Legal Worker, Social Justice Activist Kris Hermes Honored With May Patriot AwardBy Susan Gaissetrt
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
April 30th, 2016
BORDC/DDF is proud to present Kris Hermes with the May 2016 Patriot Award. Kris is a legal worker who recently served on the board and staff of the National Lawyers Guild. He has been a social justice activist since the 1980s, when he worked on the issues of global hunger and poverty. In the late 1990s, he became a member of ACT UP Philadelphia, a group that works to advance social change on health care issues for people with HIV/AIDS. ACT UP Philadelphia describes itself as “a group of individuals united in anger and committed to ending the AIDS crisis through direct action.”
Direct action means just that: actively doing something that is directly related to communicating the message about the change you want to see in the world. Direct action means striking, demonstrating, and being involved in acts of civil disobedience, and those things often lead to getting arrested. At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, thousands of protesters engaged in direct action, including members of ACT UP, and hundreds were arrested. Kris and others got to work defending them. He co-founded R2K Legal, a defendant-led collective composed of activists, legal workers, and law students to support those arrested during the GOP Convention in 2000.
Kris spent several years working on the R2K Legal cases, developing and refining a set of tactics and strategies for pushing back against the inequities of the justice system and using court solidarity techniques. These techniques include having large groups of defendants collectively refuse plea bargains and demand trials; they forced the legal process to become political.
In 2004, Kris began research on a book about the 2000 Republican Convention. He spent years writing it, and it was published in 2015: Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000. In Crashing the Party, Kris details the experiences protestors had with law enforcement in Philadelphia and describes the gamut of coercive techniques used by law enforcement to suppress political dissent. They include:
• Denial of protest permits, to thwart protest planning
• Sweeping exclusionary zones
• Interrogation of activists
• Unlawful stop and search of activists
• Preemptive raids
• Widespread violence
• Mass arrest, with long detention, high bail, overcharging, and denying access to legal counsel
Kris has been to every Republican National Convention since 2000, providing legal support to protesters, and he’ll be in Philadelphia for the 2016 Democratic convention and in Cleveland for the corresponding GOP convention. In an interview for this article, he shared the following thoughts about why dissent matters and why both law enforcement and the media must protect and understand dissenting viewpoints.
On effective protest: “For effective protest to happen,” Kris says, there would need to be “a different approach to policing the event” than he’s seen in the past 16 years. Kris has “rarely seen police stand down and not use excessive force, indiscriminate violence, or a massive show of police force.” Protesters should have the right to “be within sight and sound of the convention and be able to voice their grievances without being silenced by law enforcement.”
“The ability for people to be heard,” he says, “is crucial to advancing social change movements.” Ideally, the media would hear and understand the issues being voiced by activists and share those issues with the public. Ideally, the media would treat the message with respect.
What usually happens instead: In 2000, Kris says that law enforcement conducted preemptive raids and confiscated protesters’ signs, banners, etc. When the protesters had to march without their carefully planned communication props, the media reported that they looked aimless.
Another common theme that arises at events where protesters are present is that law enforcement uses the pretext of securing the event and its participants against terrorism. This pretext “conflates the perceived threat of terrorism with political activism,” Kris says, and this happens “consistently.” “The media does not question this conflation,” he says. So, protesters become associated with terrorists and, since a convention is a National Special Security Event involving the Department of Homeland Security, police departments receive extra funding to keep potential terrorists (read protesters) at bay. Kris says it’s a system that goes back a long way, but government continues to discredit protesters by using the terms “violent anarchists” and “outside agitators” to described people with differing viewpoints who might not necessarily be violent or dangerous.
“Not only is law enforcement acutely focused on suppressing dissent, the media is attracted to the ‘cat and mouse’ dynamic between protesters and police” and ignores the issues at the heart of the protest movement, Kris says. And the suppression applies not just to the international media spotlight of a political convention, but to social change movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter as well.
“Suppression happens in waves,” Kris says. We are certainly experiencing a tsunami of suppression right now, and we are lucky to have Kris Hermes on hand to help us ride the waves as we all try to swim together toward social justice.