(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Imagine spending nine hours in a room the size of a walk-in closet. That was exactly what George Washington University senior Beth Pellettieri faced after being arrested in her student center for protesting the treatment of university workers last spring.
“It can really make you understand the power dynamics involved in being in a holding cell,” said Pellettieri, whose charges of unlawful entry were later dropped. “To do anything I was either on lock down or had to ask permission. It was the oddest power dynamic I’ve ever encountered.” However, following a recent settlement, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department may be more careful when arresting non-violent protesters.
The District agreed last week to pay $425,000 and provide personal apologies from Police Chief Charles Ramsey to seven protesters taken into custody without probable cause during a mass arrest in 2002.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capitol Area, one of the protesters’ legal representatives, said other conditions of the settlement include police providing detainees with a handout explaining their rights and releasing them as promptly as possible.
“D.C. now realizes that they’re not supposed to arrest someone unless they broke the law,” Spitzer said.
Nonetheless, two days after the settlement, District Mayor Anthony Williams refused to sign a bill adopted by the City Council last month that would limit officers’ investigations of protesters’ activities. Since the mayor did not veto the bill, it will undergo Congressional review. The bill will be adopted into D.C. law if Congress approves it.
“All the bill does is require police to follow the law and not arrest people before they’ve done something wrong,” said Mark Goldstone, chairman of the Demonstration Support Committee of the D.C. Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive national legal institution, who testified in favor of the bill. “We’re not asking anything more of the police than they should have been doing all along.”
Protesters can take certain precautions to defend their first amendment rights to gather, engage in free speech and petition the government.
Spitzer said protesters should find out whether the demonstration has a permit prior to attending. He added that at once there, police will typically warn demonstrators if they are planning to make arrests, so those in attendance should heed officers’ warnings.
“Go with a friend or with an acquaintance,” Goldstone said. “Bring a camera. Bring a piece of paper and a pen. Be aware of your surroundings and be prepared to document anything that doesn’t look right or doesn’t feel right to you.”
Goldstone said documentation is particularly important in cases involving undercover officers. He added that detainees do not have to speak to police and can request to speak with a lawyer.
“The best thing to do is allow an arrest to occur even if it’s an unlawful arrest,” he added. “Don’t get into confrontations. You never know who is detaining your friend.”
If arrested at a protest, attorneys said while providing identifying information such as a name and address is not required, it is the only way to ensure a more prompt release.
“You don’t have the right to be released as John Doe or Donald Duck,” Spitzer said.
Pellettieri said her arrest has not deterred her from attending other protests, but she makes sure to carry identification and write a lawyer’s phone number in permanent ink on her arm. There are different forms of protesting, she said, such as boycotting a product or writing a letter to an editor, but she said she prefers to be a presence.
She said, “A protest or demonstration is just using your body as a representation of what you feel.