United States: Police Brutality Breaks Up Gay And Lesbian Protest Rally

Days after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, police in New York City broke up a peaceful rally meant to mourn and protest his killing. Officers in riot gear and horseback arrested nearly 120 demonstrators and injured numerous others. Activists request letters to the Mayor of New York, protesting this incident, and asking for investigations and redress for numerous other documented cases of police brutality and use of excessive force.

The October 19 rally, organized by a grassroots coalition of activists rather than by any particular group, was meant--according to one of the organizers--to honor Shepard, to "speak out against homophobia and to urge gays and lesbians to come out of the closet." Demonstrators also planned to call public attention to homophobic violence. The number of such assaults reported to city police has increased by 81% in the last year, despite an overall decrease in the New York City crime rate.

The demonstration began as a vigil of some 200 people, but swelled to a crowd of 4,000 who attempted to march down Fifth Avenue to 23rd Street, to erect a shrine to Shepard.

Organizers had not tried to obtain a permit for the rally. (The city administration had recently attempted for one month to deny a permit to organizers of a rally against police violence.) However, police did not interfere with the demonstration until the demonstrators began marching, and spilled over from the sidewalk into the streets. According to news reports, police in riot gear then moved both in front of and behind the crowd, penning marchers in and leaving them unable to move forward or back. Officers then began to wade into the crowd, some on horseback. Although demonstrators were unarmed, police used both billy clubs and pepper spray.

Witnesses have reported that police arbitrarily arrested demonstrators who were trying peacefully to move back to the sidewalk, "just picking them off." Reports indicate that some demonstrators were beaten by police; others were thrown against cars or had their arms and limbs twisted. In addition, at least two marchers were trampled under horses.

Almost 120 people were arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct." Many were held in jail overnight or longer. According to the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, at least five persons among those arrested were denied access to HIV or AIDS medication, although serious medical effects can follow if such medication is not taken according to stringent schedules.

The incident was the third in 1998 in which the New York City Police Department has apparently violently overreacted in attempting to exercise crowd control. In June, a rally of construction workers was broken up, causing 21 injuries; in September, a march of African-American youth in Harlem ended with clashes when police tried to disperse a large crowd instantly upon the rally's scheduled ending time.

The incident comes, moreover, after years of allegations that Department officers routinely use excessive force, or engage in torture, against suspects. In particular, the 1997 case of Abner Louima--who was severely injured, allegedly by Brooklyn police who beat him and inserted a toilet plunger handle in his anus--called attention to the roles of racism and homophobia in the Department's record of unresolved violent incidents.

New York City offers little effective redress for victims of police violence. In 1993, a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) was created--stimulating protest demonstrations by police (with the participation of Rudolph Giuliani, subsequently elected Mayor of New York) which a report by the Police Department itself deemed "unruly, mean-spirited, and perhaps criminal." However, the CCRB has little disciplinary power. From 1993-1996, it received 18,336 complaints against police officers: only one officer was dismissed as a result. The Mayor has expressed vehement opposition to expanding the Board's powers, or to creating new institutions to investigate allegations against the police.

IGLHRC asks for letters to the Mayor of New York. These letters should demand a full and fair investigation of the arrests and violence surrounding the October 19 march. They should ask the Mayor to commit his public influence and the full authority of his administration to investigating and eliminating racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice from all branches of citygovernment. They should also demand that the Mayor accede to the expressed will of his own City Council, as well as to the recommendations of the task force he appointed in the wake of the Abner Louima incident, and allow the creation of an independent review board, with subpoena power and its own investigators, to monitor brutality, corruption, and other systemic failures of the New York City Police Department.

Letters should be sent to:

Rudolph W. Giuliani
Mayor of the City of New York
City Hall
New York, NY 10007
fax: 212-406-3587
email: giuliani@www.ci.nyc.ny.us