As protesters besieged the last presidential nominating contest — the 2000 Republican National Convention, the one that bestowed George W. Bush on the land — Philadelphia law enforcement officials held one leader on $1 million bail. He’d been charged with only misdemeanors. For others during that RNC, bail was set at $400,000 to $500,000, with most of them not accused of felonies, either. There was also an infamous warehouse raid, and District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s decision to use staff that normally prosecutes homicides to prosecute protesters.
These stories made Philadelphia’s RNC one of the most contentious political conventions in history. The police and other officials argued they were protecting the city and its residents from damage and injuries. Protesters and organizations such as the ACLU argued their strikes were pre-emptive and unjust, and a conviction rate below 5 percent on the about 400 people charged with crimes helps prove their point.
Now as Philadelphia prepares to host the DNC, in a summer where protests have been the norm, activists wonder what’s going to happen this time.
“We may see a different, calmer approach,” said Kris Hermes, who participated in the 2000 protests and is author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000. “But if the police are going to use tactics from this playbook that has been used over the last 16 years, I think we can expect some similar tactics to what we saw in 2000.”
A pre-emptive approach to stopping protest
The 2000 RNC began on July 31. The first day of major demonstrations and pushback from police came August 1. Officers raided a warehouse in West Philly where demonstrators were preparing floats and other props, arresting 75 people. They’d learned of the warehouse in part because undercover state police had infiltrated the group days before. The same day about 200 people were arrested in protests throughout the city, some for fighting cops. Rather than receive summary offenses as had been the standard for protesters in Philly and other cities, many were charged with misdemeanor offenses, requiring them to be held until a court appearance unless they posted bail. And bail was set high.
With so many protesters (especially the leaders) locked up, and supplies confiscated like at the warehouse, the demonstrations didn’t go as planned. The result was largely negative feedback from the press, which described protesters as unorganized. A Chicago Tribune editorial cartoon showed a “Protesters’ Convention Scoreboard” that read “Arrests: 350+, Motorists Infuriated: 26,247, Coherent Messages Delivered: 0.”
City officials, some of whom are still prominent today, also praised police efforts. Months after the convention, David L. Cohen called the police magnificent in their restraint and said, “nothing a few left-wing lawyers are going to do is going to change that.” Cohen, now Comcast’s executive vice president, was instrumental in bringing the RNC to Philly in 2000 and the DNC this year. Ken Trujillo, the longtime city solicitor who briefly ran for mayor last year, said back then the city had gone out of its way to protect protesters’ rights. Then-police-commissioner John Timoney said days after the convention the department thought it could prove criminal wrongdoing for the many protesters it had held (Timoney was recently hospitalized with late-stage cancer).
That didn’t happen. Less than 5 percent of charges led to convictions, and only one of about 40 felony charges led to a conviction, Hermes said. Charges were dropped for everyone arrested in the warehouse raid.
Though the city argued it had no intentions to pre-emptively arrest protesters and hold them for the duration of the convention, a comment from then-Municipal Judge Seamus McCaffery cast doubt on the assertion. He reportedly told a class at Penn days before the convention he and other judges had met and discussed plans to hold all arrested protesters for three days. Lawsuits against the city followed, including successful ones from the owner of the puppet warehouse and John Sellers, the leader held on $1 million bail.
“There was no doubt that this highly irregular pattern was a fix,” said Larry Krasner, a lawyer who represented some of the protesters. “They had a list of people. They were going to grab those people whether they were doing something or nothing.”
2000 and 2016 similarities
The pre-emptive methods used by police were relatively new at the time. Hermes goes into depth in his book about how the 2000 Republican National Convention marked one of the first times police shifted from a technique scholars recognized as friendlier and with fewer arrests to something called strategic incapacitation. Basically it’s arrests and raids and refusals of permits that prevent protests from coalescing, and it’s what departments have frequently used to quell protests since.
In Philadelphia, that hasn’t been the case recently. Major protests took place after the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray deaths in 2014 and 2015 and again this month after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Arrests have been seldom and generally reserved for protesters attempting to clog highways.
Weeks ago, some signs of a more authoritative approach to protest, like in 2000, returned. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration denied a permit to the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and, according to the ACLU, originally planned bans on Broad Street protests during rush hour. But it quickly settled a lawsuit, allowing the permit for the Campaign, and granted several permits to protests planned during rush hour. Kenney also decriminalized nuisance offenses like disorderly conduct, meaning protesters should be ticketed and not arrested for typical offenses.
“Commissioner (Richard) Ross’ impulses remain to be seen,” Krasner said. “Jim Kenney has made a lot of statements either ill-informed or not encouraging, but it’s a good idea to have some civil penalties that would provide another option rather than locking up people and trying to ruin their future.”
But not everything points in a more receptive direction. Protesters are being pushed into a “free speech zone” at FDR Park, a practice routinely opposed by advocacy groups. (The argument: Why is freedom of speech, paramount in the Bill of Rights, allowed in only one fenced-off area…?) Officials are paying $1.2 million for civil-rights violations insurance, about the same amount as they did in 2000, accounting for inflation. And Krasner said similar promises to not arrest protesters were made in 2000.
One thing that’s for sure: Protests will be a big deal here next week, especially after this tumultuous month. Twenty-one protest permits have been granted, with only four denied and six pending as of Tuesday.
Then there’s the fact that this is the Democratic National Convention. David S. Meyer, a UC-Irvine sociology professor whose research includes social movements, said these events offer exposure to protesters like they can’t get anywhere or anytime else, not even like they could at the RNC in 2000.
“The Democratic convention,” said David S. Meyer, “is usually more unruly than the Republican.”