PHILADELPHIA -- Thousands of protesters, led by
people in wheelchairs, marched on the Republican National
Convention on Monday to demand economic rights for people
oppressed by poverty and homelessness.
The opening of the four-day convention that will nominate
Texas Gov. George W. Bush for president also brought the first
of what are expected to be days of arrests, when people blocked
a downtown intersection to put on a political skit attacking
U.S. military involvement in Latin America.
All told, 15 people were arrested in separate incidents over
the course of the day.
Amid fears of violent confrontations heightened by protests
against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year and
the World Bank in Washington last April, the day's main event
was a two-hour ''economic human rights'' march through
sweltering heat by a crowd police estimated at 3,000 to 4,000.
The march, organized without a permit, came off peacefully,
ending with a rally opposite the convention venue on the
outskirts of the fifth largest U.S. city.
''We are marching today to show the face of poor people to
the delegates of the Republican convention,'' said the Rev.
Marcus Pomeroy, a local Baptist minister who led an early
morning prayer service at a tent city called ''Bushville,''
where a core group of 200 activists began the day.
Dozens of activist groups have converged on Philadelphia to
rail against corporate America and its influence on the U.S.
political system in front of 15,000 journalists who are covering
the Republican convention.
Days of civil disobedience protests aimed at disrupting the
convention were due to get under way in earnest on Tuesday.
Monday's demonstrators represented a wide range of causes
from AIDS research to organized labor, students against
sweatshops and people with disabilities.
But all agreed to march in solidarity in support of an
estimated 35 million poor Americans, many of whom the protesters
said have been moved off public assistance and into the ranks of
the working poor by changes in welfare laws. Some protesters
underscored the point by wearing gray T-shirts emblazoned with
the message: ''Disappeared in America -- Hiding the Poor.''
A largely young, white crowd walked the 3 1/2 miles (6 km)
down a main boulevard from City Hall to the convention site
through the July heat, chanting, ''Time to tax Bill Gates'' and
''Hey hey, ho ho, poverty has got to go.''
Republican delegates watched quietly from hotels and meeting
halls along the route, while members of the public cheered.
''They got all these (Republicans) to come to town to party,
and everybody's broke,'' said Clemens Jones, a construction
worker at a nearby work site.
Police Accommodate Marchers
Organized by a local group of homeless advocates called the
Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), the march became a
source of tension in recent days after city authorities refused
to grant a permit.
Police chose to accommodate the marchers. Police
Commissioner John Timoney said later he was relieved there had
been no violence, but still complained about the march's effect
on traffic. ''I'm not so happy about that, but I can live with
it,'' he said.
Two men were arrested for trying to hop a fence at the
march's concluding rally. Legal advisers to protest organizers
said four others were taken into custody at the Pennsylvania
Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia later in the
afternoon. But no details of the circumstances were available.
But the first arrests came during Monday morning rush hour
when nine people from a group opposed to the Army's School of
the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, blocked an intersection.
By the evening, all nine were still behind bars at the city
police administration building.
''Each of them were willing to go to jail to expose to the
Republicans what they see as an injustice and call attention to
a combat school for thugs from Latin America that is financed by
the U.S. taxpayer to the tune of $20 million a year,'' said the
Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Roman Catholic priest with the School of
the Americas Watch.
In the group's skit, a demonstrator made up to look like
Uncle Sam ordered the ''execution'' of four people in ponchos
intended to represent landless peasants in Mexico, Guatemala,
Colombia and El Salvador.
Actors posing as soldiers then dragged the bodies splattered
with red paint to a ''burial ground'' at the center of the
intersection as police converged on the scene. Police gave the
protesters more than half an hour to leave, then took them into
custody and charged them with obstructing traffic.
Earlier, the AIDS activist group ACT UP Philadelphia
hijacked a roadside billboard to demand cheap generic drugs for
impoverished AIDS sufferers in Africa.
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