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Mobtown Beat

Democracy Inaction

Mobtown Protesters Tell of Philly Clampdown

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/16/2000

Nobody vandalized a Starbucks during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia from July 31 to Aug. 4. Despite the presence of hundreds of protesters, hardly anything got smashed and nothing was set on fire. The air in Center City remained free of tear gas. It was, in short, not Seattle.

This has been a point of pride for Philadelphia police: The gendarmerie of Brotherly Love, the prevailing story goes, suppressed the unlawfulness and kept the peace. But according to Philadelphia observers and several Baltimoreans who were arrested during the convention, the main source of lawlessness was the cops themselves. In what one defense attorney calls "wish fulfillment on the part of the police," protesters report that they were met with pre-emptive and overwhelming force: Police arrested them en masse and indiscriminately, held them for days without arraignment, and confiscated and destroyed their property--and, some report, physically abused them.

Aimee Pohl, of Mount Vernon, was among some 70 people rounded up in an Aug. 1 raid on a warehouse where protesters were making signs and giant puppets for street demonstrations. Pohl, a 24-year-old student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says she had marched in a rally in Philadelphia the weekend before the convention and had decided to return for the Aug. 1 protests. She had been working on a big fist-shaped sign shortly before the police arrived in midafternoon and arrested everyone.

Though Pennsylvania law requires that prisoners be arraigned within 48 hours of their arrest, Pohl says she waited 62 hours, spending much of the time crammed with six other arrestees into a 5-foot-by-7-foot cell, before finally being charged on the morning of Aug. 4 with a laundry list of misdemeanors, including "possession of an instrument of crime," "recklessly endangering another person," and "obstructing a highway or public passageway." She was released on her own recognizance. A companion of hers, a 23-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology student named Scott Ananian, was held until Aug. 9.

It's not clear just what instrument of crime Pohl is accused of possessing, or why she was arrested at all. Philadelphia police have sealed the affidavit they used to obtain a warrant to search the warehouse, and they and the city prosecutor's office refuse to comment on what they expected to find there, or what they did find there. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, seized items displayed at an Aug. 4 police press conference included a "giant slingshot" and chains with kerosene-soaked rags on the ends--which were, depending on who was commenting, either stage props for street theater or implements of low-tech, Ewok-style guerrilla warfare.

Among the items not on display were puppets, props, and banners that, according to multiple witnesses, were gathered up and crushed in a trash truck within a day of the raid, an action Philadelphia defense attorney Andrew Erba says is "completely unexplained."

"I'm kind of curious to see why they would have destroyed stuff," Erba says. "Generally, [the police] keep everything forever."

Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Pennsylvania chapter, says the destruction undermined the whole program of peaceful protest. The protesters, he says, "were criticized roundly for not having a message. Well, the puppets were part of the medium for conveying the message."

According to Mike McGuire, of Hampden, the puppets weren't the only medium being suppressed. McGuire, 27, says he went to Philadelphia Aug. 1 to film the protests. After seeing the puppets in the crusher, he went downtown in search of other events. Outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, site of some convention events, he trained his Sony Hi8 video camera on a group of bicycle cops. While those cops booed him, he recounts, two or three others tackled him and took his camera. He was handcuffed and Maced, and one officer hammered the camera on the ground and smashed the videotape. McGuire says police then taunted him and squirted him in the nose and mouth with water and a warm liquid they claimed was urine; he says he couldn't tell for sure because "my sense of smell was off because of the Mace."

After two days in jail, McGuire says, he was arraigned on a sub-misdemeanor charge of harassment and a handful of misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct and conspiracy to resist arrest. His camera came back damaged, and his wallet, Swiss Army knife, and three videotapes from his camera bag all had disappeared, he says. (The wallet arrived in the mail Aug. 14, he says, with his Visa card missing and $1.51 postage due.) Pohl says that when she got her possessions back, a notebook containing phone numbers of other protesters was missing.

The ACLU's Frankel says that given the Philadelphia Police Department's decades-long history of brutality and overreaction--the shootings under police commissioner (and later mayor) Frank Rizzo, the fire-bombing of the activist group MOVE in 1985--it can claim some credit for restraint this time around. "I'm surprised more people weren't injured," he says. Still, if protesters' claims are true, police apparently flouted at least four amendments to the Bill of Rights (I, IV, V, and VII, if anyone's keeping score) in the course of the crackdown.

The irony, Frankel says, is that by hitting the protesters so hard in the name of law and order, the city is giving the impression that the authorities lost control of the situation, when, in fact, the overall level of disruption during convention week was trifling. He estimates that the net effect of the protests--essentially, an afternoon of snarled traffic--was no worse than what would have happened if a tractor-trailer had broken down in the city, and probably milder than what would happen if a Philadelphia sports team ever even won a championship. ("Heaven forbid," he interjects.)

If Philly police meant to send a message, they apparently succeeded. And apparently they have. According to Pohl, protesters this week at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles will be practicing "puppet solidarity," parading with reproductions of the puppets lost in Pennsylvania. Pohl herself says the experience galvanized her intention to go to law school after she graduates from UMBC. And McGuire says that after spending days behind bars with members of the Industrial Workers of the World, he's inclined to join the anarchist group. If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, as the old saw goes, it seems a radical is a progressive who's been mugged by the cops.

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