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Philadelphia: Sunday, July 30


Leslie Cagan

As

the several thousand delegates to the Republican Party’s Nominating Convention

were arriving in Philadelphia this weekend, protests were already in full swing.

There is too much happening for me to report on it all, but the Independent

Media Center with its video, print, audio and internet capabilities are already

hard at work as they find the ways to cover as much as possible. (You can check

out their web site at www.phillyimc.org) Here are some observations from one

protester.

But

first a word about the setting. Philly is all prettied up for the Republicans

and the 15,000 media folks in town. There is more red, white and blue bunting,

more flags, more signs and statues of elephants, and more displays welcoming

these folks than you can imagine….enough to make you a little nauseous. Lots

of spanking clean people (these are the Republicans) are checking into hotels as

scores of folks with various hair colors and body piercings are checking in for

housing arranged by the host committee of the Direct Action organizers. Several

worlds have gathered in the city where George W. Bush will be crowned to lead

the Republican Party.

Mid-day

on Saturday (July 29) the Ad Hoc Coalition for Universal Health Care, a Philly

based group headed by doctors and other health care professionals, drew at least

3,000 people to a march and rally. A struggle with the city’s officials

several months ago eventually led to their securing a permit for the event. Even

with the permit, this event would be the first opportunity to see how the

Philadelphia Police would behave. Coming from New York City where Mayor Guiliani

and his Police Commissioner Howard Safir pull out excessive numbers of police

equipped with riot gear and plastic handcuffs for virtually every demonstration,

regardless of size or character, I saw a low-keyed, calm police presence. But my

Philly friends said there were unusually large numbers of officers assigned to

the protest, even if they were loaded down with riot gear and such.

The

demonstration came off smoothly as we marched through downtown Philly on a hot

summer afternoon. The organizers were pleased with the turn-out, lots of media

folks where there, and everything went well. While this will certainly not be

remembered as the most dynamic event of the week, it was a good opening act.

Today,

the very-hyped Unity 2000 march and rally took place. For months, organizers

proclaimed this would be the largest of the events during the week, and history

would be made because it would be the largest protest ever at a nominating

convention. Unity 2000 had also fought for and won a permit. Scheduled to

kick-off at 10:30 this morning, people slowly began gathering at about 9:30 am.

I got to John F Kennedy Boulevard – the assembly area – at 9:45 and was nervous

about the small numbers filling in between 16th and 20th Streets. At 10:45 the

march started moving out. More people had arrived, but the numbers never climbed

very high. My own estimate is that about 10,000 participated and so it will

probably be the single largest event of the week, but certainly not

history-making.

The

predominately white crowd came from a broad range of movements as organizers had

hoped. The lead delegation of pro-choice activists was followed by marchers

calling for an end to the sanctions against Iraq, a new trial for Mumia

Abu-Jamal, an end to the death penalty, protection of the environment,

lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender rights, cuts in military spending, defense of

workers rights’ here and abroad, an end to sweatshops, the rights of people

with disabilities, universal health care and much more. Two of the more

prominent themes of the day were campaign finance reform and getting big money

out of elections, and an end to globalization. While people marched with their

own banners and signs, it was clear that this was a gathering of people who

realize the importance of linking the broad range of social justice and peace

issues.

The

oppressive heat of the day, and a poor sound system, meant that many marchers

did not stay for the four hour rally, and, to be honest, I hardly listened to

most of the speeches. I was able to catch the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)

who, in addition to their stage presentation, treated us all to some very

creative street theater. Organized by folks at the Boston-based United for a

Fair Economy, the Billionaires made us laugh as they delivered a serious message

about the sad state of electoral politics in this country. Other puppets, music,

dance and other street theater helped create a mood of both protest and fun,

always a great combination!

While

Unity 2000 did not live up to the media hype or the expectations of the

organizers, it played an important role in reminding us all that wherever we

focus our activism, we very much need to develop a movement that brings us

closer together if we are ever to be strong enough to win.

I

left the rally site a little before 4 pm and headed to the Independent Media

Center. It was bustling with activity as people were being sent out with tape

records and video equipment to capture the sounds and images of everything on

the streets. Someone announced that about 200 people had marched to the

Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and

they were now boxed in by police. I wanted to check it out, but had to leave

soon for a meeting. As it turned out, on my way to the meeting I passed where

this was all unfolding. Quickly finding a parking spot, I went to check it out.

From

what I could piece together, the International Action Center had called for this

march in a leaflet they were distributing earlier in the day. People were

supposed to meet at 4 pm near the Unity 2000 rally site. I had gone by the spot

at that hour, but no one was there, so I just went on my way. I don’t know

what happened to the IAC folks, but apparently others had gathered and indeed

took to the streets, heading to the DA’s office. At some point along their

march the police, with horses, helicopters and bicycles (more on this in a

moment) surrounded the group, making it impossible for people to move. By the

time I got there, about 5:20, the scene was calm and the police were very much

in control. It was impossible to know how many of the 150 or so people who were

there were demonstrators…there were scores of media folks, uniformed and

plainclothes cops, and people like me…supportive but not actually in the

protest.

I

noticed several people from the legal team negotiating with the top cops on the

scene, and soon after the police brought in several arrest vehicles. People

moved either on to the side walk or just down the street and in a matter of

moments it was all over. While I was there it didn’t look like anyone was

arrested, but I don’t know what happened earlier.

What

I found striking was the quick, coordinated police reaction. The months of

preparation they had undergone was being put to use, as they took control

without beating or spraying anyone. It is not yet clear how they will operate

the rest of the week, but so far they have managed to both be relatively low-key

and in control when they want to be.

Back

to the bikes. Both yesterday and today I noticed squads of police officers

riding on bikes. But it wasn’t until the situation I just described when I

realized the power to the bike. The cops on the bikes have tremendous mobility

and speed as they travel the crowded streets of downtown Philadelphia, able to

get places much quicker than either foot cops or those in cars. On top of that,

the bikes then become mobile barricades. In several places, rows of the bike

cops had dismounted and lined up with their bikes in front of them, turning the

seemingly friendly bike into a coercive tool.

All

of this is even more interesting in light of the announcement last week that

SEPTA, the public transportation system in and around Philly, would not allow

any bikes on their trains this week, something that’s usually okay. Word had

gone out on several listserves in the past few weeks encouraging folks to bring

their bikes to the protests and the SEPTA announcement could not have been a

more obvious attempt to thwart that.

Tomorrow,

the first major event without a permit – a march for economic rights organized

by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union – takes place. I plan to be there and

will send a report on that, and other activities during the day. In the

meantime, let me leave you with a chant from the Billionaires for Bush (or

Gore): What do we want? More Yachts!!!!