Inside account of mass illegal arrests in Washington DC

by Doug Malkan,


On September 27, 2002 hundreds of people were "pre-emptively" arrested in downtown Washington DC for having a peaceful gathering at a park to rally against corporate power and war.  This is an inside story of  gross violations of civil rights and brutal treatment of hundreds of innocent people by the police in our nation's capital.


The term pre-emptive is a new term for law enforcement which  had rarely if ever been heard of before. It  means arresting a person who has not committed a crime, but that might commit a crime. The arrest and incarceration of citizens who have not committed a crime is suppose to be illegal and unconstitutional. But a new strategy which is just beginning is apparently taken from a page out of the Bush Administration's new strategy toward suspected terrorists, except now it is being applied to peaceful demonstrations, protests and now even gatherings.


(Hundreds are arrested at peaceful gathering. Photo via


There were all kinds of people at Pershing Square in downtown Washington DC, activists of every kind from the DC area and around the country. There were twenty-somethings, punk kids, hippy chicks, old people, drummers, dancers, bicycle riders, media people, candidates running for office, army veterans, onlookers and people who stopped on their way to work. There was drumming and dancing and chanting and singing. The media was covering the event, from independent web sites to national TV.


There was nothing illegal going on at the park, and police never did charge that there was. There was no violence, no civil disobedience, no property destruction of any kind, no disobeying of police orders at or around the park, just a large gathering of colorful people.


But at 9:30 am, without any warning, hundreds of DC Metro Police surrounded the gathering with full riot gear on, their clubs in their hands.


The police immediately formed a tight formation and blocked any chance of exit. They refused to let anyone out, except those with corporate media identification. I, and many others, asked repeatedly for two hours if we were being detained and if so for what charge. No answer was ever given, no response. We were not allowed to leave and we never got an answer why.


(Crowds of people are packed tight by police, some on horseback. Police then begin mass arrests. Everyone in the park including bystanders were rounded up. Those with corporate media id were let loose, those with independent media ids were stripped of their credentials and arrested. Photos by Brian Long,


The Police held everybody, hundreds upon hundreds, in the park for 2 hours against their will, keeping them tightly surrounded, packing us together. Then the mass arrest. No charges were given. No reason.  Innocent or guilty, it didn’t matter. There were over 650 arrests that day, 400 in the park. Very few arrests ended up with charges of civil disobedience or property destruction. Almost all were apparently for no cause. The following day the only property destruction reported by the police were two broken windows very early in the morning at a Citibank many blocks from the Pershing Square park.


I was loaded on the last of fifteen off-duty city buses  that were filled to the brim with anyone that happened to be in the park . We were driven to a parking lot at the DC Metropolitan Police Academy in Southwest DC wherein I  was kept handcuffed for 14 hours on the bus. It was 7 hours before we got any water, and then just 9 ounces. The police gave us no food. The only food we got in 12 hours was two sandwiches split between the entire bus of detainees. And that was the bus driver’s own lunch, who was not a police officer but a metro bus driver.


While held on the bus we asked repeatedly what the charges were against us. We were not given an answer. Our legal council from the National Lawyers Guild was not allowed to speak to us on the bus. They tried to shout some legal information to us from across a sidewalk while we were in the bus with the engine running. When that happened the police moved the bus a few dozen feet down the street so we could not hear our lawyer anymore.


At 1:00 am I was processed into a holding facility which was a gymnasium with a wood floor and some old beat up gym mats.


Two hundred of us were held all night in the gym, half hog-tied all of the time. Our right wrist was handcuffed to our left ankle so you had to remain hunched over or stay in a ball.


There weren’t enough mats so I ended up with half my body on a mat and half on the wood floor. I curled up on my side in a ball all night as I tried to use by boots as a pillow so as not to wrench my neck. No blanket. Some people unfortunate to be near the huge fan were freezing.


For those who wore contacts, there was no eye drop solution or anywhere to put their contacts. Eyes were burning. No aspirin for anyone who got a splitting headache. No soap and water available after a bowel movement in the dirty port-o-pottys.


We got a terrible meal at 9pm that consisted of two slices of white bread with a thin sliver of what I though was baloney, whatever it was I got a stomach ache for two days.


