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Police Overreact as Thousands of NY Queers Protest Shepard's Death

[NEW YORK CITY] -- On Oct. 20, a peaceful rally to remember Matthew Shepard stunned both its organizers and police when between four and six thousand protesters crowded the streets during rush hour, causing mass confusion and resulting in more than 120 arrests by the overwhelmed authorities.

Organizers and parade marshals only expected the event, which had been billed as a 'political funeral' and organized by word of mouth on short notice among New York City's queer community, to garner perhaps 500 participants. Due to the small predicted turnout, they had not bothered to arrange for a parade permit for the gathering, scheduled to occur outside the Plaza Hotel at 6:00 p.m.

Police had only assigned 70 officers to the demonstration, but called in hundreds of foot and horse reinforcements when the crowds spilled into the sidewalks and streets and began marching up Fifth Avenue. Within an hour, the police had escalated their coverage to the highly unusual Level Four mobilization, bringing in officers from all over the city.

The chaos mounted when police began arresting parade marshals and organizers, some of whom were attempting to calm the crowd at the time. One marshal said she briefly stepped off the curb to warn the marchers that they were risking arrest if they left the sidewalk, then was grabbed from behind by a police officer, handcuffed and forced face-down on the ground.

Police first tried to block the marchers from heading on to Fifth Avenue, but the demonstrators moved west down 55th Street, directly into oncoming traffic. Event leaders reported that one police commander said they could have Fifth Avenue, and the march went back, but another commander blocked the avenue with a solid line of police and vehicles at 42nd Street. Marshals tried to halt the demonstration at 44th, linked arms and herded demonstrators onto West 43rd, where there was a long standoff between protesters and police. Demonstrators chanted, "Shame, shame, shame" as police briefly charged the crowd, batons drawn. Detainees were loaded into hastily commandeered city transit buses. Remaining protesters made their way peacefully to Madison Square Park, where the protest ended at approximately 9 pm.

Arrest numbers are unclear. Police originally announced that 110 arrests had been made, with 30 of those having their charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest dropped by Tuesday. At a news conference at the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, march organizers claimed that their legal observers had counted at least 136 arrests. Some suspect that many of those taken into custody were later released due to police failure to fill out proper arrest paperwork in the chaos.

Protesters were held overnight in overcrowded sex-segregated cells and taken to arraignment hearings the next morning. Many defendants expressed anger at their treatment by both the police and the courts. No reports of any injuries were available at press time. At least two detainees say they were denied access to HIV medication while in custody and required medical attention after being released. A legal observer of the march said he had been arrested as he was trying to take down information from another detainee. A German tourist who bumped into protesters after leaving the Guggenheim Museum was arrested as he stepped off the curb to try to see what was happening. Some detainees said they would fight their charges rather than accept a deal because they felt police response had been excessive.

A spokesperson for the police force defended their tactics, saying that "...once [the marchers] left the sidewalk, they were endangering the motorists [and] pedestrians.... We were forced to make arrests." NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended his forces, saying that while he sympathized with the marchers' cause, the police had "reacted to people attempting to block the most crowded city in America, and if they do it again, precisely the same thing will happen. I very much support the point that the lawful marchers were making, but I'm very unsympathetic to those who acted illegally. I would hope the organizers of the march are responsible enough to make that distinction."

In the chaotic denouement of the march, the one clear message seemed to be the overwhelming response from New York City's queer community. Participants in the march said that, while the queer community has become more accepted than ever, recent incidents of violence have been a reminder of the not-so-distant, and dangerous, past. New York City has recently seen an increase in anti-gay crimes. Police reports from the Bias Crimes Unit show 82 incidents of anti-gay bias crimes as of Oct. 4 of this year, compared with 46 during the same period last year, a jump of 78 percent. Overall bias crimes only rose 2 percent.

The increase in anti-queer violence -- and increase in media coverage and awareness of bias crimes -- has shocked many in the queer community out of a sense of complacency. One marcher said, "Sometimes in our little gay lives in the middle of America, I think we have forgotten that they kill us. They hate us."

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