Will Philly Cops Repeat Mass Arrests of 2000?

Elsa Lakew
Elsa Lakew – April 2015
April 8, 2015
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Elsa Lakew
Elsa Lakew – April 2015
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Philadelphia skyline with interstate 95 sign illustration
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When the Democratic National Convention comes to Philadelphia next July, will city police reprise the mass arrests and preventive detention they used against protesters during the Republican convention there in 2000?

Police Chief Charles Ramsey says no. He told the Philadelphia Daily News that he would have the First Amendment read at every roll call during the convention. The department has also toned down its appearance at recent protests: Officers haven’t been wearing riot gear or bringing military-style vehicles. “If you show up dressed for a fight, you’re likelier to find yourself in a fight,” Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, who oversees homeland security, told the Daily News.

Local activists and civil libertarians are skeptical. “All bets are off when it comes to major events like the DNC,” lawyer Lawrence Krasner—who most recently represented some of the 10 protesters arrested during a police-community meeting last month, after prosecutors decided not to charge the officers who killed Brandon Tate-Brown in December—told the Daily News. “The truth is, it’s hard to know what they’ll do when there are a lot of politics at stake. People tend to go toward their worst tendencies, and historically, Philadelphia has horrible tendencies.”

Philadelphia has a long history of repressive police tactics. Former Mayor Frank Rizzo won public recognition when, as police commissioner in 1970, he had Black Panther Party members strip-searched in public. Police infiltrated activist groups months before the 2000 GOP convention began, and more than 400 people were arrested during the convention—including 42 charged with felonies, and alleged “ringleaders” held in $1 million bail.

The arrested included about 75 “puppetistas,” charged with possessing “criminal instruments” after four state troopers disguised as union carpenters from Wilkes-Barre infiltrated the warehouse where they were building puppets and helped them with the construction. The state troopers’ affidavit for the warehouse raid alleged that the protesters were being funded by “Communist and leftist parties” and a former Soviet front group called the World Federation of Trade Unions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a month later that police had gotten that claim from an obscure far-right think tank called the Maldon Institute, largely financed by far-right billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife – who also funded much of the campaign to impeach President Clinton in the 1990s. Maldon monitored left-wing groups “from an old-fashioned counter-subversion perspective that is obsessed with finding Reds under every bed,” Chip Berlet, now a Defending Dissent Foundation board member, told the Inquirer. A key figure in the institute, he added, was John H. Rees, who in the 1970s infiltrated left-leaning groups under a false name and published whatever data and derogatory details he could find in a magazine called Information Digest.

In 2011, more than 50 people were arrested on the night Occupy Philly was evicted, almost all of them after they were corralled on a side street north of Center City. A filmmaker busted earlier that night just won $80,000 in damages, and a larger civil-rights suit is pending. “I would like to think the police can respect people’s free-speech rights, but history has shown that they have failed to do so time and time again,” Kris Hermes, author of the forthcoming book Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000, told the Daily News.

Hermes helped convention protesters in 2000 with legal matters. The city’s police commissioner then was John Timoney, who Hermes called “the architect of the modern political policing practice that we see now across the country,” such as pre-emptive mass arrests and the use of paramilitary “less than lethal” weapons such as pepper spray and plastic bullets against protesters. “He really used Philadelphia as a laboratory for these types of repressive policing practices that were continued and fine-tuned in the years after the RNC.”

Ramsey used similar tactics when he was police chief in Washington from 1998 to 2007. In 2002, he supervised the mass arrest of more than 400 protesters and bystanders who were trapped in a park during demonstrations against the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings being held in the capital. The city eventually settled false-arrest lawsuits for more than $20 million. D.C. police under Ramsey were known for “having implemented militarized policing in Washington,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which represented plaintiffs in those suits, told the Washington Post in December, after President Barack Obama named him to head a “Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”

“That was 2002, and the last time I looked at the calendar, it’s 2015,” Ramsey told the Daily News. “We made mistakes in that particular situation. If that’s something for the rest of my life I need to keep talking about, then so be it.” He added that the department has a logical motivation not to look bad or let violence happen in front of a national audience. On the other hand, the News noted, the Occupy mass arrest happened during Ramsey’s current tenure in Philadelphia.

Some civil libertarians recommend filming police in order to hold such tactics up to the light of publicity. “I don’t really think there has been any stronger antidote to police abuse than cellphone video,” Krasner told the Daily News. On the other hand, while Ramsey has instructed rank-and-file officers that citizens have a right to record them, courts in the region have not formally recognized that right. In January, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., dismissed claims by a man arrested for photographing police that the bust violated his First Amendment rights. The judge wrote that while there “appears to be a growing trend in other circuits to recognize a First Amendment right to observe and record police activity,” the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals had not “clearly established” such a right in its jurisdiction, which comprises Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.