Will Philly Police Pass the Protest Test?

Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000

By Dana DiFilippo
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 8th, 2015

IF YOU WANT to know the Philadelphia Police Department’s current strategy to deal with protesters, just look at their uniforms.

No riot gear. No military vehicles. Officers wear their everyday blues. Most walk on foot or pedal bicycles as they escort marchers or stand guard at demonstrations. Related stories

“If you show up dressed for a fight, you’re likelier to find yourself in a fight,” said Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, who oversees homeland security.

Police in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., have earned scorn for dealing with dissenters by outfitting officers in so much military gear, they look ready to storm the Middle East to annihilate ISIS. Advertisement

But Philadelphia police have gotten quiet, cautious nods of approval lately for the restraint they’ve shown at rallies and protests – all the more remarkable because of Philly’s notorious history of police brutality, from Rizzo-era beatdowns to the MOVE bombing to a recent spike in police killings of civilians that resulted in a federal Justice Department investigation.

Still, there have been hiccups. When protesters packed a community meeting last month in Lawncrest to decry the city’s absolution of the two officers who killed Brandon Tate-Brown during a December car stop, police tussled with protesters and arrested 10. Inquirer Morning Newsletter

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The crowd at that meeting numbered about 100.

So what will happen when the crowd grows to 8,000? To more than 50,000? To 2 million? Advertisement

Those are the crowds expected, respectively, for the NAACP’s national convention in July, the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 and Pope Francis’ visit this September, events that will draw national attention to Philly – as well as countless protesters hoping to snag at least a sliver of the spotlight.

“All bets are off when it comes to major events like the DNC,” said lawyer Lawrence Krasner, who often defends protesters, including some of the Lawncrest folks.

With an international spotlight on Philadelphia, Krasner predicts police will trample civil liberties to preserve the public perception of the city as safe and tourist-ready.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey “is playing nice right now, but he’s got reason to play nice,” Krasner said, referring to the attention on Philly’s top cop since President Obama appointed him in December to co-chair a task force on modern policing.

“The truth is, it’s hard to know what they’ll do when there are a lot of politics at stake,” Krasner said. “People tend to go toward their worst tendencies, and historically, Philadelphia has horrible tendencies.”

Ramsey calls such speculation ridiculous.

“That’s not even logical,” he said. “If you’ve got a national audience, why would that be the time that we would do something inappropriate? The only thing we want is for these events to go off without a hitch. We certainly don’t want any violence. People have a right to protest. Our job is to protect their right to protest.”

Activists with years on the front lines aren’t so sure. Advertisement

“I would like to think the police can respect people’s free-speech rights, but history has shown that they have failed to do so time and time again,” said Kris Hermes, a legal worker who aided Republican National Convention protesters here in 2000 and whose book Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000, is due out in July.

Leaving the past behind?

The last time a major political convention came to town, things got ugly.

Weeks before the RNC in 2000, undercover officers infiltrated activist groups to spy on them, raided their gathering spaces and shuttered a West Philly warehouse where protesters planned and made props. Advertisement

An insurance policy the city obtained before the convention was proof that officials essentially planned to violate citizens’ civil rights, critics said. The policy, which covered the city for $3 million, protected police from liability for things such as false arrest, assault and battery, and malicious prosecution, Hermes said.

During the convention, police arrested more than 400 people (with judges ordering some held on $1 million bail), and authorities tried to curb protests by corralling protesters in “free-speech zones.”

The top cop then was John Timoney, whose tough tactics with protesters continued in Miami, where he was chief until 2010, and Bahrain, where he later worked for the Interior Ministry. In both places, police used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun guns, bean-bag rounds and more to quell protests.

Philly’s RNC protesters ultimately prevailed: Most of those arrested were acquitted and the city settled 15 lawsuits, paying out tens of thousands of dollars.

The settlements were confidential and the city never revealed the exact amount. Assistant City Solicitor Craig Straw did not respond to a request for comment.

Fears sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped ensure that the repressive “police state” tactics used a year earlier during the RNC wouldn’t easily go away, watchdogs said.

“John Timoney really is the architect of the modern political policing practice that we see now across the country,” Hermes said. “He really used Philadelphia as a laboratory for these types of repressive policing practices that were continued and fine-tuned in the years after the RNC.”

Like Philly, Ramsey can’t quite shake his past.

As top cop in Washington, D.C., he oversaw the arrests of hundreds of people starting in 2000 – including 400 people penned into Pershing Park during the World Bank protests in 2002, although many were journalists, bystanders and legal observers, not protesters. Such mass arrests cost the city $22 million in legal settlements and led to new crowd-control laws.

