Convention Confrontation

The real story in Philadelphia

Revolutionary Worker #1066, August 13, 2000

In preparation for the Republican National Convention, the power structure turned Philadelphia into a virtual police state in an attempt to make the convention the "only show in town." The convention was carefully scripted in advance, and nothing-especially protests in the streets-was supposed to upstage it.

Even before the convention got underway, the police spied on, harassed, and arrested activists. And during the week of the convention, thousands of city, state, and federal police guarded every corporate headquarters, city building, and the hotels where the convention delegates stayed. Helicopters buzzed overhead day and night. Police were stationed at train stations to watch and report the movement of suspected protesters. Canine units patrolled the Amtrak station. Cops rode 12 deep in unmarked vans with tinted windows. Dozens of busses were parked on city streets to transport protesters to jails. The U.S. Army was reportedly on alert in case an even heavier clampdown was needed.

But in the face of all this intimidation and suppression, thousands of people were out on the streets to stand up against injustice. They were determined to expose the hypocrisy of Bush and the Republicans and to oppose "business as usual": the unjust death penalty, the epidemic of police brutality, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the criminalization of a whole generation, the capitalist corporations whose drive for profits destroys people and the environment. In the city infamous for the railroad of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, a strong demand was raised to stop the execution of Mumia.

The protests involved a diverse range of people. But at the forefront were the youth. And on Tuesday, August 1-in the midst of the four-day Republican convention-the people brought downtown Philadelphia to a standstill.

As we go to press, hundreds of people arrested on August 1 and other days of protest are still in jail-and there are reports of outrageous brutality against the jailed protesters.

Leading up to August 1, there were a series of different actions. People marched against police brutality and for health care rights. Youth from Refuse & Resist! joined women from NOW and other groups to confront anti-abortion Christian fascists. There were actions by AIDS activists and protesters against the U.S. occupation of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. On Sunday, July 30, 8,000 took part in the Unity 2000 rally, involving a broad range of groups and individuals-from Democrats to revolutionaries and various other forces. On July 31, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union led 4,000 protesters in a five-mile Poor People's March for Economic and Human Rights. They marched in defiance of the city authorities, who had denied a permit and threatened to take away the kids of anyone arrested. Homeless women and children were at the front of the march, which took the streets and successfully made its way to the convention center from downtown Philadelphia.

The Wild Scene in Center City

Tensions were high going into August 1-the second day of the convention and the fourth day of protests. Both the protesters and the authorities expected this to be the high point of the anti-convention actions. Key themes for the day's protests were resistance to the death penalty, the execution of Mumia, the "prison industrial complex," and police brutality.

First thing in the morning, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer said that Mumia was the wrong emblem for the anti-death penalty movement. Then the editorial went on to complain that the protesters simply went over the top by calling the Republican convention "The Executioners' Ball." The day moved on with local news radio announcing that Jesse Jackson would be speaking out against the death penalty at a 1:00 p.m. press conference. But by the time 1 o'clock rolled around, the news was dominated by the coverage of the police occupation and siege of the protesters' puppet-making warehouse in West Philly. Soon after, reports about road blockages and other protests began popping up all over TV and radio news. The TV news copters couldn't keep up with all that was going on in the streets of Center City.

The 1 p.m. press conference at the Old First Reformed Church kicked things off. Sponsored by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, the press conference demanded an end to the death penalty and a fair trial for Mumia. Over 170 people, including 80 journalists, packed the room. Mark Taylor from Academics for Mumia introduced Rev. Jesse Jackson and author Jonathan Kozol, who were joined by journalist Julia Wright, Robert Meeropol (son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), and Professors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Marcus Rediker.

Early on the afternoon of August 1, the police carried out a preemptive mass arrest. They surrounded a building in West Philadelphia where people were making huge puppets, signs, and banners for the protests. The protesters called the site their "Ministry of Puppetganda." As a crowd of people gathered outside, those trapped inside by the police hung a banner which said "Puppeteering ain't a crime!" The cops busted into the building, arrested 70 people, and confiscated signs, banners and puppets.

