Know your enemy

Philadelphia: Revenge of the Power Structure

After the Republican Convention Protests

Revolutionary Worker #1067, August 20, 2000

During the Republican National Convention (RNC), thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Philadelphia determined to fight for a different future. And the system's response was brutal and vindictive. The rulers mobilized their repressive apparatus at various levels-local police, federal agents, courts-to go after the protesters. As the convention season and the presidential election circus kicked into high gear, the events in Philadelphia provided some important lessons about the workings of the bourgeois state.

Huge Bails and Threats of Federal Charges

According to lawyers for the demonstrators, 479 people were arrested or detained during the protests against the RNC. The majority of those arrested were taken into custody on Tuesday, August 1. On that day, the protests focused opposition to police brutality, the "prison-industrial complex," the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the death penalty. While most of those arrested were charged with misdemeanors, at least 39 were charged with felonies. Most were held in jail for days and some for more than a week. As we go to press, dozens are still in jail.

One activist, John Sellers, was arrested as he was just standing on the street and held on bail of one million dollars (later reduced to $100,000) for several misdemeanor charges, including conspiracy. Sellers is part of the Ruckus Society, which trains people in civil disobedience. A number of others, including AIDS activists, were held on $500,000 bail. Generally, bail for the kind of offenses these protesters were charged with are in the range of $10,000.

These openly political arrests and unprecedented bail were clearly meant as a chilling message against future protests. Philadelphia Mayor Street and Police Commissioner Timoney have called for full prosecutions of the arrested demonstrators. And they are threatening to bring even heavier charges against the activists. Street and Timoney have called for federal investigation into the protest groups and possible federal conspiracy charges. Such investigations and charges could be used as a political police fishing expedition against various anti-government and anti-system groups. And it would be an attempt to further criminalize protest against the status quo.

The move to target certain activists is also an attempt to sow divisions within the movement. The authorities claim that the huge bails and conspiracy charges are justified because these activists are leaders who can be held responsible for everything that happened during the protests-including actions like spray-painting of police cars and other "property damage." The police and prosecutors know full well that those like Sellers advocate nonviolent civil disobedience. Some groups declared before the RNC protests that they would not engage in damaging any "violent," including damaging property. Yet the Philadelphia District Attorney declared at Sellers' bail hearing, "He facilitates the more radical elements to accomplish their objective of violence and mayhem. He sets the groundwork. He sets the stage."

The rulers are hoping to get different sections of the movement to fight and point fingers at each other. This is a political police tactic known as "distancing." In the face of such attempts at distancing, it is important for the movement as a whole to strongly uphold what all the protests accomplished in Philadelphia-and to unite against the outrageous and vengeful moves by the power structure to punish the protesters.

Brutality in Jail

More information is coming out about jailhouse brutality against the protesters. People were locked up at three different locations-including the infamous Holmesburg prison which had been closed since 1995 because even the authorities considered the conditions there intolerable.

An RW stringer interviewed some of the protesters who were released. One woman said, "One guy in there got his head stepped on. Another guy got choked real bad and he fainted." A man who had served as a medic for the protests said, "I saw people dragged naked. I saw one cop hold people by the hair and run their faces down bars. I saw him smash people's faces into the ground with his knee on the back of their head while they were in handcuffs. The man in the cell next to me with a heart condition was hog-tied for probably close to two hours while people were chanting off and on for him."

One woman, a representative of a legal collective during the protests, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "It's ironic, because many of the demonstrators were protesting a criminal justice system of which they had a mostly intellectual understanding-and their experience has shown them firsthand just how cruel, repressive, and unaccountable that system really is."

Police Conspiracy

Police Commissioner Timoney told the media that there was "a cadre of criminal conspirators who are about the business of planning a cause violence." In fact, Timoney's description fits himself and his police department. The Philly police department has a long record of conspiracy and violence against the people-from the recent police mob beating of Thomas Jones, to the incineration of men, women, and children in the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house, to the railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And going into the RNC, the Philly police-working with the FBI, Secret Service and others-made all kinds of plans for preemptive raids, mass arrests, preventive detention, and undercover operations.

