Is Philadelphia destined to repeat history: Lessons from the RNC 2000

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The last time Philadelphia hosted a quadrennial political convention was in 2000, when the Republican Party celebrated the coronation of George W. Bush. Fifteen years later, Philadelphia has announced that it will once again spend millions of dollars to host a political convention, but this time it will be Democratic delegates who will flood the city for days and leave budget deficits in their wake, with the hope of tourist dollars unrealized.

Beyond the common regrets that stem from President Bush’s eight-year reign—two of the longest wars in U.S. history, mass warrantless surveillance of civilians, torture, and massive  financial speculation that caused the worst recession since the 1930s—there is much to learn from that era and how it affected not only Philadelphians, but the entire country. Law enforcement was suppressing and disrupting lawful First Amendment-protected activity more than a year before the 9/11 attacks and the crackdown on civil liberties that followed them. The political policing strategy that used the specter of terror as a means to repress activists in the streets was developed well before September 2001.

THE ARCHITECT

When former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney rode his bike through the protests on August 1, 2000, he appeared congenial, smiling for the cameras, but his role and his actions were anything but benign. Under Timoney’s command, and with the help of a coordinated, multilevel law enforcement operation, RNC 2000 protesters were subject to intense scrutiny and abuse, including surveillance and harassment for months before any convention delegates set foot in Philly, infiltration by the Pennsylvania State Police, pre-emptive raids, assaults in the streets, arrests by the hundreds, and malicious prosecution.

Timoney developed the archetype for our country’s current political policing practices, and Philadelphia was his laboratory. He would perfect his recipe for violent state repression a few years later, as Miami Police Chief in 2003. There, Timoney orchestrated one of the most brutal crackdowns in recent memory on demonstrators against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that year. Before several lawsuits were filed, challenging an array of constitutional-rights violations, then- Mayor Manny Diaz dubbed Timoney’s policing strategy a “model for homeland defense,” a startling moniker that has been referred to as the “Miami Model.”

While activists have successfully challenged some policing practices in the courts, the enforcement strategies have remained largely the same, and often carried out with impunity. Just over three years ago, we saw a coordinated effort by local, state, and federal law enforcement to destroy Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country. Today, we’re seeing a similar heavy-handed law enforcement approach to the movement against police killings, including use of the National Guard and militarized police forces.

PHILLY REVISITED

About 420 people were arrested on Aug. 1, 2000, many of whom were jailed for up to two weeks. Some targeted activists were held on $1 million bail and charged with felonies, and dozens of others were charged with high-level misdemeanors that evaporated when they got to court. By collectively resisting and coming together to politicize their criminal cases, protesters showed tremendous strength and resolve.

The defendant-led collective, called R2K Legal, was formed by activists, law students, legal workers, and lawyers and focused on supporting those arrested. Using tactics known as “Court Solidarity,” defendants, en masse, refused plea bargains, demanded trials, and politicized their cases. While demanding publicly that the charges be dropped, supporters unfurled banners in court, raised fists in solidarity with defendants, taped their mouths in symbolic defiance to the prosecutions, among other tactics used to politicize the cases. Despite a complete vindication for protesters, with more than 95 percent of the defendants having charges dismissed or being acquitted at trial, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham dug in her heels and pursued frivolous cases for years, wasting taxpayer dollars and disrupting activists’ lives.

Some protesters filed civil lawsuits against the city and the police, seeking accountability for rights violations they endured. However, because of an insurance policy purchased with money the convention host committee had raised from corporations, the city was able to hire one of Philadelphia’s most expensive law firms to defend itself. Because of this, it was able to go on the attack by subpoenaing everything from computer hard drives to organizational membership lists, and by deposing scores of activists whether or not they were at the demonstrations. They so harassed the activist community and bled the resources of civil attorneys that only modest monetary awards were ever negotiated.

So what can we expect this time around? More of the same?

Today, Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner is Charles Ramsey, former police chief of Washington, D.C., who will have more than $80 million at his disposal. Ramsey oversaw the policing of protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in April 2000, just months before the RNC. There was similar surveillance and harassment, and activist spaces were also pre-emptively raided. Under Ramsey’s watch, D.C. police wrongfully arrested hundreds of protesters—bogus arrests for which the city paid handsomely in civil-suit penalties.

The courts also ordered the department to change its policing practices. Besides protecting the Democratic delegates populating Philadelphia’s five-star hotels and dining at the city’s most expensive restaurants, what will Ramsey’s police be doing? Will the Wells Fargo Center be an impenetrable fortress, much like the same building (formerly known as the First Union Center) was in 2000? Will protesters once again be forced into a so-called “free speech zone” or “protest pit,” far from the sight or hearing of any delegates? Will police, in this heightened era of mass surveillance, information-sharing, and militarization of domestic forces, resist the urge to suppress people’s constitutional rights?

One thing is for sure. There will be activists in the streets and a strong legal support effort to back them up, as there was in 2000. The local Philly Legal Collective Up Against the Law has already publicly announced its commitment to support DNC protesters. The question is whether law enforcement will respect free speech or pull out the old Timoney playbook and try to use the weak pretext of “terrorism” and “violent agitators” to target activists.

Timoney is already courting the U.S. media from the Kingdom of Bahrain, where he has been hired by the government to aid in the crackdown of dissidents in the small Persian Gulf country that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “Terrorism becomes a critical factor as you plan for these events,” he recently told CBS News.  “It’s an opportunity for some lone wolf or terrorist cell to exploit the publicity that a political convention brings to the table.” With no proof that terrorism will be a credible threat, and without any evidence of it occurring at previous political conventions, law enforcement is still raising the specter more than a year before the event. With this strategy being used to scare the public, chill dissent, and help justify a heavy-handed approach to protesters, we can be pretty sure of what to expect. Meanwhile, activists will be trying to advance meaningful social change in a country that is losing any trappings of a democratic society.

* * * Kris Hermes is currently the Legal Worker Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and a longtime political activist who spent years working with the R2K Legal Collective. He is the author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000*, which is being published by PM Press in July. Crashing the Party is available for pre-order from Amazon at a discount, so order your copy today!