June 13 – Politicians and police in Philadelphia — the so-called “Cradle of Democracy” — appear to be working overtime to limit, discourage and intimidate demonstrators from gathering and speaking out during the Democratic National Convention in July, despite the “right to assembly and free speech” supposedly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
Of the dozen permit requests for rallies and marches submitted to the city, only five have been approved. Two are for marches by Food and Water Watch and by Global Zero for events on July 24, the day before the DNC formally starts. Three are for marches and a weeklong protest by supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
It appears, however, that the city intends to prohibit marches during the actual convention, July 25 to July 28. A permit request from the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) to march on July 25 from City Hall to the Wells Fargo Center, site of the convention, was denied.
Cheri Honkala, leader of the group, said they will defy the police and march down Broad Street to the convention. PPEHRC’s march will highlight Philadelphia’s 26 percent rate of poverty, the lack of affordable health care and the homelessness that has gone unaddressed by the city, which is spending $43 million on security for the convention.
Other groups also vow to be in the streets, with or without permits. Organizers for “Shut Down the DNC” activities on July 26 said their events will go ahead, including a people-of-color march in North Philadelphia led by the REAL (Racial, Economic and Legal) Justice Coalition, combining with a “Shut Down” rally at City Hall, and then a march to the convention itself at the Wells Fargo Center.
The broad coalition of groups behind the “Shut Down” rally and march include REAL Justice, the MOVE organization, the International Action Center, the Black and Brown Workers Collective, the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Workers World Party, Comité Boricua Filadelfia-Camden (Philadelphia-Camden Boricua Committee), the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, Philadelphia Food Not Bombs – Affinity, the People’s Power Assemblies, the Philly South Asian Collective, Move to Amend and Penn SDS.
Many event organizers have been involved in street protests against racism and police brutality during the past two years. Over 25 leaders of these actions have been arrested during protests, but to date none have been convicted.
The “Shut Down the DNC” action is linked with a “Shut Down the RNC” protest against Trump scheduled for July 17 in Cleveland. Organizers say that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump bring more racism, economic hardship and destructive wars.
While Trump’s overt racism and dangerous attacks on Muslims and immigrants threaten the lives of people of color, Clinton’s policies have cost the lives of millions around the world. And during the Bill Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton defended laws the president promoted that resulted in the mass incarceration of millions of Black and Brown people.
Mayor’s so-called ‘protest decriminalization’ bill
Trying to further discourage protests, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s office is also pushing through a special bill in the City Council prior to the DNC. The ordinance would penalize activities that commonly occur at protests as “civil offenses.” Police officials and lawyers for the city helped draft the bill.
Trying to sugarcoat this bill, the Kenney administration is calling it a “protest decriminalization” bill in that it gives police the option to fine demonstrators $100 instead of arresting them on criminal charges. However, the bill omits a key provision of a Pennsylvania statute dealing with obstructing highways that civil rights attorneys have frequently used to defend clients’ First Amendment activities.
The excluded clause reads: “No person shall be deemed guilty of an offense under this subsection solely because of a gathering of persons to hear him [sic] speak or otherwise communicate, or solely because of being a member of such a gathering.”
Philadelphia civil rights attorney Lloyd Long III, called the ordinance a “roundup” clause that lets police take people into temporary custody to clear the streets and then justify their detainments by issuing tickets under the ordinance. Exactly how police would corral protesters to give out citations is not spelled out in the proposed law.
Philadelphia Councilperson Helen Gym is seeking to amend the bill to include “an explicit protection for purely First Amendment activities.”
While these citations would not become part of one’s permanent criminal record, for many workers and poor people the economic hardship they impose could discourage them from participating. Even under current city law, citations for so-called “nuisance offenses,” including disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, carrying an open container, blocking streets or failing to heed an order to disperse are leveled disproportionately against people of color.
And demonstrators have little reason to trust Kenney. After campaigning on a platform of ending Philadelphia’s stop-and-frisk policy, upon taking office in January 2016, Kenney quickly reversed course to maintain this racist program implemented in 2009 by another Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter.
Several lawsuits have challenged the way stop-and-frisk is used by police to disproportionately stop and often arrest Black and Brown people. Given the well documented legacy of racism within the Philadelphia Police Department there is no reason to assume Kenney’s new ordinance will be any different.
Just in case they can’t curb protesters’ First Amendment rights through new laws, the city is now talking about purchasing “law-enforcement liability insurance” to cover potential claims of police brutality and violations of other civil rights. Similar insurance purchased by Philadelphia prior to the 2000 RNC helped pay for lawsuits that resulted after more than 400 demonstrators were arrested and jailed for days.
Lawrence Krasner, a civil rights attorney who defended many of those protesters, questioned spending tax money so that police have financial coverage when they deliberately violate civil rights. He commented, “In order to prove a civil rights violation, you have to prove deliberate indifference to the rights of others. To me, this is profoundly offensive.” (newsworks.org, June 8)