At 3:00 p.m., groups of protesters took to the streets. The downtown area, known as Center City, was like a war zone: At least five helicopters hovered overhead, and cops were everywhere-on foot in riot gear and riding bikes and horses. Sirens screamed from every direction as police chased groups of people through the streets.

The police had been waiting for an official Republican motorcade to come through. But they were suddenly confronted by hundreds of people who massed at the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham, known as "Queen of Death" because she's prosecuted so many death penalty cases.

Elsewhere in Center City, people chained themselves together with PVC pipes or linked arms and blocked the streets leading to the convention center. One group of anarchists had another approach to blocking a street: they played soccer in the middle of an intersection.

Protesters carried pictures of Mumia and Shaka Sankofa (who was executed in Texas in June) that declared "Not One More Lynching!" A performance group mocked the system's so-called economic boom: "Who likes the boom, the economic boom? The richest two percent, they like the economic boom. Ask the poor-there is no boom. When you can't afford to eat there is no boom. When you can't afford decent housing there is no boom."

The city government had put up red, white and blue fabric decorations all over to greet the Republicans. Many of these decorations were torn down and burned. One protester said, "The red, white and blue of the flag symbolizes the blood and tears of the people who have been trampled under the guise of democracy."

Groups of youth-including a multinational contingent of 75 kids with Philly Freedom Summer (who had come to the city to support Mumia) and anarchists from the Black Bloc-ran through the streets eluding the police. The Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade marched in formation with red flags and copies of Mao's Red Book. Stickers demanding justice for Mumia were plastered everywhere. Police cars were spraypainted with slogans, and newspaper boxes and dumpsters were thrown into the street. Traffic and business in downtown Philadelphia was thoroughly disrupted.

In the midst of all this, a rally against the death penalty-called by Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty and a broad coalition of groups-was held at the plaza across from city hall. Because the rally had an official permit, the plaza became a place where youth running in the streets could regroup, hook up with others, and go out again. For almost three hours, there was a wild scene at the plaza as the voices of the rally speakers mixed with chants of the youth who came running through, the roar of the police helicopters, and the screaming sirens. A statue of Frank Rizzo-the hated former mayor, police chief, and racist-was covered with red paint and stickers and signs supporting Mumia.

One organizer proudly described it as "a rally in the middle of a rebellion."

Near the plaza, protesters blocked a major intersection. A tense stand-off with police continued for about two hours as people chanted "The Whole World Is Watching!" There were also shouts of "Down with America!" The streets surrounding the plaza were filled with hundreds of police who repeatedly threw up blockades to prevent people from reaching the rally-or to stop people who did reach the rally from taking to the streets again. Philadelphia Mayor John Street reportedly was trapped inside his office across the street for hours and had to communicate with the police by e-mail.

Among the speakers at the rally were Jeff Garis of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty; musician Michael Franti; Prof. Ella Forbes (whose son Erin was murdered by police); Ramona Africa of MOVE; and RW correspondent Clark Kissinger, who appeared in Philly in defiance of a judge's refusal to grant him permission to attend the rally. (Kissinger and several other Mumia activists were placed on severe probation terms after conviction for a civil disobedience action in Philly.)

As the 7:00 p.m. deadline for the rally permit approached, riot cops surrounded the plaza. Legal observers negotiated with the police to allow people to leave the rally without getting busted. But when Mike Africa of MOVE walked into the street, seven cops jumped him, put him in a headlock, and threw him into a van. Outraged, people demanded that the cops let him go. A commander finally felt compelled to order Mike Africa's release. And the people made their way out of the plaza to join other protesters on the streets.

A Latino youth with Philly Freedom Summer said, "It's up to us-the people-to bring out the truth, to spread the truth." The power structure-using their police and their media mouthpieces-tried to shut out the truth. But they could not silence the youth or stop their courageous actions.

A Black woman, waiting for a bus downtown after getting off work, said: "The protesters are doing what they need to be doing because the justice system is a no fair system. It's a racist system, but also a system against the poor. I agree with what they are doing. I think they are being treated hard, the young people. The police are treating them like a bunch of animals."

The Enemy Counter-Attacks

The authorities praised the Philadelphia police for their "restraint." The videotaped beating of Thomas Jones by a swarm of Philly cops a few days before the convention had put the spotlight on the city's police. So the rulers didn't want images of cops clubbing or pepper-spraying protesters beamed around the world.

