Convention Detention Plans Share Controversial Legacy

    From aluminum cages to makeshift jails, cities hosting political conventions have created temporary detention areas to hold activists and other arrestees. The Denver Police Department isn’t ready to speculate where protesters will be detained if arrested during the Democratic National Convention this August, but previous convention detention schemes are riddled with accusations of civil rights violations.The 2004 political conventions were the first major partisan events to take place after the Sept. 11th attacks, and activists and civil rights attorneys have claimed that harsher tactics were used by law enforcement authorities to control dissent at both Republican and Democratic retreats.

    New York

    At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, more than 1,000 people — a reported record for a convention — were detained at Pier 57, a long, concrete pier off the Hudson River that was converted into a detention center for arrestees. The New York Police Department formed an agreement with the Hudson River Park Trust to use the pier as a massive makeshift jail. According to documents obtained by the New York American Civil Liberties Union, police were allowed to use the 140,000-square-foot facility and its parking lot to process and hold arrestees. Razor-wire security fencing around the pier’s parameter was also installed before the convention.

    Along with the mass arrests came accusations of civil rights violations from within the detention area, where detainees claimed that long exposure to motor oil and other contaminants from the pier left many arrestees sick.

    One arrestee named Veepa Majamutar, who claims she was not protesting the convention, gave one of many descriptions of Pier 57 to Democracy Now!, a national radio program:

    It’s surrounded by fence and we are like – it’s almost like rats in a hole. I mean, there’s nothing, there is just a floor which is very dirty, which is a lot of oil and all dust in it, I mean, all our clothes are dirty our hands are dirty. We had to eat an apple with our extremely dirty hands because we have no tissue paper, nothing to clean our hands with. We are just basically packed. Nobody can sit down. They don’t even give us a plastic bag to sit on. They don’t even give anything to lie down on. We just have to lie on the hard floor, basically. And there is not enough space for everybody to lie down because we have to sit so close together. It’s cramped. And we were freezing before, and people were actually coughing, they were getting cold and nobody paid any attention, nobody gave them even a blanket, nobody gave them even a plastic bag to cover themselves with.

    In October 2004, the New York ACLU filed two lawsuits against New York City challenging the detention standards of the arrestees. The organization later found medical reports from NYPD personnel who were stationed at the pier, claiming illnesses due to asbestos and other hazardous substances from inside the detention area. Additional documents obtained from the police department also revealed that Pier 57 detainees waited longer for arraignments than other individuals arrested for unrelated illegal behavior on the same day. There has not been a final ruling on the cases.


    In the same year that activists in New York were being transported to Pier 57, protesters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston were never allowed near the event. Instead, police implemented a series of designated “free speech zones” made out of boxed-in fences to keep protesters away from the city’s Fleet Center where the convention was held.

    The tactics received criticism from the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU of Massachusetts because of the protesters’ inability to be seen and the insufficient space in the designated zones. Local activists challenged the plan, but a U.S. District Court judge ruled that protest areas did not need to be moved closer to the Fleet Center.

    Similar problems plagued the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, where the city’s security plan called for a designated place for activists blocks away from the convention location. Protesters subsequently sued and were later allowed to demonstrate near the convention entrance.


    According to a spokesman for the Denver Police Department, plans have not yet been finalized as to where convention protesters will be detained in the event of arrests, or whether activists will be forced to demonstrate in designated zones.

    In May 2005, Denver voters approved a bond measure to build a new jail after the city’s detention areas were reported to be overcrowded. The new facility is not expected to be completed until after the convention, leading to the likely conclusion that Denver will need to find additional detention space if members of law enforcement choose to arrest demonstrators.

    Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at