A comment by Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Robert Mitchell on National Public Radio made clear that the authorities had a worked-out plan against the protests-in particular, targeting those identified as leaders: "When they crank it up to civil disorder, then it becomes a different matter, and it requires us being extremely aggressiveThe trick is to be able to, when you aggressively move on something like that has started, to make sure you get the right people, the key players that are involved, the leadership."

And Deputy Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson bragged to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "First we locked up people that were hard-core people, and they're still in custody. Any time you lock up that many people, it's got to have an effect."

Hundreds of people-including some, like bike messengers, who just happened to be near the scene-were taken off the street by cops. But others were targeted for arrest in a very calculated manner. Timoney talked eagerly to the media about the tactics the police used. He spoke of "dissecting" the crowd, getting plenty of cops in place, blocking the streets with buses, and walling off sections of demonstrators. He explained that once the police had a solid line, special teams of cops moved into to make the arrests. And 140 cops on bikes and other cops on horses were used as barriers to push back the crowd, step by step.

The Philly police trained for a long time going into the RNC. The Inquirer reported, "Throughout the spring, much of the police force was sent to brief refresher classes on crowd control. Some were shown videotapes of protests in Seattle." Police commanders were sent to Seattle, Washington and to New York City to observe demonstrations. The Inquirer also revealed, "Other officers built intelligence portfolios, with much of the information available on the Web pages put up by protest groups. The officers also monitored discussions among protesters in Internet chat rooms."

The Philly police complained about so-called "dangerous materials" confiscated from protesters-like chicken wire used for making the large puppets. The police had their own equipment stockpiled well in advance: plastic handcuffs, mobile display terminals to link commanders to squad cars when cellular phones gridlocked, special saws to cut through the PVC pipes that demonstrators used to lock their arms together.

And the cops had their own agents on the street. Timoney told the Inquirer, "After the Tuesday night fracas, we had four guys under arrest. I see one guy standing next to a building, a young guy, and I said, 'Listen, you gotta move,' and he said, 'I'm sorry, sir. I'm one of us.'"

On August 1-before the mass arrests in the streets-about 50 cops surrounded a warehouse in West Philadelphia. They were from the Philly police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the city's Department of License and Inspections. Inside the warehouse were people were making final preparations to deploy political puppets into the street. When people inside refused to let the authorities come in without a warrant, the police quickly got one. In the end, the police arrested all 75 people in the warehouse-and destroyed all the puppets.

Civil Affairs and the FBI

Prominent throughout all the actions by the Philly cops was the Civil Affairs unit. Timoney described the Civil Affairs unit as their "first line of defense": "Those are plain-clothes officers, senior officers with a lot of seniority who are very good at calming things down." The Civil Affairs unit is the descendent of the Philadelphia Police's notorious Civil Defense Squad. This squad worked closely with the FBI throughout the 1970s to target the Black Panther Party, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the MOVE organization, student radicals, and anti-Vietnam War activists. The Civil Defense Squad was a brutal and sophisticated political police outfit with a long legacy of attacking opponents of the system. Throughout the RNC, Civil Affairs cops were present at all the major confrontations.

The FBI, which had trained for a year and a half for the RNC, kept a lower profile once the convention actually started. They were part of the team coordinating the overall government operation-a 16-member "executive committee" made up of local, state and federal police agencies that included the U.S. Secret Service and the ATF.

Further indication of the role the FBI played came out in testimony to a House committee on July 26 by Terry Turchie, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. Turchie said: "The FBI has also established a unit dedicated to threat assessment and warning, the Counterterrorism and Threat Assessment and Warning Unit (CTAWU). The CTAWU consolidates much of the FBI's analytical capabilities into a single component that can provide detailed threat assessments encompassing domestic and international terrorist threats. Since 1996, the CTAWU has prepared over 85 threat assessment products for major special events around the country, such as the April 2000 IMF/World Bank meetings that took place here in Washington D.C., and the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions."

The fact that this FBI official couched their political spying activity in terms of "counterterrorism" shows that the government is taking dangerous steps toward criminalizing political dissent. But the response and actions of the authorities and their enforcers in Philadelphia also reveal how fearful they are of mass resistance and protest.

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