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Free speech and assembly on the line
Will Americans be able to exercise their fundamental right to protest at the major-party conventions in Boston and New York this summer?

SEVEN WEEKS AGO, in a packed Philadelphia courtroom, protesters making plans for this year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions won a major battle. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when Judge William Mazzola found Providence activist Camilo Viveiros and two co-defendants not guilty of charges that they assaulted Philadelphia police chief John Timoney during the August 2000 Republican National Convention. The "Timoney Three" were the last of 420 arrested demonstrators, including 43 people charged with felonies, to go on trial. They were also the last to prove the "R2K" prosecutions a spectacular failure: not a single defendant was sentenced to jail time, and most had their cases dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

But those who think this means activists won the war against police intimidation at the upcoming conventions in Boston and New York should think again. While the lack of convictions may have embarrassed a few Philadelphia prosecutors and police, says R2K Legal Collective spokesperson Kris Hermes, ultimately they were "able to chill dissent, to silence dissent." Not only were Timoney’s repressive tactics widely seen as a response to the successful 1999 World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle; after Philadelphia they were employed elsewhere, most notably in November 2003 at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami, where Timoney is now police chief. And now, as thousands of New Englanders prepare to demonstrate at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this summer, many worry that the same tactics will be used again.

Already, anti-war activists in New York City, where Republicans will renominate President George W. Bush during the last days of August, have been told they cannot hold a rally in Central Park, and their legal requests for marches have gone unanswered so far. They fear a replay of the massive February 2003 demonstration opposing the US invasion of Iraq, which, they say, was disrupted by police. In Boston, where Democrats will nominate US Senator John Kerry for president during the last week of July, no protest permits have been issued, and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts object to a new permitting process, which they say is overly bureaucratic. They also complain that a small "protest zone" is too far away from the FleetCenter to be effective.

Four years ago, similar problems in Philadelphia and Los Angeles led the ACLU to sue police in both cities before the national political conventions began, resulting in the removal of at least some of the obstacles placed in protesters’ way. City officials in New York and Boston say, however, that they will accommodate nonviolent demonstrators. "We’re not looking to discourage peaceful protest in any way," says Paul Brown, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information. "We’re looking to accommodate it." In Boston, "Mayor [Thomas] Menino has said repeatedly, ‘What would a convention be without protests?’" says mayoral spokesman Seth Gitell. "That’s democracy at work."

The extent to which local officials are calling the shots remains uncertain, however. The US Secret Service, which imposes a "security zone" to protect major political figures like Bush, Kerry, and Vice-President Richard Cheney, is a shadow presence behind local police departments. The Secret Service, observes Christopher Dunn, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was "the common denominator" in alleged civil-rights violations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. In a pending lawsuit the ACLU also accuses the agency of discriminating against Presidents Bush’s critics, confining them to protest areas where the president and media will not see them.

Protesters and police frequently clash at political conventions. Four years ago, at the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles police attacked what the ACLU of Southern California characterizes as an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration. During the melee, the ACLU contends, police intentionally fired rubber bullets at members of the press and hit them with batons. Meanwhile, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, police threw scores of people in jail before they even had a chance to start protesting.

And then, of course, there was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police denied protesters a permit to hold a march against the Vietnam War. They then attacked marchers, in what a presidential commission subsequently characterized as "a police riot." According to John McWilliams’s The 1960s Cultural Revolution (Greenwood Press, 2000), some police officers took off their badges and started chanting, "Kill, kill, kill" before wading into protesters with their clubs. McWilliams writes that almost 700 people were arrested and more than a thousand injured.

Thirty-six years later, as activists organize to demonstrate in Boston and New York, many critics charge that the United States has criminalized protest.

THE POST-SEATTLE anti-demonstrator strategy, says Hermes, involves four steps.

First, prior to demonstrations, protesters are demonized by public officials, who often emphasize the role of anarchist groups and charge that outsiders are coming to town to engage in violence and destroy property. Two months before the 2000 Republican National Convention, for example, Philadelphia mayor John Street was quoted in local newspapers as saying, "I have strong feelings about First Amendment stuff, but we have got some idiots coming here. Some will come and say whatever obnoxious things they want to say and go home. Some will come here to disrupt, to make a spectacle out of what’s going on. They are going to get a very ugly response." Philadelphia protest leaders also viewed the leaking of a Philadelphia Department of Human Services plan to take custody of 1000 children — if their parents were arrested during a welfare-rights protest at the convention — as an attempt to lower turnout.

In addition to discouraging public participation in the demonstrations, Hermes says, pronouncements about violence and arrests help police justify placing severe limits on demonstrations. In 2000, the ACLU was forced to go to federal court in both Los Angeles and Philadelphia to lift protest restrictions. In Los Angeles, the ACLU overturned a 186-acre "no-protest zone" around the convention hall, and a new, more lengthy permitting process. In Philadelphia, a no-protest zone was unnecessary because the First Union Center (now the Wachovia Center), where Republicans met, is privately owned and surrounded by huge parking lots, so protesters were unable to get anywhere near delegates. Nevertheless, two protest groups were unable to receive permits to march elsewhere until the ACLU sued in federal court.

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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