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Free speech and assembly on the line (continued)

Perhaps the most ambitious political action for the Democratic Convention is being planned by the Boston Social Forum. Organized by a variety of groups, including the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, Public Citizen, and several unions and peace groups, the event is modeled on the World Social Forum, an annual international gathering of activists. The group has rented the University of Massachusetts Boston campus for the weekend before the convention, says Paul Shannon, a program staffer for the AFSC in New England, and hopes that 3000 to 5000 people will attend workshops on corporate globalization, American foreign policy, health care, and other issues. Speakers, he says, will include black militant Angela Davis and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

Many of the same groups also plan "alternative parties," for Sunday, July 25, the night before the convention begins. At least three outdoor events, or "festivals with an edge," are planned for public parks, reports Joseph Gerson, director of programs for the AFSC in New England. The parties’ theme, says Gerson, will be cutting military spending by $100 billion to fund education, health care, housing, and other social programs. "What is real security?" he asks. "Real security means you have medical care. Real security means you’re not going to be scared that you can’t feed your children."

The AFSC will also bring its "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit to Providence before the convention, and then to Boston for the convention itself. Designed to promote understanding of war’s meaning, the exhibit features 770 pairs of boots, representing America’s war dead in Iraq, and a wall listing the Iraqi war dead. Among other political activities, the Bl(A)ck Tea Society, a Boston-area group that describes itself as "an ad hoc coalition of anti-authoritarians," is planning an outdoor concert, bazaar, and unspecified "massive decentralized actions," according to its Web site (www.blackteasociety.org).

Plans for large demonstrations in Boston are not yet well established. A New York–based anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UPJ), is planning a major event, though details have not yet been hammered out. In addition, the Washington, DC–headquartered leftist group Act Now To Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER) is advertising a march for Sunday, July 25, starting on Boston Common, although it has yet to receive a permit. "The US could not have invaded Iraq without the support of the Democratic Party," explains Boston ANSWER organizer Peter Cook. "As such, the Democratic Party should be held as responsible as the Republican Party for the invasion and occupation."

Bridging the month between the two conventions, the Next Step Collective is organizing a 276-mile walk from Boston to New York, by way of Providence, Hartford, and New Haven, to promote a variety of causes, including direct democracy, just and fair labor, sustainable food sources, and an end to corporate power, according to the group’s Web site (www.dnc2rnc.org). The Olympia, Washington, organization says the march will draw attention to "the two-headed Corporate Party," and encourage people along the route to work for change in their communities.

IN NEW YORK, plans for demonstrations are bigger and fears of police disruption are greater than they are in Boston.

The New York ACLU and protest groups worry most about a repeat of events at the February 15, 2003, anti-war demonstration. As part of a worldwide day of protest against the impending US invasion of Iraq, anti-war groups had proposed a massive march past the United Nations, followed by a rally. The police, citing security concerns, refused to issue a march permit. The ACLU then sued, but it lost in both federal district and appellate court. Defeated, protest groups negotiated arrangements to hold a stationary rally on First Avenue.

What followed, according to an ACLU report, Arresting Protest, was a civil-liberties mess. Police blocked side-street access to the rally site, so thousands of people could not get to the demonstration. As crowds grew, people pressed against police barriers and spilled into the streets. Applying what many witnesses called excessive force, police used horses and pepper spray to get crowds out of the street. More than 350 people were arrested, the report states, most for minor offenses. "Substantial numbers" of arrestees were driven around the city for several hours, the report continues, in dark unheated vans with no food, water, or bathroom facilities. Some were interrogated later about their political and religious activities. Those who made it to the rally area found themselves penned inside metal barricades, with few exit routes.

The NYPD’s Brown agrees that the February 2003 anti-war demonstration was a mess, but he blames the march’s organizers. The event was poorly planned, he says, and organizers did not provide the promised number of marshals to direct protesters. Frustrated that they could not get to the demonstration site, people moved barriers and problems started. "We were left to clean up their organizational mess," Brown says.

More recently, a March 20 anti-war demonstration, commemorating the anniversary of the Iraq invasion, went much more smoothly, according to both Brown and the NY ACLU’s Christopher Dunn. To encourage orderly access to the demonstration, New York police posted directions on the department’s Web site, Brown says. In addition, police allowed a march this time and, in response to suggestions from protest organizers, left more openings in barriers, so people could easily arrive and leave. "The police department handled it well, and I think the police department thinks the [protest] groups handled it well, and we’re all hoping that will be a model for the convention," says Dunn, "but we have a long way to go."

Three lawsuits filed after the February 2003 anti-war protest, which challenge the use of pens and horses, and searches of protesters, will go to trial in June. "These lawsuits," says Dunn, "are aiming at problems that are likely to arise at the convention."

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Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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