Throwing Away the Key By Dave Lindorff


  Police may have shown some restraint during several days of increasingly confrontational protests at the Republican National Convention, but the birthplace of American democracy has been looking increasingly authoritarian and hostile to the Bill of Rights.

  At the urging of both Police Chief John Timoney and newly elected Mayor John Street, a former black activist turned establishment pol, city prosecutors sought and obtained bail as high as $1 million for people who they claimed were protest leaders, though the charges were mostly misdemeanors, not felonies. Timoney has been calling for federal prosecutors to file federal racketeering charges against the leaders of groups like the Ruckus Society, on the grounds that they were allegedly engaged in an interstate conspiracy to cause disruption and criminal mischief.

  But if there was any interstate conspiracy, activists say it was among officials trying to prevent protesters in Philadelphia from getting to Los Angeles in time for the Democratic Convention two weeks later. Indeed, there appeared to be a deliberate slowing of the arraignment process in Philadelphia, leaving several hundred arrested protesters to languish in city jails and police lock-ups until well past the end of the Republican Convention and right into the start of the Democratic gathering.

  Official conspiracy or not, the police strategy during the protests was clearly to go after the protest leaders, who were reportedly followed by undercover officers and grabbed off the street when they talked on cellular phones, which were then declared devices of a criminal conspiracy. In a particularly egregious example, on August 1 police arrested 70 people at a warehouse where protest puppets were being made. At the time, police claimed they had received reports of weapons being stored at the site; but despite a thorough search of the building, none were found. The arrests went ahead anyway, along with the destruction and confiscation of the puppets.

  A team of activist lawyers called the R2K network, which includes members of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, has been representing many of those arrested. In a statement, the guild said: "The response of the city and courts of Philadelphia to protests seems a blatant attempt to silence dissent and seriously curtail First, Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights."

  While dozens of arrested demonstrators have deliberately made trouble in jail by refusing to provide their names and addresses (and in some cases have removed all of their clothes to make identification from surveillance photos more difficult), released prisoners have also charged that police and jailers have brutalized some prisoners and denied others access to lawyers. "I saw one man hog-tied and dragged down the cell block," says Dan Murphy, 26, who spent seven days in jail after being arrested on August 1 and charged with obstruction of traffic and disorderly conduct. "I also saw a hunger striker who passed out and was twitching on the floor, and they left him without treatment for and hour and a half. Then he was just given smelling salts. I also saw a lot of people with injuries - black eyes, cuts, welts."

   By August 7, a week after arrests began, some judges were reducing the high bail against protest leaders to more reasonable levels. After prosecutors conceded that Terrence McGuckin, a Philadelphia community organizer who police had claimed was a leader of the protest actions, was not facing any charges for violent actions, a judge reduced his bail from $500,000 to $100,000, allowing him to get out of jail with the posting of a $10,000 bond.

  By August 14, all those arrested during the convention protests reportedly had been arraigned, and most already had been released on bail. The 20 people who remained in jail - all hard-core activists who had refused to divulge their names - were finally released on August 17. In a remarkable show of solidarity, so far none of the hundreds of arrested protesters has copped a guilty plea and accepted a fine. "Everyone so far plans to go to trial and to demand a trial by jury," says Cris Hermes of R2K. "That should sure tie up the court system."

  The harsh actions of police and prosecutors has led to some discord in the progressive legal community, with some R2K lawyers criticizing the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU legal director Stefan Pressler was initially outspoken in his praise of the police for their handling of the protests, saying as late as August 7 that they had shown "enormous restraint" and "smart tactics" and arguing that reports of jail abuses were "highly unlikely."

   But by the end of the week following the convention, after mounting evidence of jailhouse abuses, the ACLU joined the Lawyers Guild and the R2K legal collective to prepare to file lawsuits against the city. Plans are to bring charges for civil rights violations in the arrest of the puppet makers, police brutality during the arrest and detention of demonstrators, and harassment for the arrest of clearly identified medics.