The Battle of Philadelphia

The "Battle of Philadelphia" got off to a much tamer start than the confrontations between demonstrators and police in Seattle last November and in Washington in April, but it was clear from the beginning that things would get nasty. And by August 1, midway through a week of planned protests, they did.

Police had been generally easy-going during earlier demonstrations over the weekend. But on July 31, when the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) led a non-permitted march of several thousand people down the length of South Broad Street to the First Union Center, the site of the GOP convention, the mood was clearly different. And by the next day's demonstrations, things had become downright confrontational. As opponents of the death penalty and supporters of Pennsylvania Death Row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal took to the streets that day trying to block the flow of traffic between the downtown hotel area and the South Philadelphia site of the convention, the police were out in force, and they weren't smiling.

Thousands of demonstrators, some coordinated through a loose network of observers equipped with cell phones, adopted hit-and-run tactics throughout the afternoon and evening, blocking intersections with their bodies. The heavily armed police, their numbers bolstered by reinforcements from the state police, highway patrol and national parks police force, responded with shows of force. They pushed demonstrators off the street, pressing forward behind teams of bike cops.

Relations between police and the minority community are strained in this racially segregated city, especially over the case of Abu-Jamal. On Death Row since 1982 when he was convicted of murdering Daniel Faulkner, a white police officer, this African-American journalist and former Black Panther awaits the decision of a federal judge on whether to hold a hearing to consider his habeas corpus appeal for a new trial. The Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police has been actively lobbying for years for Abu-Jamal's death, and for many Philadelphia officers the issue is personal. On the other side, a broad coalition of activists, black and white, has been working for years to keep Abu-Jamal's case in the international spotlight.

Given this background, the sense of confrontation at the August 1 demonstration was palpable, as when two bicycle cops angrily shoved their way through a crowd burning an American flag on the street and doused the flames with their bottles of spring water. For the most part, the police exercised restraint during arrests, as dozens of street-blocking demonstrators locked arms and went limp, waiting to be arrested and dragged to waiting sheriff's busses. Nearly 300 people were arrested.

But sometimes that restraint collapsed, as when two cops grabbed one young demonstrator who was arguing with a police officer on horseback during a sweep of one intersection. The demonstrator, who was standing on the curb where he was not obstructing traffic or violating an order to disperse, was yanked into the street and thrown face down onto the pavement, where five police officers jumped on him, wrenching his arms behind his back while his head was pressed into the macadam by one officer's knee. His face bloodied, he was led off to a wagon, while other protesters witnessing the incident shouted, "He didn't do anything!"

Meanwhile, the police suffered casualties of their own, with several needing medical treatment for injuries, and some 30 police cruisers exhibiting spray paint damage, smashed windshields and slashed tires.

Earlier on August 1, the police had gone to a warehouse rented by activists in West Philadelphia for use as a workshop to construct protest banners and puppets. After surrounding the building, the police demanded entry, claiming they had received reports of weapons inside. There was a temporary stand-off as the 70 or so activists inside refused to unlock the doors, and the nearly 100 police outside waited for the department to obtain a search warrant from a local judge.

Once armed with the search warrant, the police entered the building, arresting most of those inside. They claimed to find PVC piping and chains like those used by demonstrators to link their arms and make removal from intersections more difficult, but there were reportedly no signs of the alleged weapons used to justify the raid. Two city councilmen who raced to the scene denounced the police raid, which was similar to an effort before the start of the convention to use fire-code violation claims to shut down demonstration headquarters (a tactic also used to disrupt the April protests in Washington). Stefan Presser, legal director of the Philadelphia chapter of the ACLU, announced plans to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city for the police raid on the puppet-makers, which he said was a clear case of harassment of legitimate protesters.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's office has reportedly been asking for -- and getting -- extremely high bail set for leading activists, and the court system has been dragging its feet on processing and releasing the over 400 people arrested during the demonstrations. Kate Sorenson of Philadelphia Direct Action Group has had bail set at $1 million, as has John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, in what local activists are saying is a clear example of preventative detention. Meanwhile, Police Chief John Timoney is calling for a U.S. Justice Department investigation to prosecute activists under RICO anti-racketeering laws.

