BOSTON - While thousands of delegates, journalists and dignitaries stream into the FleetCenter, a shadowy, closed-off piece of urban streetscape just over a block away will be the place protesters call home for the next several days.
The maze of overhead netting, chain link fencing and razor wire couldn't be further in comfort from the high-tech confines of the arena stage where John Kerry is to accept the Democratic nomination for president.
DNC's 'FREE SPEECH ZONE'
A caged- area designated for organized protests appears enclosed by mesh and chain link fencing near the site of the upcoming Democratic National Convention, in Boston, Wednesday, July 21, 2004.' (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Abandoned, elevated rail lines and green girders loom over most of the official demonstration zone, sloping downward to a subway station that has been closed for the convention that kicks off Monday.
At one end of the 28,000-square-foot zone, tall protesters will have to duck to avoid hitting the girders. The train tracks obscure the line of sight to much of the FleetCenter. Concrete blocks have been set into place around streets that surround the site, a transportation hub on the north side of downtown.
Protesters have compared the site to a concentration camp and complain it is too far away from the FleetCenter to get their messages across. The zone is next to a parking lot where many delegates will pass on foot on their way to the downtown arena.
Authorities say _ and a judge has agreed _ that the discomforts are necessary security requirements in the post-Sept. 11 era and as protests at big events become increasingly violent and disruptive.
On a rainy morning made darker by the presence of the girders overhead, protest leaders on Saturday held a news conference at the demonstration zone to object to the site as pools of rainwater collected on the pavement.
Some protesters taped their mouths shut while others spoke out in anger to express opposition to protest restrictions they say violate free-speech rights.
"We don't deserve to be put in a detention center, a concentration camp," said Medea Benjamin of San Francisco. "We feel it's tragic that here in Boston, the birthplace of democracy, our First Amendment rights are being trampled on."
Benjamin was joined by two other protesters from the anti-war group Code Pink who dressed in pink Statue of Liberty garb. The two others kept their mouths taped shut during the news conference, and Benjamin removed her tape to speak with reporters.
Activists said they understand the need to maintain high security for the convention. But they said organizers went too far in restricting demonstrations.
"We are on high, high red alert for the protection of our civil liberties," said Claryce Evans, national coordinator for United Peace and Justice. "Yes, security is an issue, but you don't handle it by setting up an internment camp."
On behalf of protesters, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild asked a federal judge to open up or move the zone.
This past week, U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock refused to order changes, despite calling the conditions "an affront to free expression" and a "festering boil." However, the judge did allow protesters to march past the site on Sunday, the night before the four-day convention begins.
A coalition of protesters filed an appeal with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday in hopes of winning an order easing the restrictions at the demonstration zone.
The appeals court denied a motion for a preliminary injunction Friday, and the panel asked that briefs be filed by Monday morning.
Authorities said that they were lowering the maximum number of protesters allowed to 1,000 from a previous 4,000 because of concerns of overcrowding.
Other protests are planned during the convention at sites farther away from FleetCenter.
© Copyright 2004 Associated Press