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It's a rite of spring: Every St. Patrick's Day for the past decade, lesbian and gay activists protesting their exclusion from the parade get hauled off by the cops. This year, though, the consequences were a little higher. Instead of getting released within a few hours with a quick slap on the wrist, some 70 people organized by the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization spent the night locked up overnight in the infamous “Tombs” below the city's criminal court building.

As in years before, protesters started marching on the sidewalk in front of the New York Public Library sometime around 10 a.m., an hour before the actual parade was supposed to start. Soon, they found themselves getting fingerprinted and photographed and thrown behind bars.

Activists are concerned that the treatment may augur a new crack-down on civil disobedience protests.

Amaeya Gelman, who has protested the St. Pat's event for nine years, was stunned at the severity of the treatment meted out to her and her fellow protesters this year. “The longest they held people before was for about 10 hours, enough time for the parade to be over,” she said. “They always let us go after that.”

Last year, Jimmy van Bramer was part of a group of peaceful protesters in the Bronx when he was picked up by police. He got out of jail after two hours with a desk appearance ticket, which usually requires the offender to later appear at a local precinct or courthouse to pay a fine. After that, charges are usually dropped.

This year at the parade, van Bramer wound up spending 24 hours in the slammer. “The level of harassment against civil disobedience has definitely escalated,” he said.

Esther Kaplan, who has marched against City Hall many times, says these overnight detentions are “part of a Giuliani era strategy that goes back a few years.” She found herself locked up overnight in 1995 when a coalition of activist groups blockaded two bridges and two tunnels to protest homelessness and police brutality, among other issues. Some protesters spent up to two days in jail.

Police said the orders to arrest the St. Patrick's protesters and detain them overnight came from Howard Safir.

“The reason this was done was because the determination was made by the chief of the department that people who got [only] a desk warrant could return to the parade,” police spokesman Lt. Stephen Biegel told City Limits.

As for Gelman, the night she spent in jail gave her a look inside a system where many arrested for petty crimes find themselves lost for days because they have no one watching out for them. In the Tombs, Gelman said, she met one 18-year-old girl who had spent two days locked up–“She'd been arrested for writing something on a rock.”

“We have a support system of friends and lawyers,” said Gelman. “Most of these people have nothing.”