USA: Army of Protestors Prepare to Greet GOP

Publisher Name: 
Philadelphia Inquirer

Three weeks before Republicans hold their national convention, it appears the number of protesters gathering in Philadelphia could rival the 30,000 delegates and party members attending the convention itself.

There will be fundamentalists and anarchists, gun lovers and gun haters, activists on both sides of the abortion divide, and those who think large corporations control too much of their lives.

"We... are challenging the whole electoral process, both Republicans and Democrats, the way the system works and doesn't represent people but corporations," said Terrence McGuckin, a member of the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, a civil disobedience network formed for the convention.

Most activists say they intend to be peaceful, but some pledge action that could disrupt the city by blockading traffic, or upstage the convention by blocking delegates.

There seems little doubt that the mere presence of so many diverse demonstrators, operating peacefully but unpredictably, will create edginess and tension in the city.

A full day, Aug. 1, likely will be dedicated to protests and undisclosed acts of civil disobedience in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on death row for killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. "We're not here to disrupt," said Pam Africa, a leading Abu-Jamal advocate.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said he was confident police can maintain order with large numbers of officers in vehicles and on the street, in plainclothes and in uniform. Mobile units will be moved to trouble spots as needed.

All recent presidential conventions have drawn some protests, but this year, with activists energized by the protests in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meeting in November, many more groups intend to demonstrate at both political conventions.

They say they will be chanting, marching, even mud-wrestling to get attention, some using puppets, floats and, in one case, 60,000 shoes to make their points.

There will be people targeting the Republicans directly (on abortion rights) and others who just want attention from the 15,000 journalists.

Some angry Democrats from Camden say they will use the occasion to picket Republican New Jersey Gov. Whitman.

For the anti-corporate crowd, campaign finance and the role of big donors in the political process will be among their main issues. Some say they will attempt nonviolent but disruptive actions to make their points.

One direct-action protest organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the surprise efforts may include protesters chaining themselves to shuttle buses, unfurling banners from high-rises, or mounting impromptu blockades of delegates' hotels -- a protest plan that they expect will lead to a cat-and-mouse game with police and lots of arrests.

Timoney has asserted that the department will do whatever it takes to maintain order, but he expressed hope that it can be done without violence. Tear gas and clubs to quell demonstrations are "last resorts," he said.

Even if there is no violence, some demonstrators are almost certain to be arrested, and arrangements have been made for cells to detain them.

The police and demonstrators have spent months planning how to outsmart each other. Activists are assembling medical teams, bringing in food trucks, and scouting out dozens of buildings or vacant sites where they can sleep and prepare their protests without being stopped by police.

Protesters with all kinds of causes will find a forum at the largest scheduled rally, called Unity 2000, on July 30, the eve of the convention, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Its organizers have quietly urged radical protesters to take a break from direct action, letting Unity 2000 concentrate on its peaceful gathering of scores of "progressive" groups, ranging from the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, to the National Organization for Women and the HIV activist group ACTUP.

The mass rally will feature an 80-foot-long float called the "Corpazilla," which will include a wrestling ring filled with mud and grapplers dressed as, of course, Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Another contingent may be dressed as an "army of cockroaches," said Matthew Hart, an activist and founder of the Spiral Q puppet studio in Philadelphia. He said cockroaches symbolize the great unwanted disposable masses getting stepped on by the powerful.

Unity 2000 will have a South Jersey contingent, which wants to march across the Ben Franklin Bridge on Sunday -- on the sidewalks, without blocking traffic -- to raise its voice on campaign finance, suburban sprawl and homelessness.

Welfare, housing and the plight of the homeless will be the focus of a week of events staged around the city by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The group intends to build a tent city called "Bushville" on July 27 for homeless protesters.

The group's founder, Cheri Honkala, declined to say where Bushville will be, saying she feared police would move to block it. But she said it would be populated by up to 1,000 people "who used to be homeless, are homeless, or will be homeless."

Honkala said the group also intends to take visiting journalists on a bus tour of Philadelphia's most run-down neighborhoods, "what we call the reality of Philadelphia."

Honkala said her group's efforts would culminate with an attempt to block midday traffic in Center City on July 31 with a march down Broad Street from City Hall to the First Union Center, site of the convention.

"This is by far the most insane, and definitely the biggest, thing we've done," said Honkala, a veteran of many protests, who added that the protesters are prepared to be arrested.

Scattered around the city during the week, groups sparring over abortion rights will host their own events, working against one another.

"Generation Life," an activist crusade led by the Pro-Life Union of Southeast Pennsylvania, hopes to bring several thousand students and young protesters to Philadelphia for conferences, prayer vigils at abortion clinics, and a rock concert in the days before the convention.

"The theory is try to get younger people involved in leadership roles," said Mike McMonagle, an antiabortion organizer.

In reaction, abortion-rights groups say they plan a rally of their own on July 30 and will station activists through the week at Planned Parenthood clinics in Philadelphia and West Chester, to act as "escorts" for women entering or exiting.

A group called the Silent March, which advocates strict gun controls, said it expects to display 30,000 pairs of shoes at the Liberty Bell on July 29 and 30, symbolically representing the number of people it says are killed with guns each year.

The Second Amendment Sisters, a group of women dedicated to protecting the right to bear arms, have applied for a permit for a counter-rally.

The Liberty Bell may be the most peaceful and most intriguing protest spot. A group called the Oral Majority, initially founded to advocate gay rights, will set up there all week to showcase its new cause: lifting the sanctions against Cuba and reforming immigration laws, organizer Robert Kunst said.

Then there is the designated protest zone near the First Union Center. About 20 groups have applied so far to get one of the 64 time slots -- lasting 50 minutes each -- available during the four-day convention. The groups range from Virginians for Immigration Control, to the vegetarian group Kicking Cows.

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