where they made a statement and hung signs at the 13th Street and 5th Avenue corner of the building.

At approximately 11:30 a.m. a group of students tried to escape through an exit on 14th Street. It is estimated that eight participants escaped down 14th Street. Three were caught by the N.Y.P.D. and resisted arrest. The individuals included three students, one from The New School, one from Brooklyn College and one from N.Y.U., who was confirmed by N.Y.U. security as a member of their previous occupation. These protesters hurt two police officers and face charges of assault in the 2nd degree. One protester, a New School student, was hurt in the altercation.

At 11:45, the N.Y.P.D. prepared to enter the building. Using a megaphone, Tim Sikorski, head of New School security, warned the protesters they would be arrested and the N.Y.P.D.”s hostage negotiation leader also made a similar announcement. Protesters responded to the N.Y.P.D.”s request and unlocked the doors and let the N.Y.P.D. in.

There were 16 males and 3 females present in the building. All were arrested, in addition to the 3 arrested earlier on 14th Street. It is unknown at this time how many participants were New School students. There were participants from other universities as well as other unaffiliated individuals. Protesters inside the building did not resist arrest. The N.Y.P.D. used plastic handcuffs and led each participant out of the building. They were taken to N.Y.P.D.”s central booking. All participants face charges for burglary in the third degree, a charge stemming from breaking into an unoccupied building.

Al Baker contributed reporting.

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