The New York Times

February 28, 2000

With Aid, Restrained Police Defuse a Volatile Standoff


Traffic came to a stop. Nearly 1,000 protesters watched from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and from the curb, chanting anti-police invective. The protesters in the street grew agitated, flailing their arms and cursing at the thin line of officers who had encircled them. Three police trucks backed up to the group. Officers with plastic handcuffs advanced down the street, ready to start mass arrests.

"Don't shoot us," the protesters screamed. "It's a wallet, not a gun!"

And then, for a moment, longtime adversaries became allies.

Chief Allan H. Hoehl of the Police Department's Manhattan South command recruited Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, to help calm the crowd. Mr. Siegel, carrying a bullhorn, climbed to the roof of a police truck and coaxed the protesters back to the sidewalk. Order was restored. The police wagons gave way. The march, though bitter, proceeded peacefully to City Hall, where it ended about 7:30 p.m.

The police and protesters alike said the scene at 47th Street illustrated the behavior of the police officers during a long weekend of demonstrations.

Since Friday evening, during two and a half days of spontaneous and sometimes angry protests over the acquittals of the officers who killed Amadou Diallo, the Police Department displayed clear signs of restraint, staying mostly calm in the face of confrontation and anger.

In all, fewer people were arrested over the last three days than in three hours during a spontaneous march in 1998 in support of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was murdered in Wyoming. That march ended when the police used horses and nightsticks to repel a crowd that had gathered in Midtown and arrested 136 people.

Even Mr. Siegel, a frequent critic of the police, was warm with praise yesterday after bedlam was averted on Second Avenue.

"It got a little scary, and it looked like there were going to be a lot of arrests," he said. "But I praise Chief Hoehl. If all cops were like him, we'd have a lot less problems."

Some scenes were replayed over and over during yesterday's march from the United Nations to City Hall. The protesters chanting "police tactics 101! It's a wallet not a gun!" or baiting officers with calls of "shame, murderer, shame," were continually herded out of traffic by officers who asked them to step back onto the curb, please.

Other scenes were unique. Detective Fred Vasquez, whose face was splattered with spit as protesters confronted him at 34th Street, stood stone still except for a brief flutter of blinks. One man, spinning and lunging nearby, whipped his elbow within inches of the uniformed detective's face. Detective Vasquez seemed unperturbed.

"If he had hit me, I guess I would have had to determine if it was accidental or intentional," he said. "But it looked like, by his body motions, that it was not intentional."

Asked about the spit on his face, he said, "I felt a little of that," and walked away.

Michael Greys, a correction officer who is co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said he had noticed the police restraint, and he said the department had made a smart tactical choice. Even though 1,000 officers were deployed, Mr. Greys said they kept as low a profile as possible, and were not aggressive.

"I think that given the political climate, they are just on their best behavior," he said. "Certainly there are orders from above not to be excessive, especially in crowded situations, like these rallies."

The man who gave some of the orders from above, Joseph P. Dunne, the chief of department, said the restraint was two-sided. "For the most part, the crowds were very cooperative and complied with the directives of the police," he said.

Still, some arrests were made, including two yesterday -- one for disorderly conduct and one for unauthorized use of a bullhorn -- and 98 on Saturday for obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct, and, in a few cases, resisting arrest.

The police restraint did not go unnoticed by the protesters. Some said they were profoundly saddened by the verdict, and others were angry to the point of ruthlessly taunting the officers. But many said they noticed the police were not taking the bait.

Matthew J. Williams, 40, of Manhattan, looked at a line of officers at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and said, "The cops are fine, they're just doing their jobs."

Mendes Toussaint, 33, who held a bloodied pillowcase bearing the first names of the four officers who were acquitted, spent nearly an hour trying to get the police in front of him to respond to his taunts. None did, he said.

"And they better not," Mr. Toussaint quickly added. "They have not and they better not, because I am not in the mood."