NYPD Runs Amok at Matthew Shepard Memorial

Revolutionary Worker #980, November 1, 1998

"Please be assured, those of you who may have been seduced by the line that 'New York is back,' it is only back for those in power who don't want anyone to challenge their sole authority. We New Yorkers are literally living in a police state now where constitutional rights of free speech and assembly are literally trampled underfoot (by horses). If you think Mr. Giuliani is a great guy, think again (very seriously). And all, when all we wanted to do was express our grief and outrage at the death of an innocent young man just because he was gay. Welcome to late '90s America, the land of hate and facism."

Message on the Internet from
a member of ACT UP who had
witnessed the NYPD attack on
the funeral march for Matthew Shepard

Monday, October 19, New York City. It was a political funeral for Matthew Shepard--the young man brutally murdered in Wyoming because he was gay. The mood was one of mourning but also outrage. The people who turned out thought they were coming to a peaceful demonstration. The NYPD had a different idea. For the second time in two months the NYPD unleashed its violence against people publicly protesting against the injustices of this system. In a calculated strike against the people who were trying to have a dignified memorial for Matthew Shepard, the NYPD attacked the march repeatedly. They charged in with horses, cursed, trampled, beat and arrested over 100 people. Those arrested included people with AIDS who were held late in jail into the next day--denied their medications. This was a life-threatening move by the police given the strict requirements of these medications.

Police were taken by surprise by the size of this demonstration. They had mobilized 70 cops, expecting only a few hundred demonstrators. Instead between four and six thousand people came. They gathered near Central Park in midtown--the commercial district in Manhattan. As they began to march down Fifth Avenue police repeatedly tried to force them onto the sidewalk. One block into the march, cops charged in. Leslie Feinberg, managing editor of Workers World newspaper, arrested at the demonstration, told radio station WBAI, "The first people who police arrested in two sweeping attacks on the demonstration were all the march marshals they could get a hold of, the legal observers and the police negotiators from the march. They tried to lop off the leadership of the march and then tried to smash it in hopes of dispersing it. And it was a military as well as a political miscalculation." But as people stepped in for the arrested leaders, the march rolled down Fifth Avenue.

The authorities in New York City have put a premium on the ability to stop any "unauthorized" activity. Their inability to halt this demonstration at its beginning set them into a law enforcement frenzy. As the march made its way down Fifth Avenue more cops were called. First they issued a Level 1 mobilization, doubling the number of cops; then Level 2, drawing in task forces from other boroughs; then Level 3, calling cops from all the precincts of Manhattan; finally they went to Level 4, pulling in hundreds of cops from all over the city. In the end they had more than 1,000 cops on the streets.

Demonstrators told how cops refused to negotiate with anyone and boxed people in with no place to move. At one point they trapped over 1,000 people in one side street and then charged into the crowd four times. In the course of the demonstration, as the police attacked, the people chanted, "Shame, Shame, Shame" and "Racists, Sexists, Anti-gay, NYPD go away!" Police sent in cops on horses. Several people fell down and were kicked by the horses. In self defense, people threw water bottles and the candles they'd been carrying in the face of attacking cops. One woman who inadvertently nudged a cop with her foot, reported that the cop turned and threatened to "break her head open like a coconut." Another person reported that a cop "drove a moped into my back--I thought the police were trying to start a riot." A tourist from Germany--who happened on the demonstration--was arrested after mistakenly stepping off the curb. Cops commandeered city buses, forcing passengers off, to turn them into paddy wagons. Police arrested two legal observers and physically assaulted two others. One person was arrested for shouting at a police news conference immediately after the march.

Sarah Pursley told radio station WBAI, "As activists we're in a catch-22 right now. If we ask for a permit, we are usually rejected--as the police brutality demonstration this week [referring to 10/22] has been rejected for a permit. Or we face negotiations to move onto invisible side streets to have the march at times when nobody will be there. Or, if we get through all the hoops of negotiations and we finally get a permit, we are attacked by the police anyway, as happened with the Million Youth March."

In jail cops unsuccessfully tried to pit the prisoners against the arrested demonstrators. Instead, when folks learned who the demonstrators were, the prisoners were supportive. One woman who'd been in jail reported that when prisoners found out who she was they commented, "Oh, you mean you were the people who were protesting tonight. Oh, I saw it and you people are pretty serious."

The attack on this march was a clear example of how the city power structure is trying to outlaw opposition and protest. As Leslie Feinberg told WBAI, "Holding people in jail under those conditions was really punitive. It was meant to try to demoralize us, not [from] going out and attending the demonstration--cuz that's only a few scores of people out of thousands. It was meant to try and demoralize us from organizing more demonstrations and encouraging others and wider sections of the population to get involved in the struggle against racist and anti-gay violence. And I would say it failed miserably." When asked about whether folks from the memorial would be coming out for October 22, Leslie said, "I can't speak for all the people who organized the march, but I know I'll be there and I know that many of us will look for every opportunity to help build any action against police brutality. Whether it's against the African-American, Latino community or against the gay community. I think really the awareness is so high now, particularly anyone who saw the way the police just unleashed a rampage against, not only marchers with candles, but tourists and shoppers and passers-by. It really stunned people in a way that I think people need to see to believe and I think that will really attract more people to a demonstration against police brutality."

Mayor Giuliani, who had denied permits for the Million Youth March and the October 22nd National Day of Protest march in New York lyingly told the press, "We would have granted a permit if we had a day or two notice." There was an element of damage control to this. Giuliani did not want to come across as ugly and insensitive given the heinousness of the murder of Matthew Shepard. But by the next day he was back in true form, praising his cops and blaming the demonstrators, saying, "It's really a shame what advocates do. They distort the truth to fit their position. Gays and lesbians are very much respected in New York. What they did not have a right to do...is block New York City." The New York Post, the reliable advocate for police violence, piped in, saying of the demonstrators, "And the contempt they displayed toward New York's Finest by using police officers as unwitting tools in the advancement of a political agenda is itself beneath contempt."

What is beneath contempt is the gestapo tactics of the New York cops forcibly trying to stop thousands of people from denouncing the ugly and savage killing of Matthew Shepard. What nerve for the NYPD--the murderers of Anthony Baez, Nicholas Heyward, Jr., Hilton Vega, Anthony Rosario, William Whitfield, and all the others they have slain--to attack such a demonstration!

But in the final analysis they did not succeed in preventing the marchers from making a powerful statement against the murder of Matthew Shepard. As Mao said--where there is oppression, there is resistance.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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