(NEW YORK) MintPress — Twenty nine-year-old journalist John Knefel says he was covering an Occupy Wall Street event on December 12 when a so-called white shirt police officer asked him for his press credentials. Knefel, co-host of online radio program “Radio Dispatch,” acknowledged he did not have them, and, he tells MintPress News, “He threw me to the ground and held me and 60 others for 37 hours.”
Following his ordeal, Knefel contacted a trio of lawyers who were in the process of drawing up a lawsuit against the City of New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a number of large corporations, alleging the defendants have regularly violated the constitutional rights of Occupy protesters at various demonstrations across the city.
Knefel became one of the plaintiffs, joining a group that includes several City Council members, members of the press, an Iraq war veteran and Occupy activists.
The suit, filed in the United States District Court in Manhattan on April 30, said that the city, “in concert with various private and public entities”, subjected the plaintiffs to “violations of rights to free speech, assembly, freedom of the press, false arrest, excessive force, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.”
At times, according to the suit, the Police Department had improperly photographed people who were arrested and may not have destroyed those pictures as required by law. In addition, it said, the city had stopped some plaintiffs from “carrying out their duties as elected officials.”
One of the lawyers, Yetta Kurland, said that it was “concerning that members of the press and elected officials are targeted and arrested.” She added, “We are asking specifically in redress that a federal monitor be appointed to safeguard the public.”
The plaintiffs also requested, among other things, that a judge order the police not to remove people from public spaces or prevent reporters from observing police activities connected to public speech and assembly.
“The suit is chock full of examples of misconduct and arrests,” contends Knefel.
Several incidents are documented in a graphic video submitted with the complaint. At one point, an MTA police dog is seen biting an arrested protester in the leg. “I know from personal conversations I had after the incident that the victim suffered substantial pain as a result of the bite,” says Knefel.
Knefel also points to the case of freelance journalist Justin Sullivan, who the complaint said was wrongly arrested in January by MTA police while filming a demonstration inside Grand Central Terminal. When Sullivan returned to the terminal after being released from custody to ask for his cameras, he was re-arrested, according to the complaint.
The suit said that while a still camera was returned, a video camera was not, and a witness saw an MTA official “instructing another officer to break the camera.”
City legislators held
According to the suit, in November 2011 officers stopped City Councilman Jumaane Williams from getting to Zuccotti Park, where the Occupiers had set up camp, while the city was clearing them from the area, preventing him from fulfilling his “institutional role as a monitor and overseer” of the police.
“We as a country and as a society have supported protests, multiple protests, halfway around the world,” he later said. “We never once asked the question ‘Are they on public property when they’re protesting?’”
Another council member, Ydanis Rodriguez, was arrested near the park that same day, said the suit, as was Paul Newell, a leader of a local Democratic district. At a press conference the next day, Rodriguez said he tried to identify himself as police officers pushed him back with batons.
“They kept pushing,” he recalled. “The force was so strong…Then suddenly a police officer jumped from the middle of the street. He threw his body in front of me and started hitting my head on the street…I was assaulted by New York police officers.”
Calls for accountability
After Rodriguez’s arrest, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said of her attempts to find out what happened, “Those are troubling, troubling questions, which we in the council, but more importantly, we as New Yorkers deserve to get answers to.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident or the lawsuit, which is in fact called Rodriguez vs. Winski. Deputy Inspector Edward Winski leads the 1st Precinct, where Zuccotti Park is located. “He is the face of the NYPD misconduct,” asserts Knefel.
Muriel Goode-Trufant, the chief of the special federal litigation division of the city Law Department, said, “We will review the matters thoroughly.”
Says Knefel, “One thing that could come out of it is a widespread increase in public perception of the NYPD’s acting criminally and depriving citizens of their constitutional rights.” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly currently has a high approval rating in recent surveys. “I think if people saw what his force was doing to protesters, they would have a clearer sense of how his department is operating,” maintains Knefel.