Hoping for the Best, Planning for the Worst

The permits have been signed, the free-speech zone has been cleared, and the fences are starting to rise. Boston is bracing itself for thousands of protesters that will descend upon the city for the Democratic National Convention. The city has promised to welcome demonstrators with open arms, anxious to avoid the clashes that have marred previous large-scale political events such as the Republican National Convention four years ago in Philadelphia and the Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit last November in Miami.

But even as police have been upfront on their plans by working with groups such as the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), concerns persist about inadequate space to accommodate protesters at the convention hall, as well as other signs that police are planning for mass arrests and are preemptively harassing protesters coming to Boston.

In response to civil libertarians' concerns, police moved the "free-speech zone" to a location closer to the FleetCenter where the convention will be held, and have helped expedite permit requests. Even so, the current protest pen is still claustrophobic and cramped. It has only one small entrance and small two exits, one of them with only a five-foot clearance below elevated subway tracks. The area itself is only large enough to hold some 4,000 protesters, even though more than twice that many are expected to arrive. Protesters won’t have direct access to the FleetCenter either, but will have to address their concerns to delegates as they arrive at the bus terminal next to the zone. Two fences separated by 10 feet will prevent activists from handing out pamphlets or information.

Police spokesman Lt. Kevin Foley, while admitting that the space isn’t perfect, claims that the area is the closest that protesters have ever been allowed to a major event such as this. “Taking into account post-9/11 security concerns, and Boston’s narrow street configurations, we’ve gone out of our way to accommodate protesters,” he says.

That hasn't been enough to mollify civil libertarians. “I consider this area very dangerous,” says Urszula Masny-Latos, director of the Massachusetts NLG, “The movement of crowds will be very difficult.” The group declined to file a lawsuit, acknowledging that there are few other options in crowded downtown area where the convention is being held. “It looks like whoever decided on [the FleetCenter] didn’t think of those who would be demonstrating, or they intentionally picked a place that would prevent people from demonstrating,” says Masny-Latos.

In response to the less-than-adequate protest pen, many protesters plan to avoid the convention center altogether, planning protests for other strategic spots in city neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Bl(a)ck Tea Society, a self-described “anti-authoritarian” group has called for a boycott of the free speech zone, in favor of a wider street in the “soft security zone” next door, which doesn’t have direct access to the delegates, but can accommodate more people. While police have said that activist are free to protest anywhere in the city so long as they are not disrupting traffic flow, they also plan on putting up a fence around the “soft zone.” That sets up the potential for an ugly clash on Thursday the 29th, when a major anti-war march is headed to the center to coincide with John Kerry’s acceptance of the nomination.

“We’ve done the best we can with the area,” says Foley. “All people may not agree with that, but if something goes wrong, we’re going to be wearing it.”

Unlike police departments in some cities, the Boston Police Department has shown a high tolerance for civil disobedience. During a march that drew 50,000 people at the start of the Iraq War, police made no arrests despite protesters flooding the streets and blocking traffic for hours. More recently, police were even-handed with angry protesters who clashed outside the State House during the debate against gay marriage, wearing regular uniforms instead of riot gear to keep tension to a minimum.

For the convention, however, state police and officers from neighboring cities are coming in for the event, and federal agencies including the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security are playing a supervisory role, upping the tension. And already there are ominous signs that the police in Boston have been planning for the worst. Regular courts will be shuttered during the convention, and more than a dozen attorneys will be on hand specifically to process protesters. One judge made a surprise announcement last week that the city was setting aside jail cells for 1,500 to 2,500 arrestees even though Philadephia’s Republican National Convention had only 420 arrests, and Miami just 230.

Both Boston and New York police have also been reportedly conducting surveillance of Bl(a)ck Tea Society (BTS) meetings, according to an article in New York's Newsday. Moreover, BTS members also say that an officer with the NYPD/FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force knocked on the door of an activist in New York City, telling his parents that he was on a list of “troublemakers” from the Boston police, and warned him not to go to Boston or associate with the group. (The officer, who left his business card at the scene, referred questions to a public information officer, who declined comment. Foley also declines to comment on what he calls “intelligence” matters.)

On its Web site the Bl(a)ck Tea Society calls for activists to “defend Boston” with “massive decentralized actions in opposition to the DNC.” At least one labor activist involved in protesting the convention privately condemns the Bl(a)ck Tea Society for its militant rhetoric. “We’re basically talking about a small group of anarcho-kids who are going to get the shit kicked out them,” says this activist. “You act paranoid, you get what you pay for.”

Elly Guillette, an organizer with the group, doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think we brought any of this on ourselves,” she says. “I’ve lived in the Boston area my whole life, I pay tax dollars, and I think it's pretty absurd that a bunch of rich people can invade my city at my expense. It’s ridiculous to see our ‘defend our city’ rhetoric as scary. We have more right to be here than they do.”

In addition to the knocks on the door in New York, there have been several recent incidents in Boston that some see as a part of a wider sweep of activists. An anti-war protester was arrested when he refused to give his name after handing out political leaflets on the sidewalk during a visit by George Bush to Boston in March. While in prison, he was reportedly questioned about protest events scheduled for the Democratic National Convention. And in May, a Boston College student was arrested for a piece of street theater in which he imitated an infamous photo from Abu Ghraib on a public sidewalk in front of a downtown Army recruiting station. Police charged him with making a bomb threat, a felony carrying a maximum of 20 years in prison. While the district attorney later dropped the charges, he was still forced to undergo a psychological examination by the judge, according to Masny-Latos.

“We were really frightened to hear that. We didn’t know if this was a unique incident or a new trend because of the DNC,” she says. “We hope that it doesn’t become a trend.”

Hoping to head off further abuses of protesters, a group called Save Our Civil Liberties worked with Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo to draft a city council resolution that would declare Boston’s support for civil liberties. While praising Boston police for their handling of past protests, it also called for 14 separate points to upholding civil rights, including minimal use of “barricades or 'protest pens’” and refraining from use of “inappropriate force on unarmed, nonviolent demonstrators.”

While a similar resolution was passed unanimously by a committee of the New York city council, the resolution was sent back to committee without a vote after several Boston councilors condemned it in scathing terms. Among other things, councilors claimed it would “handcuff” police in dealing with demonstrators, who are known for “hurling bags of urine to avoid arrest” and using “hypodermic needles against police.”

“This kind of disinformation is self-perpetuating. People refer to what police have said at other protests without any hard evidence,” says Save Our Civil Liberties' Gan Golan, who notes that similar "urban legends" have been widely circulated in the Boston press. “To see the effect this has on the city council is chilling,” Golan says.

While Golan hopes that Boston police will be different than police at past political events, he notes that early in the planning process they met with Miami police chief John Timoney, the architect of what activists are now calling the “Miami Model,” after the heavy-handed response to protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Timoney was also formerly head of police in Philadelphia during the RNC protests there.)

“There’s been a documented pattern of police abuses at large scale political protests. It isn’t happening by accident. It’s part of a model for law enforcement that is being pushed by federal authorities,” says Golan. “We might not stop the tactics, but having something like this increases scrutiny and provides a checklist with which to ask the question: Did the police honor the public trust?”

No matter what happens in Boston, that question will no doubt be dissected for months after the convention is over. “The best case scenario is that the delegates have a good time, and the protesters feel like they got their message across and we all go home happy,” says Foley. “But with the world we live in today, with the threat of terrorist disturbance or domestic disturbance, we’d be irresponsible if we didn’t prepare for the worst.”

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