But the reality was that there was widespread police brutality against protesters on the streets, particularly when the cops were away from the media spotlight. At least three protesters were hospitalized after being brutalized by cops . Some people were clubbed; one man had his ear partly ripped off; Seven, an RCYB member, had her wrist broken; Bork from the Black Bloc suffered a concussion. A video clip shown on the PBS News Hour caught one cop pulling a gun on a group of protesters.

Over 350 were arrested on August 1; and there have been many reports of brutal treatment under police custody. A group of teenagers were held in a van with the doors closed-the heater on despite the sweltering temperature-and denied water. One youth passed out and received no medical attention.

Inside the jails, the police beat and rubbed pepper spray in people's faces. They denied the protesters water, food, medication, and the use of the bathroom. Four to seven people were held in each tiny cell, while those suspected of being leaders were isolated. Some people were stripped and not given their clothes back for hours. Guards called protesters "faggots" and "sissies." Some protesters were hog-tied and left overnight. Many were not allowed to contact an attorney. Lawyers who visited police headquarters were often not allowed to talk to the arrested protesters.

Some women prisoners reported they saw guards drag a man past their cell. One woman told a legal team for the protests: "The male was naked except for a pair of boxer shorts, which were down around his knees. His back was badly bruised, he was bleeding from shoulder to wrist, and his fingers were blue." Several witnesses reported seeing guards dragged a woman down a hallway naked and bleeding.

The spirit of those arrested remained strong in the face of this brutality. Almost everyone refused to identify themselves, and they demanded that all charges be dropped and that they be released together. One hundred and forty went on a hunger strike.

As the preemptive raid on the West Philadelphia building and other police actions showed, the rulers effectively suspended rights that their own Constitution supposedly guarantees.

The police cast the net widely against anyone who looked like a protester. Many protesters got firsthand experience of how it feels to "fit a profile" when they were stopped and searched for simply walking down the streets in Center City. One man reported being stopped and frisked eight times during the day. A bicycle messenger service said their messengers were repeatedly stopped by cops and questioned-the police considered their cell phones and radios "suspicious." At the same time, the cops especially targeted individuals identified by the police as protest leaders based on previous surveillance.

Police confiscated the supplies of medical people helping the protesters and targeted at least two for arrest. Cops used horses and bikes as weapons-in some cases riding into people. Some reporters and people taking video footage of the protests were attacked.

Most of the arrests were on misdemeanor charges; but in a deliberate attempt to keep protesters off the streets for the rest of the convention, the authorities set outrageously high bails-between $15,000 and $1 million! Ron McGuire, an attorney for the protesters, said: "To my knowledge, bail has never been set so high for misdemeanor charges in the history of this country."

In the days after August 1, police commissioner Timoney announced he would ask federal authorities to file conspiracy charges against the leading protest groups. The police suddenly announced that during the raid on the West Philadelphia building, they had found materials that could be used to make molotov cocktails. Police followed, harassed, threatened and arrested activists all over the city. Cops stepped up their presence at the office of the attorneys who volunteered to defend protesters. Five or six police vans had been stationed outside the building throughout the convention. The day after the August 1 mass protests, attorneys arrived in the morning to find police inside the building.

Across the street from police headquarters where most of the protesters were held, supporters set up an encampment and vowed to stay until all those arrested were released. Quakers, Catholic nuns, and other religious groups held a candlelight vigil in support of the arrested protesters. At a press conference held at the encampment, people spoke out against the police brutality against the protesters and demanded their release. Speakers included Rev. Al Sharpton, Larry Krazner of the ACLU, Mark Taylor, Seven from the RCYB, a representative of the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, and a lawyer for the protesters.


A member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade talked to the RW about what the people had accomplished on August 1: "We made it so they could not have their Republican National Convention the way they wanted to. We kept delegates back, we blocked streets, entire buildings downtown had their employees trapped inside them.... We united youth from all different backgrounds, different beliefs.... They started realizing we are all in this together because this system offers us no solution, that this system will never offer us any solutions, that we only make solutions for ourselves. So this has been a very successful week."

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