Ruckus Updates

Plaza Climbers Tell of a Grim Night in Jail

Protester to protester, the sentiment was this: "Congratulations!" There were handshakes and high-fives and compliments like, "You looked great naked."

Two distinct groups of young men and women who on Thursday protested the coming Republican National Convention – one blocked traffic naked, and the other rappelled down the front of the Plaza Hotel and draped its facade with an anti-Bush banner – found themselves outside the heavily guarded Manhattan Criminal Court at the same time yesterday.

They seemed like brothers and sisters in arms. Pleasantries were exchanged. But their stories were vastly different. The group of rappellers, called Operation Sibyl – in ancient Greece, a sibyl was a fortuneteller – but also known as the Plaza Four, said they had had a tough 25 hours in jail before they were arraigned on felony and misdemeanor charges of assault, reckless endangerment and criminal trespass. Judge Gerald Harris released them on their own recognizance yesterday despite the $2,000 in bail that the prosecutors had requested from each.

The other group, Act Up, blocked traffic, naked, on Eighth Avenue in front of Madison Square Garden, the convention site. They were arrested on misdemeanor charges and given desk appearance tickets. Two were held for close to 24 hours, but most did not spend the entire night in jail. Nonetheless, the protesters seemed ecstatic about being pictured on the cover of The Daily News and inside other papers yesterday. "We were so excited," exclaimed Kaytee Riek, 20. (A public health student from Washington, Ms. Riek said she wants more financing for the global AIDS crisis.)

One woman got an early morning e-mail message from her parents expressing their anger about seeing her naked on television.

The difference between the charges faced by Act Up and Operation Sibyl comes down to this – the police said an officer had been injured on the Plaza’s roof while trying to arrest the rappellers: Terra Lawson-Remer, a graduate student at New York University studying for a law degree and a doctorate in law and society; Cesar Maxit, an architect from Texas; Rebecca Johnson, a seminary student from Oakland, Calif.; and David Murphy, a teacher at a Manhattan trapeze school.

According to a March 10 Police Department document outlining legal guidelines for the convention, officers are instructed, under certain circumstances, to consider charging protesters with second-degree assault if any are injured while trying to make arrests.

Ms. Johnson said she had warned the officer to watch his step. Her lawyer, Gerald B. Lefcourt, accused the court of trying to "send a message with bogus charges."

While Ms. Johnson and her fellow protesters were pleased with their newfound media exposure, if not their charges, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called their actions "an outrage" on a radio program yesterday. He was particularly dismayed that one man helping the protesters outside the Plaza was a city employee – Evan Thies, the spokesman for City Councilman David Yassky and Operation Sibyl’s media coordinator.

"This has nothing to do with First Amendment rights," Mr. Bloomberg said. "You can express yourself, but you don’t have a right to put other people’s lives at risk."

Mr. Yassky released a statement saying he regretted that Mr. Thies had been involved in the stunt while recognizing the sincerity of his convictions. "However," he wrote, "the method of yesterday’s protest at the Plaza Hotel was wrong, and in my opinion it shows poor judgment to have assisted the protesters."

Mr. Thies, who was never in the Plaza or on its roof, was charged with a misdemeanor and was released at 3 a.m. yesterday.

Mr. Maxit, 28, and Mr. Murphy, 31, who have been arrested at protests before, said it had been their worst experience in the criminal justice system. They said they were robbed of cash in the middle of the night while in a general-population holding cell next to the court. Mr. Maxit said a man had punched him in the face because he looked at the man after the man had instructed, "Don’t look at me."

Mr. Maxit and Mr. Murphy said they were shocked by other prisoners’ drug use and felt too frightened to sleep. They complained about the correctional officers, calling them angry and uncaring.

Ms. Johnson, 25, and Ms. Lawson-Remer, 26, said they had it easier in a jail cell with women who were mostly supportive.

Mr. Maxit and Mr. Murphy expressed regret at not being able to return to the Plaza for a warm bath and a good meal.

"One thing I have to say, it looked like they had a pretty nice hot tub," Mr. Murphy said. He and the others said the group had asked for donations and saved their own money to be able to afford the nearly $300 a night room.