We were held in the gymnasium with no windows and no clocks, so as to confuse how much time was going by. We were constantly guarded by DC Metro Police, most in regular uniform.  On their arms they wear a patch that says “Washington DC, The American Experience.”


The bright overhead lights were on twenty-four hours and we were woken up every 15 to 30 minutes as they called out names all night long and we were suppose to listen and respond if they called our name. I developed severe sleep deprivation and was partially unable to think clearly. This treatment was in violation of the Geneva Convention.


(Left: Green Party DC candidate Adam Eidinger is stopped as he and others try to leave the park. Right: Author and Green Party activist Doug Malkan  looks at the police line which stretched down the street as he repeatedly demanded that  police let people leave the park. Left photo by Brian Long,; right photo by Gregory Burns,


One guard used profanity, telling a kid next to me to “fuck off” when he repeatedly asked to make a call.  Another smoked a cigarette on the crowded bus standing directly under an It is against the law to smoke sign. When we asked him why he was smoking on the bus when it was against the law, he replied “fuck the law.”


One guard metered out punishment to a kid of cinching the hand cuffs so tight his hands turned white for asking him more than once if he could make a call. 


I was told by one of the DC Police officers that "Miranda Rights are a privilege, not a right."


Most of us had our prison tattoos -- the Legal Aid number for the National Lawyers Guild that we had hastily written on our arms with a permanent marker that we passed around just minutes before our arrest at the park. But as time dragged on and the abuse got worse, the guards started to hover over the phones and watch what number you dialed. Then sometime in the night they forbid anyone to call the legal aid number anymore.


At the end I was charged with one of the lowest misdemeanors there is, “failure to obey,” equivalent to a traffic citation and released with a $50 fine. However, I never did disobey the police, neither did anybody else. In fact we did obey everything they told us to do. While incarcerated, the police created a criminal file on me and the other 400 of us in the park, complete with mug shot, finger prints and matching FBI files.


I was incarcerated for 24 hours, tied up the entire time. When I was finally released at 9:32 am the next day I took one last look at the gymnasium, it was still full with 200 people who had no idea if or when they would ever get out.




I got a ride from some random supporters waiting outside the jail to a rally happening in front of the Washington Monument. The rally was broadcast to millions around the world on C-SPAN and CNN. Michelle Shocked sang and Ralph Nader and other national activists spoke live about their opposition to the war in the Middle East, corporate globalization, the World Bank, the WTO and NAFTA.


We then marched through the streets of DC, 5,000 strong. I recognized many at the rally and the march who had been in jail with me. You could still read the legal aid number written on arms in black permanent marker. I also recognized some of the police we had spent the night getting to know. They looked mean as ever, some of them had worked late into the night guarding us in jail and now they were still guarding us out in the street. The police lined the streets of the march, 3,000 of them in riot gear with ready batons just like the day before, trying to intimidate us. It did not work. Those who had been locked up all night looked scared and scarred, but also they looked more resolved and desperate then ever to stand up and try to change things. You could see an increase in fear and determination on everyone's face.


I am far from a radical. I’m just a accountant and political activist from Colorado who still thinks that  getting people to vote is important, mostly for the Green Party. I had never been arrested for anything before this and never had a criminal record before, at least that I know of. I had never had a mug shot taken and never been finger printed before. Part of our lawsuit demands that we be informed of what the police did with information on us and that our records be totally cleaned.


There are now four class action lawsuits against the city of DC, the DC police department, the FBI and the National Park Service for violations of our constitutional right to assemble, to free speech and wrongful arrest - 400 times. In one of the cases we are being  represented by the ACLU. Another case is by an activist DC law firm. Two others are private cases. The cases are currently in court and on Sept. 13, 2003 the Washington Post reported that the police had admitted that people arrested in the park had not committed crimes and that people  in the park did not disobey police orders as they had claimed. 


 If we win our class action suit it  would  be a landmark case defending Americans' right to express an opinion in opposition to their government. It might put a stop to the pre-emptive arrest of  protesters. If this type of police action is allowed to be sanctioned and used again, people throughout the United States  have lost their right to assemble or to demonstrate in protest of the government.


see Washington Post story


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