Where Have All the Riots Gone?
PHILADELPHIA, August 3 -- It hasn't been too difficult to find protests on the streets this week. Numerous Web sites -- some by protest groups, others by the Philadelphia Police Department -- point protesters and journalists to the action. In the mornings, a group called the Philadelphia Direct Action Group sends out e-mail alerts with a list of the day's scheduled events.
And if all else fails, you can always follow the helicopters that have been hovering around the center city all week, giving downtown Philly a slightly "Apocalypse Now" (or at least "Boyz N the Hood") feel.
But late last night, the police department's media Web site was mysteriously taken down. This morning, PDAG did not send out an e-mail alert. Could this be a sign that the tensions had escalated between cops and protesters, and there would be more arrests to come?
At noon, the time when protesters began to huddle downtown Monday and Tuesday, I hailed a cab for City Hall, where many of the protests had been staged. Broad Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares, had been partially shut down the last two days, and I assumed there would be more disruptions of traffic today.
"Any traffic problems today?" I asked the cab driver. He just shook his head. "Nope, everything's zipping right along today. No protesters or anything, far as I can tell."
There was still a beefed-up police presence, but most of the cops seemed comfortable and relaxed. Slightly confused, I wandered around downtown for an hour, then called my editor. No sign of any protests or arrests on the news wires.
I stopped into the sports bar at the Best Western Hotel for a sandwich, and a chance to talk up the bartenders and cops hanging out in the lobby bar about any police activity. One of the bartenders told tales of the South Carolina delegation. While I got no info on the protests, I did get several stories about a guest the Best Western staff had dubbed "Senator Goodtime" -- a South Carolina state senator who had been hitting on one of the waitresses, and had asked the bartender where he could get a prostitute.
So I headed back to my hotel to log on to the Philadelphia Independent Media Center's Web site, an extremely helpful page with frequent updates about protests and arrests. "3:00 -- Police have been seen sending arrest squads to the area around 16th, 17th, Market and Chestnut."
This made sense; it was a hotbed of protest Tuesday, and close to the hotel where Gov. George W. Bush and his posse were staying. Besides, it was just getting to be rush hour. Tuesday, the protesters synchronized their largest protests for drive time -- 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- to cause the greatest disturbance and maximize media attention in prime time. As I stepped out of my hotel, I saw three news helicopters hovering overhead. I quickened my pace.
But again, when I got down there -- nothing. Sure, there were cops everywhere. I stopped counting at 200 after walking only four blocks. The copters hovered overhead, propellers whirring, apparently searching, just as I was.
"Everything's been nice and quiet today," said Officer Billins, seated on the steps of the PNC Bank on 16th and Market. Except for the increased police presence, it looked like ordinary Wednesday rush hour traffic.
As I looked for protesters, I saw cops reading sports pages and smoking cigarettes while leaning up against a police van. One officer, Officer Tait, was desperately trying to untangle the last red Gummi Bear from inside a plastic sandwich bag. Hardly a police emergency.
At last, I saw a protester. Mark Trammell, a 27-year-old from Philadelphia, carried a sign that read "Blacks and gays do not be deceived by the illusion of inclusion." When asked if he was heading to some larger protest, Trammell just shrugged. "This is the only protest I know of, right here."
Anthony York is an associate editor for Salon, where this article originally appeared.