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Backlash at Philly Cops

Philadelphia, August 10 -- The image-boosting bonanza Philadelphia enjoyed as host of the Republican National Convention has quickly ebbed in a controversy over police abuse of protesters. Some are calling it a civil rights disaster.

Philadelphia officials denied allegations that arrested protesters were beaten, refused medical attention and given excessive bails ranging from $10,000 to $1 million dollars, though most were charged with misdemeanors.

However, many of the more than 400 protesters arrested during the convention claimed they endured physical and mental abuse while being held for days inside Philadelphia's central police station before transfers to city prisons.

"I saw officers kick guys in their genitals and I saw one officer twist a guy's penis to force him to take a mug shot," said D., a 22-year-old protester who didn't want his full name used because he fears retaliation during his trial.

"One officer put his foot on my neck when they snatched me out of bed to take my mug shot. The situation was really bad and brutal at the central police station," continued D., who said he was leaving a store and not protesting when police arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Police arrested one protest leader, John Sellers, while he was walking down the street talking on a cell phone and charged him with possessing a dangerous instrument -- his cell phone. Bail was set at $1 million, later reduced to $100,000 by a judge who commented that the charged offense is a non-violent misdemeanor.

"The defense attorneys are very concerned with what we perceive as overcharging," said Andy Erba, a member of the legal team representing the protesters.

Legal team members promised to fight the punitive arrests. They said they have obtained testimony on 59 incidents of excessive force within police custody, six incidents of sexual abuse, 22 examples of medical needs denied and nine incidents of mental abuse.

Attorneys said they had agreements with the city to treat arrests similar to traffic tickets, a claim denied by city officials including Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who promised vigorous prosecution of all charges against the protesters.

Most of the arrests occurred on the second day of the convention, during often violent demonstrations in downtown Philadelphia. Protesters from various groups tied up evening rush-hour traffic and caused minor property damage.

The controversy comes in the wake of the July 12 beating of a carjacking suspect by Philadelphia police, an incident captured by a TV news helicopter camera, and the July 18 fatal shooting of an unarmed homeless man at Philadelphia's main train station by an Amtrak policeman.

Barbara Grant, spokesperson for Philadelphia's Mayor John Street, praised police for their "restraint and professionalism in the face of provocation."

Grant dismisses stories of abuse. "They failed to disrupt the convention so they decided to invent these stories. Three groups of lawyers, including the ACLU, had free access to the prisons and they did not see any problems," Grant said.

Protesters said the physical abuse occurred inside the central police station where authorities denied access to lawyers. Conditions were better inside the city's prisons although some guards were verbally abusive.

"The (police station) was a more brutal place. I saw people dragged, kicked and hog-tied. Police denied us phone calls, food and showers," said Aslyn Colgan, a college student from New York.

Colgan said police arrested her during a raid on a puppet-making warehouse three miles from the downtown protests. "I find it amazing that they charged me with resisting arrest when I voluntarily walked onto the police bus. We went to the puppet warehouse because we didn't want to get arrested in Center City," said Colgan.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton said officers dragged and kicked her inside the police station. "I was hog-tied for six hours. It makes it complicated to use the bathroom and drink water," she said. "Police kept saying, 'Have you learned your lesson?' We weren't intimidated."

Many protesters called Mayor Street hypocritical for supporting stiff prosecutions, pointing out that Street began his political career as a housing activist staging demonstrations on the streets and inside City Hall.

"Street's position irks me to my core. I got brutally beaten by police in 1979 for participating in a John Street demonstration where he occupied vacant public housing units," said Pam Africa, a key supporter of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Spokeswoman Grant acknowledged that Street disrupted traffic and City Council meetings but said Street did not engage in illegal conduct like the GOP convention protesters. Grant conceded that Street often broke into vacant city-owned properties but justified that illegal conduct as providing housing for the homeless.

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