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Police and protesters clash in Hartford


The lawyer scanned through the police report until he found the passage he wanted. "Hurter tried to recruit the remaining radicals to his cause," he read to the crowd of anti-war protesters who had gathered after the day's protest. "But many activists did not want anything of Hurter's violent plot."
On Thurs., Oct. 25, protesters gathered in Hartford to rally against American military action in Afghanistan. Police arrested 18 people, including two Yalies.

The report was written after the police confronted nearly 200 activists attending a peace rally in Hartford on Thurs., Oct. 25. They arrested 18 people in total, including two Yale students: Jonathan Scolnik, DC '03, and Abhimanyu Sud, TD '03. All arrested have since been released and now face court dates.

Adam Hurter, a senior at Wesleyan, is facing some of the most serious charges, including "conspiracy to incite a riot." The police report describes him as a "ringleader," who at one point ordered the activists to attack police officers. But protesters claim that the police decided to single Hurter out as he was mediating a discussion held after the initial arrests were made.

labor lawyer supporting the anti-war movement, some of the police reports contain "barely-concealed expressions of [the officers'] own support for the bombing of Afghanistan." Usually police reports "don't characterize people's actions; they just describe their conduct, without a motivation," he said. To Roseblatt, it seemed clear that the police officers were editorializing their reports—expressing their anger and demonizing the protesters. The police reports have not been publicly released.

Clifford Thorton, a Hartford resident who works for Efficacy (a non-profit organization that looks for "peaceful solutions to social problems"), compared the events of Thurs., Oct. 25 to a larger rally against the International Monetary Fund held in Hartford in April. Sponsored by the Connecticut Global Action Network, April's rally went smoothly, though it attracted twice as many people as the more recent protest. While neither April's rally nor the most recent gathering had secured a permit from the police department, Thorton said the police's response seemed starkly different this time. "While these times are edgy for everyone, it doesn't excuse the conduct of the police department," Thorton said.

THE HARTFORD POLICE DEPARTMENT CHALLENGES the protesters' claims. While April's protest did not obtain an official permit, the police department had been contacted beforehand by the organizers, Hartford Police Lt. Neil Dryfe said.

"We were told what route they were going to take, and we were told civil disobedience was going to happen—they had identified a group of people who were going to sit down in the middle of the street, willing to be arrested." Most important, he said, "Everyone was safe."

According to Dryfe, the police were not notified about any of the October protesters' actions. He said that they refused to give their destination, and some eventually attempted to attack officers. The gathering "took the tone of an anti-government protest," Dryfe said. "The protesters didn't want to be seen working with... government agent[s], [which] they perceived the police to be," he added, explaining why he thought the protestors refused to cooperate.

"We would have allowed them to march quite extensively in spite of not having [a permit]," he continued. "If they wanted to march around Hartford for 12 hours, we would have allowed it—as long as we had been [assured] of everyone's safety." When the police finally acted with force it was to protect people's safety, Dryfe asserted.

NOT SO, SAYS CHRIS PHILLIPS, A HARTFORD RESIDENT who was attending the rally with his wife and two daughters that day. "There is no doubt in my mind that the use of force was excessive," said Phillips. "The police began indiscriminately spraying the stunned crowd with pepper spray. I could count six small children within 20 feet of the spray. It was outrageous."

The conflicting accounts have led local government officials and organizations to begin independent investigations into the matter. Hartford Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton-Sheff has asked the Hartford City Manager to provide a detailed account of the police perspective. In the past, strained relations between the police and the community have led Horton-Sheff to push for adding an independent investigator to the city's civilian-police review board; the conflicting reports on Oct. 25 may finally prompt such an investigation.

The concern that the police department's response was politically motivated has prompted the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) to look into the matter. The CCLU is working to "make sure that the police [are] acting within their bounds," Teresa Junger, executive director of the CCLU, said.

The Oct. 25 clash between police and anti-war protesters is the first of which the CCLU has been notified, although the organization has confirmed that police are "photographing marchers and petitioners throughout the state." Though last Thursday's clash is apparently without recent precedent, some activists insist that the police's response and the resulting charges are part of a larger pattern.

"THIS CASE COULD BECOME A TEST CASE," SAID SARAH Wolf, TD '02, who attended the Hartford rally. "In this climate, it's easier than ever for the state to crack down on dissent in whatever way it wants to."

Political Science Lecturer Mark Stein, who teaches Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, conceded that the charge of inciting a riot "has always been a constitutionally questionable charge, especially if there isn't a real riot. It can be used, and has been used, to suppress speech."

Hurter, the Wesleyan student facing the charge, said he sees the events of last Thursday as part of a more extensive suppression of civil liberties. He fears the USA Patriot Act—also known as the anti-terrorism bill and signed into law this past week—grants such great powers of surveillance.

Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin echoed some of Hurter's fears. "When law enforcement agencies have the tools for going after people not acting `in the country's best interest,' they're going to start targeting groups like the anti-war movement and groups opposed to U.S. policy in Israel," he said.

Balkin compares the present climate to the 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement, labor organizations, and the artistic community were targeted in the wake of a Red Scare. "Whenever the U.S. goes to war—and it doesn't matter which war—they're going to start circling the wagons and stepping up police investigations."

But others firmly believe that counter-terrorist measures do not necessarily entail the suppression of dissent.

"We're walking between privacy and security," Schuyler Schouten, TC '03, said. "We don't want to give [law enforcement] unlimited powers, and so far I don't think we have. We're still a wonderfully free country."

"I'm not disposed to believe that there's some national conspiracy to suppress dissent," Yale Coalition for Peace Member Blake Wilson, BR '02, said. "Though it seems like a reasonable possibility that there might be political motivations on the scale of the [Hartford] police department."

While the activist community is concerned about last Thursday's events, it also fears that the issue will eclipse the larger goals of the movement. "The fear of the anti-war movement is that we'll be drawn into a maze of legal muck, and our message will be lost," said Jessie Duvall, a Wesleyan student who was at the Oct. 25 rally.

Hurter also denies the charge that activists are attempting to victimize themselves. "While free speech is a victim, it pales in comparison to the real terror people are experiencing," he said. "The biggest victims right now are the people in Afghanistan being murdered."

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