NEW YORK – Long-haired and bearded, Sebastian Licht said he set out Tuesday to celebrate his 22nd birthday, only to be mocked by a police officer as "Jesus" and swept up in one of the largest mass arrests in the nation's history.
He emerged two days later from court — smelly, bleeding and determined to become the activist he says police feared he was.
One of more than 1,700 people arrested this week at demonstrations aimed at the Republican National Convention (search), Licht gained his freedom on Thursday morning. A judge, frustrated at the city's pace in moving protesters through the criminal justice system, ordered the immediate release of nearly 500 of them.
Most of those arrested were anti-GOP protesters, but some insist they got snared in the chaos. Licht puts himself in the latter category.
Wearing a Polo Sport Ralph Lauren shirt and khaki shorts, Licht described his 6 p.m. arrest Tuesday in Herald Square, where he said he approached a subway station that he learned was closed only to be caught in a police sweep of the area.
"Because I have long hair and a beard, they took me," he said.
At one point after his arrest, he said, a police officer saw him laughing. "What's so funny, Jesus?" he recalled the officer asking.
He said the officer then tightened the handcuffs and said, "It's not so funny now, is it, Jesus?" Blood seeped from a small cut on his wrist as he recalled the incident.
Now free, he said he planned to look for a protest rally, inspired by his experience and the many political discussions he heard while waiting with protesters to appear in court and be released. He called it the "birth of my activism."
Among more seasoned activists emerging from court was Mikel Stone, 29, of Denver, who described his time at a detention center on Pier 57 as a nightmare, part of the same two-day odyssey experienced by Licht. "My throat still hurts and my joints are achy," he said.
He said a thick black oily residue on the floor of Pier 57 stained his pants during the two days he was locked up after he was caught in a police net arrest at Herald Square on Tuesday.
A political science student and anti-war activist, Stone said he believed harsh detention conditions were part of an effort by the city to be "cruel and demoralizing."
Still, he said he planned to protest Thursday night.
Tim Kulik, 22, a photography student at the Rochester Institute of Technology who was transporting film for photographers at The Associated Press when he was arrested late Tuesday on his bicycle, was freed Thursday after 35 hours.
He said he was scraped on his face and bruised on his leg and neck when a police officer tackled him before other officers completed the arrest. The officer who tackled him later tightened his handcuffs when he asked that they be loosened, he said.
"As far as police, they're good, pretty objective and professional, but then I encountered plenty of disrespectful police who abuse their positions," he said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said officers acted with restraint. In a statement Thursday, he said there had been "exaggerated claims and outright falsehoods" about the conditions at the post-arrest screening site at Pier 57.
He said most detainees are held there for 90 minutes, none was there longer than eight hours and all had immediate access to toilet facilities and drinking water.
Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who led Thursday's court fight to get the detainees freed, said the long detentions were illegal, especially since the time in overcrowded, dirty conditions was disproportionate to the alleged misdemeanor crimes, such as disorderly conduct.
"People engaged in real crimes are getting out quicker than the protesters," he said. "It's an Alice in Wonderland approach."