Spies and Billy Clubs

Philadelphia police target anti-convention protests

Revolutionary Worker #1065, August 6, 2000

An awful lot of sniffing and snorting ushered in the Republican National Convention (RNC). City, state and federal cops descended on Philadelphia like bullies-anxious to establish a climate of fear and intimidation, but also-in the wake of the videotaped police beating of Thomas Jones-nervous about the anger out in the hoods.

And on the mind of every ruling class figure going into the convention, was the specter of Seattle last November-where tens of thousands of anti-WTO demonstrators shook the city, shocked the authorities and stole the spotlight, sending a rebel message to people around the world.

Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Robert Mitchell, referring to the determined and unrelenting anti-WTO protests, said, "After Seattle, things have changed." And Richard Odenthal, a Captain in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, told the press, "Policing these events is extremely difficult and there's no perfect way of doing it. What we've learned is that the protest community is much more mobile than in the past, much more sophisticated."

The Republican and Democratic Conventions are main events in the election circus of the ruling class. It's a time when the oppressors promote their leaders and their vision of the future, which holds nothing good for the people-nothing but more prisons, police brutality, cutbacks, poverty and misery for the masses.

George W. is wrapping his campaign in sweetened poison, with words like "compassionate conservatism," "inclusion," and let's not "leave one child behind." And we are supposed to believe that the Republican and Democratic conventions are part of a grand democratic process through which the common people get a voice. But the real hype and farce-and brutal fist-of bourgeois democracy stood out ever more sharply going into the RNC.

As delegates got ready to stream into town, millions of people around the world saw the video of a Black man being brutally beaten by a whole pack of Philly cops. Ironically, one cop captured the message perfectly: he had a T-shirt produced with a badge on the front and picture of the beating on the back with the huge caption "Welcome America."

Thousands of media people packed their bags for Philly-ready to show the world how democracy works in the U.S.-which is billed as a land of "free speech." But meanwhile, Republicans were given permission to use most of the public spaces in the city, while authorities tried to deny all permits for protesters except a "protest pit." Only after lawsuits and pressure from activists were a few permits granted.

And when members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union set up a tent city called "Bushville" to "let people throughout the world know that poverty exists in the United States,"-within minutes, police were on the scene and forced them to move.


A 16-member "executive committee"-made up of local, state and federal police agencies, like the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms-was set up to coordinate the government's efforts to spy and clamp down on activists before and during the RNC.

The authorities tried to gather as much information as they could on demonstrators going into the event and targeted "key people" for arrest and isolation. They anticipated mass arrests-preparing to process and jail least 1,000 people, and maybe more.

The city made plans to re-open Holmesburg Prison in northeast Philadelphia and use jail space in surrounding suburbs. After the Kensington Welfare Rights Union announced they would hold a march, even though the city had refused to give them a permit-and that many homeless and poor families would take part and march with their children-the city threatened to take their children into custody. In a memo which found its way into the hands of activists, authorities asked the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services to find spots for up to 1,000 children of people arrested in protests.

Targeting People and Groups

In the days leading up to the convention, the police tried to isolate and target people for arrest. The PPD's Mitchell told NPR, "When they crank it up to civil disorder, then it becomes a different matter, and it requires us being extremely aggressive...the trick is to be able to, when you aggressively move on something that has started, to make sure you get the right people, you know, the key players that are involved, the leadership."

To find the "key players" the PPD, FBI and others put their spy apparatus into high gear. And they did this brazenly and openly-trying to intimidate people. Activists in early July reported that men with cameras had been staked out across the street from where they were meeting. The PPD denied this at the time. But later-after a car used for surveillance was traced to the PPD-they were forced to admit they were spying on protesters. And listening devices were found at a home where several activists live.

This kind of spying and targeting of activists was done before the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and the recent anti-IMF protests in D.C. And the Philly Police Department sent people to Seattle, Washington and New York to monitor demonstrations there. In New York-with the cooperation of the NYPD-they photographed at least 20 people at a march for immigrants rights on May 1st-in clear violation of a court-ordered consent decree against such police surveillance. These photos, no doubt, ended up in the PPD's database of people to "watch out for" at the RNC.

