Peace activists accused San Francisco police of being overzealous in the way they treated protesters March 19 at daylong demonstrations marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, although anti-war groups said the department acted proficiently, given the daunting task of policing a group of nearly 9,000 demonstrators.
Some demonstrators who said the police treated them unlawfully are considering lawsuits.
In response, the National Lawyers Guild is helping some of the 142 people who were arrested for misdemeanor crimes, such as civil disobedience and disturbing the peace. At least five protesters were charged with felonies, including resisting arrest and carrying a concealed weapon.
Guild attorneys were in Oakland on Monday and will be in San Francisco on Sunday to work with some of those arrested.
"We coordinated our nighttime march with the Police Department, they were very professional," said Bill Hackwell, organizer for the ANSWER coalition. "But the crowd naturally grew as people got off work, and that's when the police began acting very aggressively."
Hackwell said police were bumping into the crowd with motorbikes, pushing protesters into traffic lanes on Valencia and Mission streets. "They wanted to flex their muscle and send a big strong message that they were in charge," he said.
Police officials, however, justified the department's response, saying large demonstrations are unpredictable. They said they learn as they go, and policing immense crowds presents a challenge.
"When the crowd itself is bigger than the Police Department, there's a huge potential for violence," said Bob Stresak, a spokesman for the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, a training group for law enforcement.
"People spread over a large geographic area could create a bottleneck if, for example, things turned bad, and an ambulance needed to get through the crowd."
Last week, demonstrators chained themselves to buildings and formed massive die-ins, where groups of people laid down in the middle of Market Street.
Police used saws to cut the chains, and arrested the people that were bound to buildings, including the Federal Reserve Bank in the Financial district.
"These are tense moments, when the police are controlling a conflict situation; they can't just sit by and watch," said Michael Reagan, spokesman for Direct Action to Stop the War, which coordinated the morning demonstration.
The goal of some anti-war groups is to create a scene, to draw attention to themselves and to get arrested.
They hope to send a message that they will do anything they can to end the war, even at their own expense.
"They were willing to risk arrest; that's the point," Reagan said. "I think the police may have acted more aggressively than what was needed, but in the end they were very professional and safe in what they were doing."
Some demonstrators said the police were overly aggressive.
"I saw the police pushing everyone on the street to the sidewalk," said San Francisco resident Moira Birss, 25. "The vibe was very aggressive as the police dispersed on the crowd."
She said she saw a police officer grab her friend and push him with his hands behind his back.
The friend is awaiting misdemeanor trial April 4 on charges of disturbing the peace. He is fighting the charge and has a lawyer.
"It's very difficult to control large groups," said Sgt. Steve Mannina, a San Francisco police spokesman. "When paint-filled objects are thrown about the crowd, like they were on (March 19), we need to act on the side of safety. Then it's appropriate to put on our riot gear."
He said in the past, objects such as bolts and broken bottles were also thrown at officers.
"We're here to protect people's lives and property," Mannina said. "And I feel we were successful in facilitating First Amendment rights at the same time."
Anti-war protesters weigh suit against police: Activists disagree over whether authorities used excessive force
By Angela Hart