Convention Planners Wary of a New Style of Protest


When the Democratic Party comes to town in August to crown Al Gore as its presidential nominee, no one other than credentialed press, convention staff and delegates will be allowed within shouting distance of Staples Center.

Wary of the hordes of protesters who disrupted World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund meetings in Seattle and Washington, D.C., and who have long been targeting the Democratic National Convention, local authorities have designated the streets around the arena, where the convention will be held, an impassable "secure zone."

It was on those same streets this week that crowds of Laker fans celebrating their team's championship wreaked havoc, setting cars on fire and running wild. That sight sent a shiver through Los Angeles City Hall and reverberated in Washington and Gore's campaign headquarters in Nashville, as Democrats are looking toward Los Angeles to host a gala that they expect to launch his final push to the White House.

But the violent flare-up Monday night has only surface parallels to the events that will unfold here around the convention. The Monday vandals were late-night, probably drunken revelers who took to the streets around Staples. What's coming in August is a far more organized, disciplined and determined bunch of protesters--people here to make a point, not to blow off steam.

So different are the issues that organizers of the convention protests worry that police will take advantage of this week's unrest to justify tougher measures in August.

"They're using the specter of violence to scare the people of L.A. from coming out," said Preston Woods, an organizer of one planned demonstration. "But demonstrators are not the source of violence in L.A."

Faced with the challenge of allowing those demonstrations but not allowing them to get out of hand, authorities have taken steps that they call prudent--but that the demonstrators say are oppressive.

Police are asking all demonstrators to sign up for hourly turns in a designated protest area on the side of a Staples Center parking lot farthest from the arena. They are planning to barricade some of the rest of the 10-acre area around the stadium, blocking at least one section with fences.

And, after three months of deliberation, they still are undecided about whether to grant a protest permit to one march--a demonstration for death row inmate and cause celebre Mumia Abu Jamal--scheduled to enter the security zone the day before the convention begins.

Balancing a Set of Competing Rights

To activists and their attorneys, who plan to challenge the restrictions and the city's permit policy in court, the moves are a blatant attempt to stifle free speech.

"This is the core democratic exercise in our society. This is where people come together and select a candidate for president," said attorney Carol Sobel. "But you can't let the people get near them."

Authorities defend their plan as balancing the rights of demonstrators against those of the thousands of visitors and delegates expected to arrive in August.

"We're confident the measures are being implemented in a way that protects people's rights to express themselves but also allows people to participate in the convention, which is also a form of expression," said Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the convention committee.

The attempt by Los Angeles and federal authorities to control protests is similar to actions by police at the 1992 and 1996 conventions, where demonstrators were also confined to official protest areas. In those years, activists grudgingly stayed inside their protest zones and held their demonstrations on schedule.

This time, they promise something different: They say they will refuse to be penned in, either here or in Philadelphia, site of the Republican National Convention.

The fight over the site of the Battle of Los Angeles--as some organizers have dubbed the August protests--demonstrates the recent sea change in U.S. activism.

"There's a new movement which sees corporate power, government power and police power as merging together to marginalize the rights of indigenous peoples, the powerless and workers," said organizer Don White. "To participate in a police [protest] plan is almost an insult."

That new assertiveness is combined with a protest movement that has been studying and practicing all year. Los Angeles Police Department officials acknowledge that they are facing a new movement and say they're prepared to use special vigilance as a result.

"Attitudes have changed considerably since Seattle," said Lt. Len Hundshamer of the department's convention planning group. "While attitudes toward how to demonstrate have changed, obviously, that has changed attitudes on the security side.

"We don't want them closing down a political convention in our city."

The main organizers of the wide range of protests that are being planned for August say they do not intend to shut down the convention and stress that their marches will be nonviolent and will include children and people in wheelchairs. But Hundshamer said many groups have said to the media and on the Internet that they do want to shut down the event, and police would be foolish not to prepare for that.

This summer's protests, which are still being planned, are expected to be somewhat different from those in Seattle and Washington.

Without a stated goal of shutting down the conventions or a single target like the WTO or the IMF, activists are trying to air their views on a bevy of causes while concentrating on what they describe as unifying themes: the corruption of the political system and the subordination of human rights to corporate rights.

Protests are expected to address police brutality, immigrant rights, growing economic disparities and the case of Jamal, who remains on Pennsylvania's death row after being convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in a prosecution overseen by Ed Rendell, who was then the Philadelphia district attorney and is is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Jamal and his attorneys contend that he is a political prisoner who was framed.

Fewer Complications Seen in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, where Jamal's case is expected to be a constant theme, protest logistics and restrictions are somewhat different from those in Los Angeles.

The Republican National Convention will be at a sports arena far from the city center, flanked by enormous parking lots and a wide street--literally, Broad Street.

On the other side of that street is a park where Philadelphia police have designated a protest zone. Only a handful of groups have signed up, including an organization seeking to increase adoptions of greyhounds.

The city of Philadelphia gave the Republican National Committee the right of first refusal on all public venues in town, such as parks where demonstrators could otherwise have gathered.

Activists had to take the city to federal court to get a permit for a massive march the Sunday before the convention begins. Another march, scheduled for the first day of the convention, has been denied a permit but activists vow to demonstrate regardless.

Philadelphia organizer Mike Morrill referred to the restrictions as "post-Seattle stress syndrome. . . . This is a real militarization of squelching demonstrations."

Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney scoffed at that argument. He said police cannot grant a permit to everyone because they need to keep the city safe and ensure that citizens can go about their business.

"We have an obligation to keep the city open," he said. "People don't have the right to protest anywhere they want, any time."

In Philadelphia, he added, the fenced-in lot around the convention site is private property, where there is no right to protest. That's not the case in Los Angeles.

Staples Center's entrances sit within sight of prime public property: the wide corridor of Figueroa Street that runs alongside the arena. But police plan to bar activists from that block.

Police, working with the U.S. Secret Service, have designated the region bounded by Flower Street and the Harbor Freeway on the east and west, and Olympic and Venice boulevards on the north and south, a secure zone. There are no businesses or residences in that area, the LAPD's Hundshamer said.

He said the zone has been drawn so wide for many reasons, including the fact that authorities must ensure that buses full of delegates can get to Staples Center. A stage, sound system and water will be provided in the protest area, Hundshamer added, but only a handful of groups have signed up for the site.

He also confirmed that authorities plan to erect barricades around part of the secure zone, including fencing in some areas, but he refused to elaborate on specific security plans.

Some activists warn that the restrictions may backfire and lead to more aggressive and unruly protests.

"If thousands of demonstrators are coming to Los Angeles and the police say simply that no one can demonstrate," said White, the Los Angeles organizer, "that creates the dynamic where problems can occur."

Los Angeles activists have filed demonstration permits for both the Jamal march the day before the convention begins and for other marches each day of the convention. At least two would pass through the secure zone and end in the parking lot next to the main entrance of Staples, which police have told activists will be fenced off.

Authorities have yet to pass these permit requests on to the Police Commission for its approval or disapproval. The organizers of the Jamal march submitted their request in mid-March.

Hundshamer, who stressed that police must seal the area around the arena even before the convention to ensure that no explosives or other devices are planted, described the tension between protesters and authorities as, to some extent, inevitable. One side seeks order and control, while the other pushes for maximum freedom of expression.

"You can't keep everybody happy," he said dryly.

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