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Free speech and assembly on the line (continued)

Defending the NYPD, Brown says, "There’s this notion the police department has a political agenda. We could care less." Speaking of the upcoming Republican National Convention, he adds, "We want this to be done safely. We’re not going to tolerate any violence." So far, Brown says, 13 anti-war, environmental, abortion-rights, and economic-justice groups have submitted 15 requests for permits for demonstrations. Groups have been urged to apply by June 15, and police will make their decisions after that. Then, if a group is dissatisfied, he says, it can appeal to federal court.

The largest demonstration at the Republican National Convention may be an anti-war protest organized by UPJ. Seeking to be "the curtain raiser" for the event, the group has applied for permits to march past Madison Square Garden on Sunday, August 29, and then hold a rally at the Great Lawn in Central Park. While police have not acted on the UPJ’s march-permit request, the Parks Department, citing probable damage to the grass, denied the group’s request to use the Great Lawn.

Noting that huge events, including a papal mass and concerts, have been held on the Great Lawn, UPJ media coordinator William Dobbs says the group may launch a public campaign to force the Parks Department to change its decision. Organizers hope the march will attract hundreds of thousands of people who opposed "the Bush war-making agenda," Dobbs says, adding, "This is the only public space that can allow people to exercise their constitutional right to assemble in Manhattan."

Critics’ right to assemble on the Great Lawn already has the support of the conservative New York Post. " ‘Keep off the grass,’" the paper commented in a recent editorial, "appears nowhere in the First Amendment."

Plans for even more New York marches are in the works. Still We Rise, a coalition of low-income nonprofit groups, for example, has asked for a permit to march from Union Square to Times Square on Monday, August 30 to protest cuts in low-income housing vouchers and scientifically proven HIV-prevention programs, and the assault on immigrant civil rights. "We are marching," explains Jennifer Flynn, co-director of the New York Housing Network, "so the faces and voices of low-income New Yorkers are heard by this administration, and for that matter, whoever is going to challenge Bush." Not all protests will be marches. On August 31, a group named RNC Not Welcome plans to conduct "creative resistance outside the protest pens," according to its Web site (www.rncnotwelcome.org).

WHETHER ACTIVITIES outside the convention halls remain orderly will depend largely on protesters and local police. A far less visible factor is the US Secret Service, the federal agency best known for providing a safe zone around the president.

Although the Secret Service’s exact role in policing protesters is unclear, the ACLU alleges in a pending lawsuit that the agency does not play fair — or, in the words of the Massachusetts ACLU’s Reinstein, "Where you stand essentially depends on where you stand." Supporters of President Bush, the suit charges, are consistently permitted to demonstrate closer to the president than opponents are, and all demonstrators are placed farther away than neutral bystanders. By separating Bush from his critics, the suit contends, the Secret Service violates the US Constitution because he cannot hear complaints, and the media and the public are led to believe there is less dissent.

To buttress its case, the ACLU cites 15 examples of such discrimination since March 2001, elaborating on only one. Members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a low-income advocacy group, sought to demonstrate when Bush visited the US Treasury building in Philadelphia, in July 2003, to celebrate the printing of child-tax-credit-refund checks. While ACORN was told to protest diagonally across the street from the Treasury building, the suit alleges, pro-Bush demonstrators were allowed to gather in front of the structure. When ACORN’s lawyer complained, the activists were ordered to move even farther away. ACORN immediately went to federal court, and won a temporary restraining order allowing the anti-poverty group to return to its previous location. They did, but then, according to the suit, police parked large vans in front of protesters, blocking their view of Bush and his view of them.

Although he refused to comment on the lawsuit, Secret Service spokesman Thomas Mazur said the agency has a longstanding policy of protecting the president without making a distinction "as to the purpose, message, or intent of any particular group or individual."

Numerous protesters at the 2000 political conventions filed lawsuits charging that police violated their civil rights, but the litigation brought mixed results. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, the ACLU collected more than $5 million, according to Carol Sobel, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s mass-defense committee. Protesters sued after accusing the police of firing rubber bullets at demonstrators and strip-searching those arrested.

In Philadelphia, demonstrators had high hopes that the pattern of pre-emptive arrests, high bail, and failed criminal charges would lead to considerable civil penalties against the city. But nothing came of it. "We were just ground down," says Danielle Redden, a representative of the R2K Legal Collective, which grew out of the mass arrest of demonstrators in Philadelphia. "We were absolutely and completely overwhelmed."

Money and organizing focused on defending against criminal cases, like those of the "Timoney Three," Redden explains, and as a result, little remained to support the civil suits. In addition, the City of Philadelphia’s aggressive defense, which included the deposition of people from around the country and the collection of computer hard drives through subpoenas, threatened people’s privacy. Prior to the convention, Philadelphia also purchased a $800,000 liability policy to protect itself against police misconduct, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. In the only settlement made public, 24 of the people pre-emptively arrested at the "Puppet Warehouse" settled for a total of $72,000, the News reported, all of which was donated to nonprofit groups.

How police handle peaceful protests in Boston and New York will determine whether this year’s conventions produce another round of police-misconduct charges and lawsuits. As Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU, put it in a statement last year, "Hundreds of thousands of people will be coming to New York next summer to engage in peaceful protest at the Republican National Convention. They are entitled to be treated with the same respect as those attending the convention itself."

Steven Stycos can be reached at stycos1@yahoo.com

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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