News & Politics

8 Arrested in Colorful Action

Protesters with School of the Americas Watch made a splash yesterday that ended with eight arrests, while Philadelphia police refused to arrest poor and homeless activists in an unlicensed march.
PHILADELPHIA, July 31, 2000 -- The most intense direct action protests against the Republican National Convention are expected to come Tuesday. But activists with School of the Americas Watch and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union got things going yesterday.

During morning rush hour, eight activists from School of the Americas Watch, the group that seeks to close the Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., blocked a busy downtown intersection. A member of the group, dressed as Uncle Sam, ordered the "execution" of four people dressed as Latin American peasants. And the "victims" were then dragged off to unmarked graves. Eventually, the police dragged the whole crew off for booking. But Father Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who has lead protests against the SOA's training of soldiers associated with paramilitary death squads in Colombia and El Salvador said the message was delivered. "Each of (the protesters was) willing to go to jail to expose to the Republicans what they see as an injustice and call attention to a combat school for thugs from Latin America that is financed by the U.S. taxpayer to the tune of $20 million a year," Bourgeois told reporters.

Later yesterday morning, several thousand members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and their supporters were prepared to be arrested in order to force poverty issues onto the agenda of the Republican National Convention. The Philadelphia Police would not oblige.

"We were ready to be arrested. We were willing to put our bodies on the line in order to make sure that our voices were heard," said KWRU's Cheri Honkala. "But I don't think the Republicans wanted to start their convention by arresting low-income and homeless people in the City of Brotherly Love."

The City of Philadelphia had denied KWRU, an activist group with a long history of militant protests, permission to march from City Hall to the First Union Center, where Republican delegates were opening their convention. That set up what Honkala and other thought might be a tense confrontation between police and protesters. But when marchers showed up outside city hall late yesterday morning, the police were not in an arresting mood. Instead, the authorities essentially facilitated an "illegal" march -- allowing more than 2,000 activists to make an almost 4-mile trek down Philadelphia's Broad Street.

That didn't mean KWRU's March for Economic Human Rights lacked drama, however.

Chanting "Time to tax Bill Gates" and other slogans, the marchers danced, sang, displayed puppets and generally carried on. It was all intended to "show the face of poor people to the delegates of the Republican convention," according to the Rev. Marcus Pomeroy, a local Baptist preacher who began the day's actions at the "Bushville" encampment where homeless activists are sleeping in tents.

As the marchers traversed their city on a hot, humid day, however, most of the Republican delegates passed by the protest in air conditioned buses. Inside the First Union Center -- on a night when Republicans sought to display their commitment to diversity by welcoming African-American and Hispanic speakers to their podium -- they did not hear from Philadelphia's poor.

It was a none-too-subtle confirmation of the slogan on the t-shirts worn by KWRU marchers, which complained that the poor are "Disappeared in America."

The two actions may give a preview of things to come as protests heat up in Philadelphia and activists intent on letting politicians know of their discontent on a wide range of issues hit the streets.

Listen each day to live RadioNation coverage from the GOP convention in Philadelphia.