COPS GO NUTS AFTER DONUT SOCIAL
By Chris Flash
[September 6, 2008] A political rally held near the ninth precinct on East Fifth Street on the evening of September 5 ended in police violence at nearby Tompkins Square Park. Billed as "The Donut Social," the purpose of the rally was to protest police violence, as well as the selective issuance and enforcement of sound permits and arbitrary sound limits set by the police department for certain political events taking place in Tompkins Square Park
Approximately 150 people showed up at the corner of Fifth Street and First Avenue, down the block from the precinct house. Starting at about 6:00pm, attendees, forced to stand behind police barriers, could barely hear the various speakers and musical performers. This was due to a federal court ruling earlier in the day that allowed the police department on this occasion to limit the amplified sound level to 70 decibels from a distance of 50 feet.
Initially, ninth precinct commanders tried to derail the Donut Social by not issuing the required sound permit and refusing to provide a definite location for the event. Self-described "Slacktivists" John Penley and Jerry the Peddler were forced to take the matter to federal court in order to obtain an emergency ruling against the NYPD. The court ordered the NYPD to issue the sound permit, but went along with the NYPD's request for the low and barely audible decibel level. However, Penley told the SHADOW that at the hearing, federal court judge Lynch told him that he had grounds for a lawsuit against the police department for selective enforcement.
As speakers addressed the crowd on a wide range of issues, standing nearby, in addition to two cops perched on the rooftop of a housing project across the street, were several plainclothes cops. One held a decibel measuring device, another held a measuring tape, while another jotted notes on a clip board. Also observing was a member of the NYPD's legal unit and ninth precinct commanding officers DeQuatro and Ferguson.
The low sound limit required bands Team Spider, Banji, and the Crack Rock Steady Seven to struggle to keep their audio levels below 70dbs. Each band constantly turned down their amps, replaced drum sticks with brushes, and covered drum heads with T-shirts, all in an attempt to avoid having the rally shut down by police. Eventually, all amps were turned off and the crowd sang along with the performers. In the rear of the audience, where the cop with his decibel reader stood, the sound coming from the stage could not be heard at all, leading him to put the reader in his pocket.
The last group on stage, Crack Rock Steady Seven, which includes members of Leftover Crack, immediately galvanized the audience, who had been anxiously waiting for them. Lead singer Scott Sturgeon, aka Stza Crack, pointed out the rooftop cops -- everyone chanted "Jump! Jump! Jump!" Sturgeon declared: "Free speech is not free if you can't hear it," noting that a passing bus on First Avenue was louder than the volume at which he was allowed to play. The crowd then erupted and sang along as Sturgeon performed "One Dead Cop."
Historically, concerts and rallies in Tompkins Square Park have taken place with no amplified sound restrictions, regardless of the theme of the events, whether religious, artistic, social or political. Long despised for their anti-police and anti-organized religion lyrics, Sturgeon and Leftover Crack have been harassed and targeted by police, who have gone as far as shutting down clubs and venues where the band has played, threatening owners with more shut-downs if they allow the band to play in the future.
Neighborhood activists note that when Leftover Crack was set to play at the 20th anniversary of the 1988 police riots in the park on August 3, police suddenly felt the need to restrict the sound level of their show to the point of their not being heard 20 feet beyond the front of the stage. The NYPD has paid no such attention to the higher and audible sound levels enjoyed by other events in the park in the weeks and months preceding and following the riot anniversary show. These included a Christian rock concert and an afternoon of performances by Theater for The New City, and by the HOWL Festival playing the park this past weekend. Others point to the NFL-sponsored concert in Columbus Circle a few days before the Donut Social, with a huge sound system that blasted their music at well over 1,000 decibels. Tompkins Square activists have stressed that they only want the same audible sound levels enjoyed by other events taking place in the park and throughout the city.
During the Crack Rock Steady Seven set at the Donut Social, donuts were thrown into the crowd, including in the direction of commanding officer Ferguson, who quickly retreated toward other cops standing nearby. When the show ended at 8:00pm, Ferguson sought out the person he thought had thrown the donuts in order to make an arrest, but Ferguson failed to find him.
About 30 minutes later, inside Tompkins Square Park, Sturgeon was performing accoustic songs on his guitar for a group of approximately 60 fans when an unmarked cop car slowly drove up. No permit was necessary for this gathering and type of performance. Two cops who had been observing him spoke with cops inside the car and then made their way toward Sturgeon, grabbing and carrying him away without announcing that he was under arrest and without informing him of any charge against him.
Outraged fans and activists quickly came to Sturgeon's aid, but he was quickly shoved into the car. The unmarked car was blocked, spit on and hit by a few bottles, causing cops inside to panic and make an emergency call for back-ups. As six cop cars and an unmarked police van arrived, cops began pushing, beating and shoving people to the ground. A man sitting on the rear of the car holding Sturgeon was arrested. Another young man, who was accused of kicking a side mirror off the car, was also arrested after getting roughed up by several large cops.
For half an hour, angry people confronted the police. An Hispanic man picked up a folding chair being used for the Howl Festival that had taken place earlier in the park. Dropping the chair, he was able to evade pursuing cops, but soon after, he was again chased by plainclothes cops, one of which used a taser device on him before arresting him.
A sit-down took place in front of a police car, during which cops were berated for their behavior. Soon, a march on the ninth precinct was announced, with about 100 people arriving before cops could respond. They quickly put up metal barriers to keep the angry crowd at bay. During the stand-off there, National Lawyers Guild representatives were able to get information from cops about those arrested. They were told that Sturgeon was charged with "harassment." Standing by for the next three hours, demonstrators chanted at cops lined up in front of the precinct house and held signs for passing cars.
The following day, Sturgeon was released from custody. He told the SHADOW that, in addition to "harassment," he had been charged with "disorderly conduct" and "resisting arrest." These types of charges, along with "obstructing governmental administration," are typically used by cops against political activists and folks that they generally dislike. Ultimately, these charges are usually dropped, as they are unwinnable for the prosecution. (According to Sturgeon, some of the others arrested were hit with felony charges, but it is expected that these will be reduced to misdemeanors.)
Sturgeon also told the SHADOW that as he was being processed inside the ninth precinct, he was surprised when several cops expressed their admiration for Leftover Crack and told him they are his fans!
Meanwhile, Penley has filed a motion in federal court to have a special counsel appointed to assist with a lawsuit against the police department, based on constitutional issues. The suit will seek damages over the selective enforcement of decibel limits.
[See video of the events of September 5 at: <http://teamspider.blogspot.com/>]
[All photos on this page by Chris Flash]