For a moment I thought I might have been reading a parody. But no, included in all the news that was fit to print in last Tuesday’s New York Times was a fawning, 900-word profile of 17-year-old Richard Prins of Manhattan. Prins, we are told, takes classes in Spanish, Greek, and Latin at the Trinity School on the Upper Westside, and also studies Swahili at Columbia University. He gets good grades, is on the track team, and has written prize-winning poetry and an unpublished novel. At age 13 he handed out fliers for Ralph Nader; at 14 he campaigned for civil-liberties attorney Norman Siegel, who ran unsuccessfully for the post of public advocate for New York City.
But what noteworthy accomplishment, you ask, brought the young Mr. Prins to the attention of America’s Newspaper of Record? Did he achieve a perfect score on his SATs? Did he advance the sciences in some improbable way? Did he save someone’s life, perhaps? No, this is the Times we’re talking about, so it was nothing so pedestrian, so New York Post-ish, if you will, as any of that. It seems Mr. Prins brought honor to himself, his family, and, in the apparent opinion of the Times, to all of New York, by getting himself arrested while protesting against the Republican National Convention.
The Republicans are long gone, of course, but the legal battles concerning the 1,800 protesters arrested over the course of the convention are still being fought in the courtrooms of Manhattan. In Richard Prins the Times and our sophisticated betters who hang on every word printed therein have found an icon symbolic of their ongoing struggle against President Bush and the barbarian horde who a month ago swept in and briefly occupied their precious island. Prins, who claims to have attended at least 50 demonstrations in New York and Washington in his young life, is described in the story as follows: “He has a long ponytail, an earnest mustache, a starter beard, and wears a beaded necklace, alarmingly colorful Senegalese pants, a brass arm cuff that says Jesus–a gift from friends who noted a physical, and pacifist, resemblance.” Would that the Times one day write so approvingly of Jesus Himself.
Prins was one of the 1,100 people arrested on August 31, the second day of the convention. Some protesters, unhappy with how smoothly things went during the mass march of August 29, declared August 31 to be a day of civil disobedience, and they defied police efforts to accommodate lawful demonstrations. Prins joined a rally at Herald Square, one that according to the NYPD was conducted illegally. When police ordered the demonstrators to disperse, Prins allegedly locked arms with several others and refused to do so. Soon he found himself rounded up and packed off to Pier 57, where the police had established an arrestee-processing center in an old bus terminal. He was in custody for 41 hours, he claims, three of them in handcuffs. “We were singing Dylan songs,” he told the Times. “But we slept in two-hour shifts, because the cell was too small for 20 of us to lie down together. A lot of people were irate because they were missing the chance to protest.”
On learning of the arrest, Prins’s mother contacted Norman Siegel, the attorney for whom Prins campaigned three years earlier. Siegel and a group of like-minded lawyers filed writs of habeas corpus to compel prosecutors to charge and release those being held at Pier 57. State Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo issued such an order on September 2, the convention’s final day. When authorities did not move swiftly enough, Cataldo held the city in contempt and fined it $1,000 for every protester detained beyond his 5 P.M. deadline. A hearing on the contempt citation was to have been held last Monday, but an appellate court granted the city a postponement until November 23.
The delays in moving protesters through the system led inevitably to charges that the city was engaging in preventative detention, holding protesters in custody until the convention concluded with President Bush’s acceptance speech. Nonsense, says NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, with whom I spoke last week. Police, prosecutors, and courtroom staff did everything in their power to process the arrests, Browne told me, but the sheer volume of arrests that were made on August 31 overwhelmed even the extra personnel put in place for the convention. On a typical day in Manhattan there are about 250 arrests, and during the convention the police and the courts were prepared to handle several times that number. But with the sudden influx of 1,100 protesters, the already balky machinery of New York’s criminal-justice system blew a gasket. And, adding to the problems arising from the large numbers, some of the protesters took it upon themselves to further clog the works by feigning injuries and refusing to provide their names during the booking process. Also, many of them carried backpacks stuffed with items that had to be inventoried, a time-consuming step even under ordinary circumstances.
Siegel and others have also alleged that protesters were housed in unhealthy conditions at Pier 57, citing reports of asbestos and other chemical contamination. Thus the stage is set for what the Times must surely consider an ideal two-fer: a court fight over the alleged injustices perpetrated against Prins and his fellow detainees, with a side order of environmental activism thrown in for good measure. Some of those detained at the Pier 57 facility called it “Guantanamo on the Hudson,” thus linking their perceived deprivations with those of the al Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist fighters whose cause they unwittingly advance.
Even the most outrageous claims from the protesters were given a respectful hearing in the New York city council on September 15. At the council meeting, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer condemned the NYPD for its denial of demonstrators’ rights, and criticized Commissioner Ray Kelly for his failure to appear at the meeting. Kelly, it was pointed out, was busy attending the funeral of Detective Patrick Rafferty, who, along with his partner Robert Parker, was murdered in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn on September 10. (Predictably, the NYCLU has issued no statement regarding the rights now permanently denied to Rafferty and Parker.)
The legal battles engendered by the convention will be playing out for months, perhaps even years. But whatever their outcome, the New York Times has given birth to a new star of the Left in the person of Richard Prins. May he have plenty to demonstrate against, at least for the next four years.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.