Back in Philly, in the months and weeks before the RNC, things got even more Gestapo-like. The City Paper reported that a group of young people in their 20s-some of whom are activists-were watching the July 4th fireworks when they were stopped, then taken into custody by University of Pennsylvania police. According to one of those arrested, they were turned over to "special intelligence" cops, held for 24 hours, and interrogated. The main area of interest-the upcoming Republican National Convention. According to the City Paper, the cops seemed very concerned with the way these youth were dressed-and seemed to think ripped jeans was an indication that they were activists in town for the RNC. The cops wanted to know if they knew someone named "Lucky" and what they thought of the police response in Seattle. Police were also very curious about the Spiral Q Puppet Theater-which makes large puppets for demonstrations.

Two weeks later: In a preemptive strike, police shut down the Spiral Q. Puppet Theater. When Director Matthew Hart went to his studio on July 21st he found the door unlocked. He saw three men in the parking garage across the street spying into the studio with cameras, radios and binoculars. When asked to identify themselves, the men said, "We're from Seattle!" A few hours later, members of the Licenses and Inspections Department forced their way into the studio. When Hart asked if they had a warrant they told him, "No, we don't need a warrant." Members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Asian-Americans United were inside making protest signs that said things like "34 Million Americans Live in Poverty." The cops searched the building for four hours then ordered it shut down, supposedly for a number of safety code violations. City officials told the media a chunk of concrete fell from the building onto a passing police cruiser's windshield the night before, prompting the inspection. The entire seven-story building was shut down.

In the thick of all the pre-RNC police preparations was the FBI. On July 1, National Public Radio interviewed Tom Harrington, the FBI's special agent who was heading up the FBI's security operation for the convention. Harrington characterized things like this, "It's sort of a chess game. They're watching us and studying our tactics, and I think we're going to be prepared for 'em." He went on to say, quite unabashedly, "There is a good deal of intelligence gathering going on."

And the FBI did this for months. In April several hundred FBI agents and their support people from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey took part in "Stolen Liberty," in what the Associated Press described as "a major exercise to prepare for terrorism or other activities during the Republican National Convention." The command center for the operation was a Holiday Inn banquet room-complete with fully networked computers, a legal team to work on quickly processing search warrants, and press personnel to "brief" news organizations. Robert S. Conforti, the FBI agent-in-charge of the Philadelphia office, said, "We've been planning for the Republican National Convention for a year and a half... As we get closer the meetings intensify. We've had people go to Washington, D.C. and Seattle."

The FBI, through Harrington, issued a very specific threat in his NPR interview saying that "violent protesters" were likely to be brought up on federal charges. Harrington announced that people could be charged with infringing on interstate commerce or for violations of delegates' civil rights. Or as he put it, "Potentially a conspiracy to deny them their right to assemble and their right to petition the federal government for their candidate." He failed to mention any kind of conspiracy by the government to deny people the right to assemble and protest against the RNC!


The Republicans came to Philadelphia to anoint chief executioner George W. Bush as their presidential nominee. The Democrats who control the city government in Philadelphia welcomed them with open arms. Mayor John Street called the protesters "idiots" and told George magazine that "...some will be coming here to disrupt, to make a spectacle out of what's going on. They're going to [get] a very ugly response."

Every attempt by the authorities to intimidate and suppress protest against their system was met by determined resistance from the people. They marched through the streets, with or without permits. Some brought their children, despite the city's threats to snatch them from parents who got arrested. When "Bushville" was shut down, activists set it up again on another abandoned lot. The Spiral Q. Puppet Theater was up and running within a few hours, filled with activists designing creative props for the protests. Activists answered police spying and harassment with their own "counter-intelligence"-police were videotaped, car license plates were traced and press conferences were held to expose the blatant piggery aimed at activists. Protesters organized the Independent Media Center to provide coverage of the convention protests that wouldn't appear in the mainstream media. Hundreds of lawyers volunteered to monitor the actions of the police and defend anyone arrested.

Youth mocked the authorities, organizing "Spank the Bank" demonstrations, "Billionaires for Bush or Gore" contingents, and "Vigils for Corporate Welfare." They came to struggle against the many, many outrageous injustices people suffer under this system on a daily basis. They marched and rallied to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. They organized "reality tours" to visit abandoned factories, poor neighborhoods and welfare offices to show visitors how people in Philadelphia really live.

The whole world was watching the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia-a city famous worldwide for police brutality and repression of Black people. In the streets they saw many people fighting for a different world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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