NEW YORK – Flanked by an army of police, clusters of protesters took to the streets surrounding the Republican National Convention as President Bush prepared to accept his party’s nomination for a second term Thursday night.

Earlier Thursday, a state judge ruled that hundreds of arrested protesters, some held since Tuesday night, had to be released before Bush’s address.

It was unclear how many of the approximately 470 detained activists had been released Thursday night.

Overall, more than 1,800 protesters have been arrested, a new record for a political convention.

There were only 26 arrests Thursday. One New York police sergeant described the evening as “eerily quiet.”

Anti-war protesters gathered in Union Square Park for a hushed candlelight vigil.

Others massed just south of Madison Square Garden to the sound of rap music. Near Macy’s, just a few blocks from the hall, demonstrators toting placards mixed with shoppers and a crowd watching an MSNBC taping amid a heavy police barricade.

Shortly before Bush arrived at the convention hall about 9 p.m. EDT, police began blocking off all blocks surrounding the hall, telling anyone without credentials to “turn around and keep walking.” New Yorkers upset after a week of security measures muttered obscenities and yelled, “These are our streets, too” and “GOP go home.”

New York Supreme Court Judge John Cataldo handed the demonstrators a victory Thursday when he ruled that the city must process and release protesters who remained in city lockup. The National Lawyers Guild had asked a judge to intervene after hearing complaints of lengthy delays processing detainees and poor conditions at detention facilities.

New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardoza said the delays were due to a surge in arrests, especially on Tuesday when 1,187 demonstrators were rounded up.

Civil rights lawyers said the delays were unacceptable and Cataldo agreed. As they trickled out of a downtown detention facility late Thursday, protesters accused the police of trying to keep them from taking the streets again.

“I think it’s pre-emptive detention. It’s to keep us from getting out and doing more protesting,” said New Yorker Mark Milano, 48, who added that he planned to do just that.

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman exulted that the protesters would “be out in time to make their voices heard while the chief is still in town.”

New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne called allegations that authorities were purposely holding demonstrators until after the president left “a deliberate misinformation campaign.”

Browne also denied accusations of mistreatment at detention sites.

Some demonstrators said they were launching a hunger strike until all the protesters were released.

Joaquin Ryan, 35, said he’s been detained since his arrest Tuesday at about 7 p.m. EDT. “The way we’ve been treated, it scares the hell out of me. It really shows you what this country’s become,” the Brooklyn resident said in a telephone interview from the detention facility.

Also Thursday morning, 12 activists were arrested in Grand Central Station after a short rush-hour demonstration of about 100 people protesting Bush’s AIDS policies. They chanted “Fight AIDS, not Iraq.”

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