“That was 2002, and the last time I looked at the calendar, it’s 2015. My God, at what point in time . . . ,” Ramsey said, trailing off before adding, “We made mistakes in that particular situation. If that’s something for the rest of my life I need to keep talking about, then so be it.

“If you go through life without some critics, I don’t think you’re doing very much.”

But Ramsey was commissioner during the Occupy Philadelphia protests in 2011, and just last week a federal jury awarded a University of Pennsylvania student $80,000 for his improper arrest while observing a protest. Another federal suit, on behalf of 27 others arrested in Occupy protests, is pending.

Ramsey vows smooth sailing this time around.

“We’re looking forward to all these events,” he said. “They’re a great opportunity to showcase the city and showcase our capability in handling large crowds.”

Security planning already is underway for the papal visit.

Even though activists say they aim to ask Pope Francis for help in getting answers about Tate-Brown’s death, city officials don’t expect the papal visit to draw as many protesters as the DNC.

Still, Ramsey plans to have the First Amendment read at every roll call, as he ordered during the 2011 Occupy protests.

And officers will get refresher training on issues such as use of force, constitutional rights and proper chain of command, Sullivan said.

“Protesters are citizens, not suspects,” Sullivan said. “We engage every protest with the goal of making zero arrests and not having any confrontations.”

For example, Sullivan added, when hundreds marched in Philly in November to protest a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Mike Brown’s death, police arrested only two of them – and only because both tried to march onto Interstate 95, endangering themselves and motorists.

“That’s not protected free speech,” Sullivan said.

Demanding deep change

Philly’s recent Pollyanna approach to policing protests doesn’t impress George Ciccariello-Maher.

To him, it represents an intentional effort to undermine and ignore activists’ demands.

“Ramsey knows when there’s a clash, you give the movement a shot in the arm and the protesters something to rally around,” said Ciccariello-Maher, a Drexel University political-science professor who studies social movements. “It’s a very sneaky police maneuver, a very subtle way of deactivating things.”

Ciccariello-Maher added, “There’s a term from the ’60s called ‘repressive tolerance’ – tolerating so much that it becomes repressive of a social movement’s ability to affect change.”

Other signs abound of city officials already trying to subvert protesters’ message, critics say.

For example, District Attorney Seth Williams has complained that many of the Tate-Brown supporters are from out of state or out of town. However, eight of the 10 arrested at the Lawncrest meeting are from Philadelphia, while the other two are from Yeadon and Downingtown, said Officer Tanya Little, a police spokeswoman.

“That’s always been a common strategy, for authorities to blame ‘outside agitators,’ ” said Ralph Young, a Temple University history professor whose book Dissent: The History of an American Idea comes out this month. “The implication is that there is not a problem here. But as Martin Luther King so eloquently expressed, a threat to justice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Considering a protest an event – rather than a symptom of an underlying crisis – also could upend the Philly Police Department’s plans for a shiny, happy relationship with protesters, some warn.

“The real problem we have is a culture problem,” said the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill and co-chairman of the Clergy Caucus for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER). Tyler has helped organize rallies and die-ins in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Promising peaceful interactions with protesters is “just window dressing,” Tyler said. “We’re demanding deep change. If the Police Department and city government don’t want to be embarrassed by protests and demonstrations, then they should do the things they are called upon to do. There’s nothing radical about saying: ‘Stop killing unarmed black men! Pay people a decent wage! Fund our schools!’ They should fix the problems that precipitated the protests and quit blaming the victim.”

The coming events – and likely protests – come at an especially volatile time for police both here and nationally.

In a federal report released last week, the Department of Justice blamed Philly’s high number of police-involved shootings – averaging nearly one shooting a week since 2007 – partly on “significant strife between the community and the department.”

The report found training deficiencies and urged officials to do more reality-based scenario training to improve de-escalation, threat perception and decision-making skills.

Some watchdogs are especially concerned that federal investigators found the department’s de-escalation skills lacking.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s Philly office, offers a citizen-based solution.

She’d like to remind citizens that nearly everyone has a camera in his or her pocket. Philadelphia police have had so many problems with seizing cellphones or ordering bystanders to quit filming that Ramsey has repeatedly reminded his rank-and-file of citizens’ right to record.

Krasner agrees.

“I don’t really think there has been any stronger antidote to police abuse than cellphone video,” he said.

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