September 7, 1998
Some Experts Say the Rules on Rallies Were Ignored
The Overview: Giuliani and Organizers Clash Over Rally
Join a Discussion on Million Youth March
By MIKE ALLEN
EW YORK -- Authorities on riot control said Sunday that the Police Department appeared to have moved too swiftly to end a rally of black youths in Harlem on Saturday, and seemed to have forgotten some of the lessons learned from disturbances over the last 30 years.
Though one expert defended the police action as a way to prevent matters from getting out of hand, others said the haste in shutting down the rally, known as the Million Youth March, was a sharp break from the past practice of the department, which is known for its smooth handling of massive demonstrations.
As Saturday's ralliers began to disband, a police helicopter began making passes over the crowd and officers in riot helmets stormed the stage from behind. Soon bottles, barricades and trash baskets were flying, leaving one person in the crowd and about 15 officers injured.
"From the beginning, it seemed clear the mayor and police wanted to make a point," said David Bayley, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany. "This looks more like politics than tactics."
Anthony Bouza, who was the department's commander in Harlem in the early 1970s, said he was shocked by the swift police surge and believes that the police "owe the black community an apology."
"You're dealing with people -- not terrorists," said Bouza, who is retired and lives on Cape Cod, Mass. "This confirms the black community's sense that the police are an army of occupation in the ghetto. It's nuts."
Bouza recalled that as a police intelligence officer, he spent nearly every Saturday afternoon from 1957 to 1965 listening to Malcolm X and other black nationalists speak on 125th Street. "The one thing that we learned from all the riots of the 1960s was the need to negotiate, to mediate, to be patient," he said.
But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the police had acted commendably at what "promised to be a much worse event, a really violent event." He said the rally's chief organizer, Khallid Abdul Muhammad, deliberately began his speech just before the rally's court-ordered ending at 4 p.m.
"He wanted to create a disturbance," the mayor said. "The police kept that to a minimum, and they did something for which we should be very proud of them."
The mayor had repeatedly vowed that at 4, the police would begin treating the gathering as an illegal demonstration.
At 4:03, the blue police helicopter swooped low over the crowd, estimated by the police at 6,000. The crowd roared back at the buzzing chopper, with hundreds of people shaking their fists at the show of force. Then officers in riot gear moved onto the stage.
When the choppers and billy clubs flew, many participants said their anger at the establishment had been vindicated. "The mayor of New York City is making the same mistake Bull Connor made," said James Anthony Barr, 30, a telemarketer from Trenton, N.J., referring to the police commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., whose bullying helped galvanize civil rights demonstrators in 1963.
But Robert Louden, director of the Criminal Justice Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said he viewed the police action as a pre-emptive effort to "blitz them before they did anything worse."
"If it had gotten out of hand, it could have been more disastrous, with gunfire, injury and death," he said. "A point has to be made: 'We, the police, will abide by the orders of the court."'
Two former department officials said none of the provocations cited by police officials justified the action.
One former commander who requested anonymity, saying he feared that Giuliani would retaliate against friends who are still in the department, said he had "never heard of a protest being stopped right on a dime."
"We always said, 'OK, folks, we're going to wrap it up now."'
Several experts said the department had learned during disturbances at Columbia University in 1968 that a massive show of force can be counterproductive. Waves of officers kicked and punched student protesters, who retaliated by flinging rocks and smashing windows, according to news accounts at the time. After those disturbances and the Stonewall Inn riot by gay rights advocates in 1969, the police began intensive training in crowd control and sensitivity. Former department officials also said the department had concluded after a riot in Tompkins Square Park in 1988 that the use of a helicopter tends to alarm crowds.
Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the department of criminology at the University of Maryland in College Park and a former civilian research analyst for the New York Police Department, said the show of force indicated that Giuliani was extending his "zero tolerance" philosophy of crime fighting to cover crowd control.
"From the 1970s into the early 90s, the philosophy of the New York Police Department was to negotiate itself out of confrontations," Sherman said. "To have this happen on a hot summer afternoon in Harlem is a real sea change from the riot-prevention philosophy of earlier decades."
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