A year after 1999's boisterous World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, where protesters surprised police with their numbers and violence that cost millions in property damage, the Republican Party held its national convention in Philadelphia. Many of the same protesters who took to the streets in Seattle arrived in the City of Brotherly Love to voice their cacophonous messages.
John Timoney was the city's police commissioner then, and was credited with efficiently controlling the crowds.
Here it is 2003, and once again a large number of protesters are expected to gather and loudly express their views. This time the city will be Miami, the date will be November, and the object of their vocal opposition will be the formation of a hemispheric trading zone to be called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). And once again Timoney, now Miami's police chief, will be in charge of maintaining order.
Despite the kudos in Philly, the methods by which police there handled the protests of 2000 deserve scrutiny. In retrospect Philadelphia may not be the model for Miami many people say it is.
Although authorities deny it, there appears to have been collusion at all levels of law enforcement to prevent many protesters from actually protesting. Police, alarmed by what happened in Seattle, made a series of preemptive arrests, concocting charges based on what crimes the suspects might commit in the future. When the defendants sought to bond out of jail, prosecutors demanded ridiculously high bail amounts, warning that the suspects were about to commit all manner of mayhem. Then, after the convention ended, the cases were tossed out. It was a slick end run around the First Amendment.
The fact that all this occurred in the city where the Constitution of the United States was framed made it that much more embarrassing. "In America we don't arrest people for what we think they might do," scolded an editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News. "The possibly improper arrests of a bunch of out-of-towners with confused messages and bad manners may not seem like a big deal. It is, though. If this is the price of good PR, it's too high." The Philadelphia Inquirer, after a detailed analysis of the arrests, concluded: "A more distant perspective reveals the steep price at which this success was delivered: widespread violation of civil liberties."
Human Rights Watch demanded an investigation into numerous allegations of police brutality committed against protesters while they were in custody.
But by the time the press weighed in with criticism, it didn't matter. The convention was over and the only thing city fathers cared about -- that Philadelphia not become another Seattle -- had been accomplished.
About 400 people were arrested at the GOP convention, and nearly 400 cases were dismissed. One of those involved John Sellers, head of the Ruckus Society, a nonviolent but confrontational activist organization. (Ruckus plans to be here in November.) Sellers was arrested on the street while talking on his cell phone a day after the convention began. Police charged him with fourteen misdemeanors, including using his cell phone to plot vandalism. Prosecutors asked for and were granted a million-dollar bail -- more than a murder suspect would expect. When the case came before a judge, prosecutors simply dropped the charges. Sellers sued the city and negotiated a confidential settlement.
A similar case involved Terrence McGuckin of the Direct Action Group. He was accused of directing protesters via cell phone to act unlawfully, and was charged with several misdemeanors. His bail: $500,000. McGuckin's case went to trial, and after the prosecution presented its case, the judge threw out most of the charges. He was found guilty of disorderly conduct.
"These were preemptive pretext arrests meant to keep them off the street," complains David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil liberties lawyer who defended McGuckin. He also sued the city, which settled with him for a confidential sum.
In another incident, Pennsylvania state police posing as union carpenters infiltrated a group of protesters using a warehouse to assemble puppets for props. Police raided the warehouse, arrested 75 people after they refused to leave, and confiscated the puppets. Charges were later dismissed.
Innocents were also swept up in the cops' zealous response. Marc Miclette was making a delivery to a pet store when police seized his van. They thought the lizards and snakes in the van were going to be set loose inside the convention. Police sheepishly apologized, but not before several of the animals died. Miclette was "a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time," Sgt. Earl Schoen told the Inquirer. "It's unfortunate he was caught up." Miclette sued the city as well.
The Philadelphia controversies have made Miami activists wary. "We'll see if in the coming weeks and months the chief does what it takes to balance the rights of protesters with the need to protect the safety of the attendees," says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the local chapter of the ACLU. "Thus far very little information is being shared, and there's a clear unwillingness to work with protesters."
"We're definitely defensive, and expect Timoney to pull out all the stops," says Deirdre Hansen, a 28-year-old, self-described anarchist from North Carolina who plans to demonstrate at the FTAA meeting. "Everybody knows he's here and people consider him to be pretty much out for blood."
When asked about this reputation, Timoney himself becomes defensive. "That's what pisses me off. What reputation?" he asks. "I take second seat to no one when it comes to the First Amendment. No one."
Philadelphia protesters were not arrested for what they were saying, he maintains, but for what they were doing -- blocking traffic, vandalism, and so on. The fact that so many had their cases dismissed still bothers him: "The notion they weren't breaking the law is ridiculous."
Today Timoney is distancing himself from the law-enforcement excesses in Philadelphia. He had nothing to do with the puppet warehouse arrests, he says. State police infiltrated the warehouse "unbeknownst to me, until that afternoon," he adds. The Sellers and McGuckin arrests weren't preemptive, he claims, because the convention had already begun. As for their bail: "I said at the time I thought it was too high."
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In contrast, he says, when 5000 people began marching during the convention without a permit, he allowed them to continue rather than risk a confrontation to break up the procession. He didn't put his officers on the street in riot gear for fear the look would be provocative, but instead had police on bicycles moving around the crowd. The officers were trained to use the bikes as barriers, and to withstand verbal abuse meant to provoke them to physically respond, which would then be videotaped.
Timoney is not eager to discuss his plans for the FTAA protests. "The courts require us to be reasonable, but recognize our obligation to protect the public," he says. "Protesters have to be within sight and sound [of the conference]. Say there are 50,000 protesters. We couldn't accommodate all 50,000 in one spot. So the different groups will get the real estate on a rotating basis."
Sounds good. Maybe his critics are wrong. We'll find out in November.