Peaceful Demos? Maybe No More

As media reported Monday July 31 that the main legally permitted Universal Health Care and Unity 2000 marches were peaceful in the first days before the convention, activists are ready to deliver a stronger message in actions which include marching in rallies denied city permits.

As in recent mass demonstrations in Seattle and Washington D.C., many of the activists coming to Philadelphia are preparing to commit acts of non-violent civil disobedience, risking arrest to make a political statement.

The Philadelphia Direct Action Group is coordinating a series of actions which will focus on disrupting the Republican Convention and business as usual in Philadelphia. Over the past two months, city police and federal agents have systematically monitored the activities of direct action organizers by staking out their offices, videotaping their comings and goings and even rifling through their trash. Despite what organizers characterize as law enforcement's effort to harass and intimidate them, thousands of activists from all over the country will be converging on Philadelphia in the days before the convention to receive non-violence training and plan their actions.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Matthew Ruben, an organizer with the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, who explains why so many activists, in the tradition of the civil rights movement, are willing to put their bodies on the line for social justice.

Matthew Ruben: Philadelphia Direct Action Group is a coalition of individuals and other groups within Philadelphia who are planning direct action during the convention as a way to protest the bankruptcy of the two-party system and the corporate takeover from the American society in general as well as the increasing encroachment of the criminal justice system on the lives of record numbers of Americans. By direct action, what we mean are the kind of things that people might be familiar with, from the spring protest against Washington D.C., street theater and puppets, a street carnival type of atmosphere, sitting down in streets and linking arms together to block certain areas. Demonstrating in front of certain areas, whether or not those particular protests have been permitted or not, and generally exercising our right to free speech and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, both of which have long and honorable traditions in America going back to the Boston Tea Party.

Between The Lines: Now what are some of the themes of civil disobedience that people will be engaging in on both the first and second of August?

Matthew Ruben: The overarching theme is "Human Need, Not Corporate Greed." The more general themes are engaging in direct action on those two days to protest the increasing control of money over the political system, and the conventions are a perfect illustration of that. They're highly orchestrated media events and average people have no access whatsoever to the decision-making processes that go on.

Another particular focus of a Monday, Aug. 1 demonstration is going to be the criminal justice system because of the increasing use of the death penalty and of the criminal justice system to try to solve social problems that it has no ability or no business solving; exploitation of prison labor, and disproportionate number of people of color who are locked up in prison -- especially those who come from areas where there's no real economic opportunity.

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, there's going to be an event that's just been organized of mothers, lovers, sisters and partners marching in solidarity with people -- mostly men who are in prison -- as well as marching and direct action for a number of women's issues.

Between The Lines: What is the message you are trying to send to the GOP delegates and to the American people here?

Matthew Ruben: The message we are trying to send is that the political system, as represented by the convention, amongst other things, is bankrupt, it's broken, it doesn't work, and it's necessary for people like us to put our bodies on the line to show that. So it's basically saying, we've tried legitimate avenues, we've tried voting, we've tried working in nonprofit organizations, we've tried advocacy and continue to do those things, but the time has come for us to build this movement and put our bodies on the line and say no, this has to stop, we need real change.

Between The Lines: Now recently the police have admitted that they have been spying on or surveilling your offices and your organizers. Why have they been engaged in such activity as far as you know? And what are some of your concerns around the police conduct in Philadelphia, especially in view of some of the violence perpetrated nationally covered in the police kicking and beating a suspect in a chase on a main boulevard in Philadelphia?

Matthew Ruben: There are two reasons, and they're related. The first is that they want this surveillance because they want to know who is doing what. I think some of them honestly believe that there's an assortment of "troublemakers and terrorists" that they've tried to conjure up an image of in the media -- I think some members of law enforcement and city government actually think that these "bad seeds" exist and that their job is to track who is organizing what.

I think the broader reason, though, for the surveillance and these kinds of activities is harassment and intimidation. This is illustrated by, for example, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which is a poor people's organization organizing for people's economic human rights for Monday, the 31st. They found a listening device in one of their vehicles. And this listening device is a cheap radio shack kind of thing, clearly not the kind of device that the police would actually use for surveillance. It was clearly done for intimidation purposes.

In terms of what our concerns are, the main concern is that initially, the authorities are trying to vilify protesters in general. You may know our mayor was quoted in the July issue of George magazine calling us idiots, and saying that it would be very ugly for protesters, and he and other law enforcement have since have backed off of trying to vilify all of us. They are taking what I think is a much more insidious and worrying tactic: "We respect the protesters, we are rolling out the red carpet for the delegates and the protesters, we have no problem with nonviolent protest, but you know, there are a few bad seeds who want violence for violence's sake, and we aim to be extra vigilant and guard against them making trouble. They're trying to inoculate themselves against criticism ahead of time. They want to have an alibi there already set up so that any terrible thing that they might do, they can justify by these few "bad seeds."

And that way, if the police are doing violence to what looks like a peaceful protest, they can say, "Yes, but there were a couple of people making trouble."

To contact the Direct Action Group call (215) 545-1505 or visit their Web site at: http://

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