Published on Wenesday, August 2, 2000 in the New York Times
Demonstrators Nearly Steal the Spotlight at Convention
by Francis X. Clines
PHILADELPHIA - Scores
of protesters were arrested in a running cat-and-mouse contest with the
police across downtown thoroughfares today as they sought to disrupt
the Republican National Convention
with illegal hit-and-run demonstrations.
The evening rush-hour traffic was turned into gridlock around City Hall as hundreds of young demonstrators, some of them masked with bandannas, blocked a main entrance of the interstate highway and strutted as they pleased at key points in the city, clogging intersections with only selective interference from the police.
The convention, three miles away, remained unfazed. But delegates increasingly watched the local television coverage of protests out beyond their meeting through the slower parts of their agenda. Some delegates reported inconvenience in journeying around protest-clogged streets to reach the convention arena in South Philadelphia. But none were heard demanding a more hard-edged response from city authorities.
The Associated Press reported that at least 280 people had been taken into custody last night. The police said that four officers were injured and 20 patrol car windows smashed across the day of increasing disruption. A score of demonstrators, chanting denunciations of capital punishment, were arrested after blocking the westbound entrance to the interstate Vine Street Expressway north of City Hall.
"The whole world is watching!" they screamed, echoing the protest of the 1968 anti-war demonstrators on the chaotic streets around the Democratic convention in Chicago.
And, indeed, the police seemed well aware of who was watching. They carefully read arrest warnings three times, then gingerly arrested the sit-in demonstrators while five news helicopters hovered and a platoon of reporters and photographers stood within a few feet.
Protesters representing a score of causes seemed energized by the day, the most tense and chaotic thus far in the convention week. They vowed to deploy their darting street tactics further over the next two days.
"Ridiculous," one delegate angrily muttered outside the Doubletree Hotel south of City Hall as his path was momentarily blocked by a swirl of demonstrators, police officers and news workers tying up Broad Street.
"They're just rebels without a cause," declared Erik Lipson, a 38-year-old resident with tickets for the evening convention session. He watched a two-hour standoff between the police and protesters and was ultimately branded "bourgeoisie" by one demonstrator. "A bunch of spoiled suburban kids," Mr. Lipson continued as demonstrators attracted more and more attention.
The American Civil Liberties Union accused the police of precipitating the uglier street mood today by raiding a West Philadelphia warehouse where protesters were preparing props and puppets for passive-resistance demonstrations.
The police, to the contrary, said the warehouse was raided because it was being used as the planning headquarters for illegal disruptions of the convention week.
Late tonight, the best evidence police could cite was that chicken wire and plastic tubing were found in the warehouse, which they contended were the ingredients of illegal protest material. Civil rights critics seized upon this as evidence only of gross over-reaction.
"Police Commissioner John Timoney has taken off the velvet gloves to show the iron fist," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the state A.C.L.U.
Mr. Presser referred to the contrast between the increasing tensions of today and the scene on Monday when the police chose to escort, rather than confront, welfare protesters in an illegal march for three miles down Broad Street.
Mr. Presser insisted the warehouse raid was provocative while the police said it was necessary. At the same time he deplored reports of some demonstrators resorting to vandalism and setting trash fires as they raced through the streets.
"The whole city loses if this situation deteriorates," he warned.
Commissioner Timoney has repeatedly said that the police will be flexible in their response to unexpected protests and provocations. But the city has also emphasized that it must protect public safety and the conventioneers' peace. It has made provisions for thousands of arrests and detentions. Thousands of police officers were at the ready, with bike squads closely tailing most of the demonstrators but not arresting them as they impulsively went off on fresh tangents in their protests.