PHILADELPHIA -- "Whose streets? Our streets!" chanted thousands of activists as they poured into the downtown Philadelphia for what may well have been the most raucous day of demonstrations outside a national convention since Chicago in 1968.
By nightfall, hundreds of demonstrators had been arrested after having blocked key downtown intersections for hours (a Philadelphia Police statement released at 11:15 p.m. Police said they were holding 282 people -- most for misdemeanors, but at least 10 for felonious assault). As protesters were hauled off to the Holmesburg Prison, a once shuttered jail that was reopened to house dissenters from George W. Bush's coronation, they shouted from the Police buses: "Go home GOP!"
The protests delayed the arrival of hundreds of Republican National Convention delegates and reporters to a convention night that featured a tear-inducing tribute to Ronald Reagan and a fighting speech from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
But, in Philadelphia throughout much of Tuesday, the big story was in the streets. Demonstrators from around the country came to throw a wrench in the machine that tomorrow night will nominate Texas Governor George W. Bush for the presidency.
Many were annimated by an issue closely associated with Bush: the death penalty. During Bush's five years as governor of the state that leads the nation in executions, more than 100 Texas inmates have been put to death -- including Gary Graham, a man whose protests of innocence drew an international outcry.
"Death penalty is my issue," shouted Bernadette Moreno, an 18-year-old college student from the Pittsburgh area. "I'm here to help stop at least some of the delegates from getting to the convention. I want to make it harder for them to nominate George W. Bush for president."
Moreno was part of a group of protesters who filled the streets outside Philadelphia's City Hall for most of the afternoon and early evening. With other mostly young activists -- few of whom were old enough to recall when anti-war protests rocked the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968 -- she joined running clashes with police on horseback and in riot gear.
Chants of "George Bush: serial killer" went up again and again from the crowd. But capital punishment wasn't the only complaint of the crowd.
"My goal is to bring attention to the injustice of the whole prison-industrial complex," said Jennie Sheeks, 22, a recent graduate of Hampshire College in Massachusetts. "I want the Republicans to know we disagree with their policies, and even if we don't stop their convention, I want to build a movement that will be big enough to block conventions four years from now."
The protesters didn't slow down the Bush bandwagon much. The convention, which is taking place almost four miles from downtown, opened on schedule at 7:30 p.m., despite the fact that some delegates had a hard time rolling away from their hotels.
Convention officials said they did not know how many delegates were delayed, but at one point a bus full of them was surrounded by protesters. Pennsylvania's delegation had to be slipped out the back door of a downtown hotel by state Secretary of Transportation Thomas Judge.
"The protestors just came from everywhere," said Philadelphia Police Sgt. Craig Smith, as thousands of roving demonstrators and helmeted police faced off in intersections around the city Tuesday afternoon. There were direct clashes at many intersections, some of which came to blows. But there were few injuries -- except to the party atmosphere that has pervaded the city since Republican delegates began pouring in over the weekend.
Long after nightfall, there were scattered reports of confrontations between police and protesters. And there were signals that Wednesday would bring more street demonstrations.
"This is happening because people are fed up with the use of the criminal justice system to deal with the effects of social problems," said Matt Ruben, a coordinator with Philadelphia Direct Action Group, one of a dozen progressive groups that have scheduled protests throughout the week. Asked what to expect from the protesters as police carried 30 of them, one-by-one, to waiting jail buses, Ruben replied: "More, more, more."
This report was compiled from The Nation's Election 2000 Web site.
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