Bail for some other protesters, particularly those who are protesting their arrests by refusing to provide their names or addresses is reportedly being at between $15,000 and $450,000. "To my knowledge, bail has never been set so high for misdemeanor charges in the history of this country," say Ron McGuire, an attorney working with R2K Legal. "I consider this a civil rights catastrophe of the first order."

Philadelphia authorities went to great lengths to try to minimize public disorder and protest during the GOP convention. This was seen as a great opportunity for the city, just recovering from a brush with bankruptcy, to show itself off to other potential convention hosts. Until the last minute, municipal authorities were denying march and rally permits to any organization, and were trying to force all protesters to confine their activities to a small fenced-in park out of sight of the convention center.

Nearly all major protest groups rejected this plan to confine their activities to a small "protest pit," and several, including Unity 2000, the main protest coalition, had threatened to sue, with backing from the ACLU. Unity 2000 eventually was granted a permit for a march on July 30, the eve of the convention. The event went smoothly, with some 10,000 marchers, most in a festive mood, moving under a bright sun along the broad boulevard past the city's museum row. The entire way, the march was lined with riot-ready police, but the mood that day was mellow even among the cops, and there were few incidents.

The following day, however, was more tense, as several thousand activists assembled without a permit for the KWRU march. As their numbers swelled and would-be marchers spilled into the street around City Hall, police kept pressing them back toward the sidewalk and insisting there would be no march. Then, in a brilliant tactical move, the organizers suddenly pulled a rope across the street, blocking all traffic, and an advance contingent of small children and disabled people in wheelchairs swept into the suddenly cleared intersection. The police, faced with the option of attacking the kids and the handicapped or of falling back, and under the glare of television klieg lights, decided to retreat. Other marchers fell into line, and the nonpermitted march was underway.

At several points along the route, police tried to stop the marchers or turn them away from Broad Street, the city's main north-south artery. But having backed down the first time, they were unable to stop the marchers' forward momentum. The march continued for the length of the street to the convention center, where police finally succeeded in turning the line into the FDR Center-the designated protest area for the convention. "This was a big victory," crowed Jonathan Blazes, legal adviser to KWRU. "We didn't know what to expect. The city didn't want this march -- which is to call attention to the plight of the city's and the nation's poor and homeless -- to happen, and we were able to make it happen. The police saw the number of people involved, and they finally made the sensible decision to allow it."

The reaction of locals to the escalating demonstrations was mixed, with commuters caught in the traffic tie-ups expressing anger and frustration at the demonstrators, while many pedestrian bystanders offered support. The local and national media were out in force to cover the protests -- sometimes reporters, camera crews and photographers outnumbered protesters -- but the tone of the reporting was decidedly pro-police.

This bias was particularly evident at local CBS affiliate WKYW Channel 3, which bragged about being first with the reports of the street battles between police and demonstrators on August 1. The news report that evening focused entirely on injuries to police and damage to police equipment. Police officials were interviewed, but no demonstrators were asked to explain their issues or actions. The one segment showing a protester being arrested, which was accompanied by visuals of the arrest taken from a helicopter, actually showed the demonstrator shouting at a policeman before he was grabbed by two other cops. "He was shaking his finger at a mounted policeman," the anchor intoned gravely, failing to comment that such an action is hardly a crime.

It remains to be seen what impact these rallies, marches and more militant protest actions in Philadelphia will have. The number of demonstrators was considerably smaller than at the earlier protests in Seattle and Washington. The biggest protest this time was the Unity 2000 march, which probably had no more than 10,000 participants (even though rally organizers put the total at under 25,000). Unlike the WTO in Seattle or the World Bank and IMF in Washington, both clear targets of protest, the focus in Philadelphia was not so obvious. Unity 2000 organizers stressed early on that theirs was not an anti-Republican demonstration, but rather was aimed at a broad range of issues, from arms spending and government corruption to environmental protection and workers rights. Thus it was little surprise that not far from a contingent of marchers from the Socialist Workers Party was a group of veterans from the defeated South Vietnamese Army.

If the protests in Philadelphia showed anything, it was that even with considerable advance planning, aggressive surveillance, overwhelming numbers and the arrest of more than 400 protesters, the police cannot expect to keep traffic flowing in the face of dedicated demonstrators willing to face arrest.


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