Irregularities and constitutional questions were the order of the day in the 2000 presidential election, and its sideshows were no different. The Republican National Convention in Philadelphia may seem like a millennium away, but the way the police handled protests surrounding the August event is still raising constitutional concerns.
At the time, 391 people were arrested for unlawful acts related to street demonstrations at the convention. But the charges aren't sticking. As those cases move through the courts, they are being dismissed by the arm-load. Already charges against dozens of protesters have been dropped for lack of evidence. In one trial alone, of the 43 defendants who were up on misdemeanor charges, 38 had their cases dismissed.
While acts of civil disobedience and vandalism clearly occurred, it is equally apparent that police overreacted and interfered with the First Amendment rights of hundreds of political protesters by engaging in street-sweeping arrests without legitimate cause.
Take the most notorious example: John Sellers, leader of the Ruckus Society, an organization that trains demonstrators in techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience. Police arrested Sellers while he was talking on a cell phone on the street. He was charged with a dozen misdemeanors and held on $1-million bond, an outrageously high sum, that kept him in jail and out of commission during the remainder of the convention. When his trial came up, prosecutors dismissed all the charges against him.
How does someone go from being so dangerous that bail must be set impossibly high, to "never mind"? Only when the arrest is a pretext, intended not to respond to a criminal act but to interfere with planned demonstrations.
This use of pre-emptory arrests is a disturbing, unconstitutional tactic deserving of a Justice Department investigation. Philadelphia police, of course, deny the strategy, but what else do you call it when officers raid a factory where giant street puppets are being built by protesters and arrest 75 people, only to have the cases dismissed against the first 31 to come to trial?
Ever since the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, where tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets and a handful engaged in property destruction, some police forces have looked upon demonstrators as an invading army as opposed to citizens with First Amendment rights. Street protests are one way people without the means to buy television time can get their message across, and while civil disobedience need not be tolerated, no one should ever be arrested because it's a convenient way to quell dissent.
© Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times