NEW YORK, Sept. 2 -- A criminal court judge ordered the release of hundreds of Bush protesters Thursday, ruling that police held them illegally without charges for more than 40 hours. As the protesters began trickling out of jail, they spoke of being held without access to lawyers, initially in a holding cell that had oil and grease spread across the floor.
Several dozen of those detained said that they had not taken part in protests. Police apparently swept up the CEO of a puppet theater as he and a friend walked out of the subway to celebrate his birthday. Two middle-age women who had been shopping at the Gap were handcuffed, and a young woman was arrested as she returned from her job at a New York publishing house.
Hours before President Bush made his speech to the Republican National Convention, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge John Cataldo held city officials in contempt of court for failing to release more than 500 detained demonstrators by 5 p.m. The judge said that the detentions violated state law, and he threatened to impose a fine of $1,000 per day for each person kept in custody longer than 24 hours without being arraigned.
As of Thursday evening, about 168 people still in detention had been held for more than 24 hours.
Outside the hulking criminal court building in Lower Manhattan, the mood was a mix of festive and angry as the released protesters walked down the jailhouse stairs to cheers from families and friends. Dirty and tired, and with matted hair, many fell into the arms of those who waited. But others -- who had been handcuffed and said they had not been given medicines for asthma and epilepsy -- sat on blankets in a park across the street and sought attention from medics who had been organized by a collective of activist groups.
"I was held for 44 hours without being able to call my family or talk to a lawyer," said Griffin Epstein, 20, one of 14 college students who was arrested while standing with antiwar picket signs at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue. "We were taken to a big metal cage, and the ground was covered with a black, cakey motor oil. We were given one apple each after nine hours."
Epstein was released after being charged with an administrative violation, a lesser offense than a misdemeanor.
Throughout this week, Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne had insisted that just a few dozen protesters had spent more than six hours behind bars without being charged or released. On Thursday, Browne acknowledged for the first time that large numbers of demonstrators endured long detentions. But he blamed them for overwhelming the police department.
"It's a new entitled, pampered class of demonstrators who want to engage in civil disobedience but don't want to be inconvenienced by arrest processing," Browne said. "There's a lot of reasons for a holdup. If you were in a group this morning, you are going to go through the process very quickly; if you were arrested with 200 people, it's going to take longer."
In all, police arrested more than 1,700 people, or nearly three times as many as were arrested in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which had far more violence. Police have used large orange nets and riot and motorbike squads to sweep up dozens of alleged protesters.
Michael Sladek, who owns a film production company in Brooklyn, was arrested in Midtown two evenings ago as he photographed the police and demonstrators. He spent 48 hours in custody without access to a phone before he was charged with obstructing a pedestrian -- an administrative violation -- and released.
"For us, it was very clear this was a detention to keep people off the street," Sladek said outside the jail. "And the saddest thing was that so many people had nothing to with protesting the convention."
Those coming out of the jail in southern Manhattan said that police never advised them of their right to talk to an attorney. And several people, independent of one another, said police told them that if they signed a document admitting guilt and waiving the right to sue for false arrest, they would be released early.
Civil liberties lawyers noted that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) courted the Republican National Convention knowing that massive demonstrations were likely, and that city officials had more than a year to prepare. "It's hard to imagine it's just incompetence, as our city officials do a pretty good job," said Donna Lieberman, chief of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It seems that we have gotten a kinder, gentler form of preventative detention."
Detainees said that after being arrested, they were crowded into makeshift holding cells at a bus cleaning station on the Hudson River piers, where many spent the night awaiting transfer to jail. In some cells, they said, teenage girls and women were kept overnight amid dozens of men. Many protesters spoke of seeing signs at the piers warning of hazardous chemicals.
Once in the city jail, detainees said, they were shifted among as many as 10 cells in 48 hours without explanation, unable to sleep.
Medics said the New York City Department of Health had asked them to gather samples of the detainees' clothing to test for exposure to toxic chemicals from the holding cell. Medics found numerous cases of rashes and skin infections, apparently as a result of cuts from overly tight handcuffs that were exposed to chemicals.
Then there were the many relatives who flooded police stations and courts with phone calls, trying to find their loved ones.
Tobi Starin, a teacher in Rockville, heard from a friend that her daughter, Liz, had been arrested while coming home from her job at a publishing house.
"It's very disturbing. I kept thinking: 'Oh, she'll get out any hour now,' " said Starin, who called The Washington Post on Thursday. "But it's 44 hours now, and she's still in there."
Special correspondent Michelle Garcia contributed to this report.