By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
PHILADELPHIA-“Whose streets? Our streets!” chanted demonstrators as they greeted the delegates and media in town for the Republican National Convention. For one week, this city was rocked by scores of rallies, marches, and smaller-scale “direct action” events.
Tragically, the peaceful protest activities were marred by police violence. The Philadelphia Police Department-supported all the way by the Democratic Party administration of Mayor John Street-arrested some 480 people on spurious charges. Civil liberties were suspended, as demonstrators and bystanders alike were swept up by police, incarcerated, and often brutalized.
The largest event, on Sunday, July 30, attracted about 12,000 mainly young people for a short march and a festival-like gathering on the city’s leafy Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Unfortunately, the political themes publicized by the organizers of this event were unfocused and did not include clear demands against the government.
But marchers came with their own signs and banners. A contingent of “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore),” costumed in evening gowns and tuxedos, chanted, “Gore or Bush, Bush or Gore, we don’t care who you’re for. We’ve already bought ’em!”
Prominent were signs demanding a new trial and freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Other signs called for justice in the case of Thomas Jones, a Black man shot and brutally beaten just 10 days earlier by Philadelphia police after a car chase. The beating was filmed by a local TV station and replayed on national television.
Police claim that Jones shot and wounded one of the cops who had been pursuing him. But witnesses dispute this claim, and to date no gun has been produced as evidence; it seems likely that the cop was in fact hit by the bullet of another officer shooting in a crossfire.
Another sizable march, of a very different character, took place the following day, July 31. An estimated 5000 to 10,000 people joined a march along South Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main avenue, declaring: “The poor will be heard.”
The march was sponsored by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and endorsed by a number of unions and student and civil liberties groups. At the forefront of the march were rows of disabled people-many in wheelchairs-and mothers pushing babies in strollers.
According to the city authorities, the poor people’s march was “illegal.” For several months, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union had sought a permit for the march-but had been repeatedly denied.
When it came time for the event, however, the police decided it would be bad publicity to attack a march of such size, let alone one that was led by people in wheelchairs and with babies.
The four-mile march began at City Hall and ended in a park adjacent to the First Union Center (which is misnamed, since it is entirely non-union), where the Republican Party Convention was beginning its sessions. Along the route, it passed through the vast working-class neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. Many areas of the city have taken on the look of bombed-out war zones, after being abandoned by the factories where neighborhood residents used to work.
One of the marchers, Lorraine Daliessa, told the Washington Post that she used to work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard-which is adjacent to the First Union Center-but she was laid off shortly before the shipyard closed down. Daliessa lost her house earlier this year because she could no longer pay the mortgage.
Asked why she was marching, Daliessa replied, “I hope we impress somebody there are poor people in America today.”
Police attack puppet center
The following day, the police decided to take decisive action against the demonstrators when they raided a West Philadelphia warehouse dubbed the “Ministry of Puppetganda.” This was one of the main locations where artists had been building and storing giant puppets, as well as signs and banners, for the demonstrations.
The cops engaged in a full-scale siege against the puppeteers; they surrounded the building and mounted the roof, refusing to allow the 80 people inside to leave. An hour or so later, after they had obtained a warrant, the cops broke down the door, arrested everyone in the building (later charging them with “conspiracy”)-and completely destroyed all the signs, costumes, and artwork.
At a news conference several days later, the police displayed the “criminal evidence” they had retrieved at the warehouse-some chicken wire, PVC pipe, and a few kerosene-soaked rags-which they claimed were weapons meant to be used in battles against the police. But the puppeteers pointed out that chicken wire is a common material used in the construction of giant puppets; and the kerosene was intended to make torches for jugglers.
That afternoon and evening, several marches took place dedicated primarily to the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners, and against the death penalty and police brutality.
The largest rally, in front of the Municipal Services Building on Penn Square, drew over 2000 people. Although the rally was peaceful, and organizers had obtained a permit, it was ringed by police, and edgy cops on horseback made repeated forays into the crowd to harass people.
In the meantime, smaller marches and non-violent actions were taking place elsewhere in the Center City district. There were many arrests.
The strategy of the Philadelphia police was more refined than that of their counterparts during the WTO and World Bank demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia authorities opted for selective arrests to try to get the key activists off the street, while avoiding large-scale attacks in front of the media that might shift public opinion toward sympathy for the protesters.
Furthermore, instead of relying on legions of cops dressed like Darth Vader and armed with truncheons and tear gas, Philadelphia made use of numbers of plainclothes police, who could mingle relatively unobtrusively with the demonstrators. Even the uniformed cops wore shirtsleeves and rode bicycles.
This was a charade meant to hoodwink the public that the municipal administration in the City of Brotherly Love would be civil in their encounters with protesters. At the same time, the authorities consoled those Republicans (and Democrats) who might be anxious about “troublemakers getting out of hand” that state and federal police and National Guard units were being held in readiness nearby.
By midweek, the police were clearly emboldened by the lack of an outcry in the media against their “preemptive” tactics. They openly taunted demonstrators and independent journalists alike. So-called “ringleaders” were identified and quickly arrested. Noted examples were John Sellers, a leader of the Ruckus Society, a non-violent organizing group, and Kate Sorenson of Philadelphia ACT-UP. Bail was set at $1 million for each of them.
Sellers was arrested while merely standing on the sidewalk speaking on his cell phone. Police confiscated his cell phone as evidence of a “conspiracy,” Sellers was finally released a week later, after his bail had been reduced to $100,000.
Reports of abuses in jails
Mayor Street and Police Commissioner John Timoney have been featured without let-up in the big business media, denying that any “unjustified” arrests were made or that violence was used on demonstrators. But their propaganda has been contradicted by reports from legal monitors on the streets and in the jails, as well as by demonstrators recently released from detention.
They speak of many abuses by prison guards, including sexual assaults such as pulling women by their breasts, solitary confinement, dragging prisoners through troughs of urine and garbage, and denying medications to people suffering from diabetes, HIV, and other conditions.
One account that the local newspapers allowed onto their pages was given by Joseph Rogers, a Quaker peace volunteer and president of the Mental Health Association of Southeast Pennsylvania. Rogers told reporters that he witnessed officers tightening the handcuffs of protesters until their hands became blue. When Rogers asked the guards to loosen the cuffs, they retorted, “This will teach them a lesson, this will teach them to come to Philly.”
After further protests, Rogers was removed from his cell and cuffed from his left hand to his right ankle-a treatment given to others who had spoken out about poor conditions.
In the Aug. 8 Philadelphia Daily News, Rogers was quoted as saying: “I asked them how I could get back to my cell. They told me I could hop.” Rogers said that he informed the guards that due to recent knee surgery he was unable to hop. The guards then pulled him down the corridor and threw him into the cell.
Police Commissioner Timoney is calling for a federal criminal investigation of the groups that organized protests in Philadelphia-as well as those organizing for the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles.