Battling Convention Kris Hermes in Jacobin Magazine
Inside the police’s playbook for repressing protests at national conventions.
In 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, police violently cleared the streets of antiwar protesters, smashing heads and clubbing with abandon. Inside, even some Democratic Party officials blanched at the level of brutality. Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, denounced the police’s “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of the convention hall, earning the ire of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and the applause of many delegates.
In the decades since, domestic law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to quell political dissent. While no convention since has devolved into such chaotic brutality, policing today is arguably more planned, militarized, and indiscriminately violent.
The contemporary policing model — one of “strategic incapacitation,” as the sociologist Patrick Gillham terms it — developed as a reaction to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After the “Battle in Seattle,” during which protesters shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization summit, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney and other officials traveled to the Pacific Northwest to study protest tactics and the police response, and to prepare for the Republican Convention scheduled in Philadelphia just a few months later.
Lessons well learned, Timoney oversaw the crackdown at the GOP gathering in 2000 and then, as Miami police chief, presided over one of the most brutal responses to political protest in modern history: the repression of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.
The “Miami model” established the rules of engagement that the host cities of political conventions now habitually employ to quash dissent. Chances are, officials in Cleveland (site of the Republican National Convention) and Philadelphia (site of the Democratic National Convention) will crib from the same playbook.
The effort to thwart convention protests begins months before any delegate sets foot in the host city. Since 2000, every political convention has been designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE), which allows officials to establish a robust, multi-agency law enforcement apparatus (with the FBI and Secret Service at the top) and to have to access to millions of federal dollars for police equipment, weaponry, and personnel.
As the intelligence community sets up shop and local police stockpile weapons, public officials engage in a calculated effort to frighten residents. They warn of “outside agitators” and “violent anarchists,” seeking to foment divisions between the public and protesters and build support for the inevitable crackdown.
Meanwhile, FBI agents visit the homes and workplaces of known activists to ratchet up the pressure. Law enforcement infiltrate and spy on activist groups, even if there’s no credible threat of terrorist or violent activity.
The information gathered is shared at local or regional fusion centers and then used to disrupt political organizing. (While fusion centers are already set up in Philadelphia and Cleveland, it might be harder for Philadelphia police to carry out this part of the plan: thanks to a historic lawsuit and “mayoral directive” in the 1980s, city police must receive permission from the city’s managing director before infiltrating political groups.)
As the conventions approach, police descend on “convergence centers” or other designated protest spaces used to distribute literature, connect protesters, and provide trainings. The raids are carried out to deliberately disorient political activists, making it harder to build momentum and organize.
In the lead-up to the 2008 RNC in St Paul, law enforcement spied on the activist group The Welcome Committee for months, preemptively raided multiple activists’ homes, and arrested several organizers on conspiracy and terrorism charges. (Some activists sued over the house raids, and the city eventually dropped the terrorism charges.)
In addition, paid FBI informants entrapped two young activists, prodding them to make Molotov cocktails. Because of the FBI’s manufactured plot, the two men spent years in prison for building — but never using — the fire bombs.
Before the 2012 RNC, the Tampa Police Department inserted itself into many protest groups, employing “widespread use of undercover operatives to gather intelligence.” Tampa Police Department major Marc Hamlin later bragged at a security conference that the “organizational structure [of protesters] was extremely weak,” allowing undercover officers to penetrate and “take over” a protest group. When the dust settled, only the dismantled political group faced any consequences.
To justify their actions, police often craft outlandish, unsubstantiated claims about protesters. For example, in 2000, Pennsylvania state troopers spent a week searching a West Philadelphia warehouse full of art and protest materials. Despite finding no legal reason to shut down the building, Timoney falsely claimed that police found explosives and acid-filled balloons.
Before his fabrications were uncovered, police arrested more than seventy people and destroyed all of the First Amendment–protected banners, puppets, and literature they found.
An additional tactic used to stop protests before they start is to deny official sanction to disfavored groups. Both in 2000 and this year, Philadelphia rejected the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s application for a march permit. Last time, the PPEHRC took to the street under threat of arrest, but this time the group mounted a successful legal challenge and will march with a permit.
In 2004, ahead of the RNC, New York City refused to issue a permit to antiwar groups looking to protest in Central Park. Although activists eventually won their suit, the city successfully prevented people from gathering in the park.
Just for good measure, host cities also typically impose sweeping “no-protest” or “security” zones in advance, banning everyday items and curtailing free-speech activity. In 2008, in addition to instating tight controls on rally locations and logistics, St Paul drew a parade route that, in certain sections, was completely fenced-in and lined with heavily armed police. And at the 2012 RNC, despite expectations of few protesters, Tampa’s security zone covered the entire downtown area.
On the Ground
Pre-convention repression is just a warm-up for the main event. Once the convention begins, heavily militarized police show massive displays of force, at times outnumbering protesters; use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, tasers, and sound cannons to attack protesters; and detain hundreds after unlawful arrests.
Once protesters are in jail, police and city officials often do everything they can to keep them in detention. They slap excessive charges on protesters, impose prohibitively high bail, and refuse to release arrestees or allow them access to legal counsel, preventing them from getting back on the streets until the convention ends. At the 2004 RNC, police arrested nearly two thousand people and held them in conditions so squalid that New York City eventually settled civil litigation for $18 million.
During the 2000 RNC, Philadelphia police locked up some four hundred people, charging more than forty with felonies and the rest with as many as ten misdemeanors each.
The average bail ranged between $15,000 and $20,000, but those who police accused of being “ringleaders” were held on $500,000 and $1 million bails. Most were denied access to legal counsel and detained for several days before arraignment.
It has also become common practice for cities hosting NSSEs to obtain insurance policies.
The trend started in Philadelphia, when it bought insurance for the 2000 RNC to protect the city and its police from liability for rights violations, including assault and battery, false arrest, wrongful detention and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The city used the policy to pay for settlements from several civil lawsuits and arguably gave police license to act even more violently.
What to Expect
To what extent will Cleveland and Philadelphia follow the same template as other host cities?
Neither city has disclosed what weapons they’ve purchased with the roughly $50 million the federal government has given each of them. But we know that Cleveland has bought riot gear and batons, and Philadelphia considered buying an armored vehicle.
We can assume that police will act like an occupying force. Cleveland police are likely already infiltrating activist groups — in April, they held a training to build “cohesion” between undercover operatives and uniformed police during periods of “civil unrest.”
If history repeats itself, law enforcement in Philadelphia will infiltrate political groups, statutes against it notwithstanding. Advances in communication technology like stingray devices will allow police to eavesdrop on cell phone communication without a warrant.
Challenges in the courts have moderately loosened the hold officials have over protest activity. Philadelphia’s refusal to issue certain protest permits and its ban on rush-hour demonstrations was successfully challenged and resulted in a court-ordered settlement. Cleveland announced a three-and-a-half-square-mile security zone and time-and-place restrictions on marches and rallies, only to see them struck down.
However, the court-ordered settlement in Cleveland still bans marches for most of the afternoon and all of the evening, an unrealistic and arguably unconstitutional policy that will certainly invite mass arrests.
Even in the best-case scenario, protesters in Cleveland and Philadelphia will take to the streets in a decidedly inhospitable environment. Activists and organizers will have to adopt innovative and creative strategies to try to circumvent state repression. Establishing a base of support with host city residents and solidarity with workers — especially those integral to the convention infrastructure — would be a good place to start.
Activists will also have to counter the prevailing media narratives, reminding residents that their cities are throwing expensive and often publicly funded private parties at the same time they shutter public schools, lay off public workers, and slash social services.
Regardless of what happens inside the convention halls, it’s outrageous that millions of dollars are being spent to suppress political speech — especially at time when both parties tell us that addressing our education, health care, and housing needs is just too costly.
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