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Mass Arrests Likely at Political Conventions: 6 Historical Precedents

Clinton's law designates political conventions National Special Security Events, a category of state security that virtually dooms the exercise of First Amendment Rights.

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The War Department established a quarantine policy and local authorities implemented it; it was a nationwide witch-hunt. The women seized were presumed guilty, and if found infected, were often given indeterminate sentences. Half the women quarantined were reported infected, and of those incarcerated, the average period of imprisonment was 10 weeks. Some were confined for a year or more.

4. Depression-Era Bonus Army Attack. On July 28, 1932, the Washington, D.C., police, followed by a contingent of the U.S. Army headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, attacked a peaceful encampment of World War I veterans, the Bonus Army, in a Hooverville-type shantytown on the Anacostia River flats across from the Capitol.

The Washington police initially led the assault, but facing stiff resistance, they opened fire on the demonstrators, killing two veterans. Informed of the shooting, President Hoover ordered the Army to take charge of the removal of the vets. MacArthur, assisted by his young aide, Dwight Eisenhower, led a force of 600 armed soldiers, a machine gun unit, a horse-mounted cavalry and a half-dozen Renault tanks. Some 10,000 protesters were routed and casualties overwhelmed local hospitals. While the military did not fire its weapons, it used bayonetted rifles and gas grenades to disperse the vets and their supporters, leaving two dead, 135 arrested and hundreds injured.

Eisenhower later wrote, "The whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”

5. 1960s Political Mobilizations. The ‘60s was a tumultuous period of social unrest. It was framed by a massive military intervention in Vietnam to halt the spread of Chinese communism. An estimated 50,000 U.S. soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese people died; today the U.S. is indebted to China. And it was witness to a momentous civil rights movement characterized by numerous marches, demonstrations and riots. And then there was the counterculture of sex, drugs and rock & roll, and the women’s and gay-liberation movements. The decade changed America.

A series of urban rebellions, most often involving black Americans, rocked the nation.  About a dozen major uprisings took place during the ‘60s and mass arrest was a common feature. Three of the most significant riots are telling: (i) the five-day Watts rebellion of 1965 saw 34 people killed and 3,438 arrests; (ii) the six-day Newark riot of 1967 saw 23 people killed and close to 1,500 arrested; and (iii) the five-day Detroit riot of 1967 saw 43 killed and over 7,000 people arrested.

Campaigns against the Vietnam War also led to episodes in political protest and mass arrest. The “Movement,” as it was affectionately known, was non-violent and came together in mass mobilizations. In 1967, 400,000 marched to New York’s Central Park to protest the war; by 1969, 200,000 marched in the nation’s capital against the war.  However, sometimes political mobilization got out of the control of the more responsible segments of the left. Two of these incidents were the 1967 “levitating” of the Pentagon and opposition at the 1968 Democratic convention.

On October 21, 1967, an estimated 100,000 people massed on the Mall in Washington to "Confront the War Makers." At some point, a small contingent of several hundred people broke off and marched to the Justice Department where 1,000 men turned in their draft cards.

A second contingent, made up 50,000 people, broke off and headed toward the Pentagon. Inspired by Yippee politics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, these political jesters sought to “levitate” the Pentagon. They were greeted by 2,500 federal troops and 200 U.S. marshals. The troops formed a human barricade protecting the Pentagon steps. All told, 681 people were arrested and 100 were treated for injuries.

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